library advocacy and the ubiquity of Isabellas

There is a ubiquity of Isabellas these days.

People my age — tech-savvy ones who, inexplicably, don’t just look this up on the internet — get pregnant and want distinctive names for their kids. Recognizable, but not too common. And, remembering their childhoods, they steer away from Sarah and Jennifer and Amanda and Heather — respectively, #8, #1, #6, and #5 in the year I was born — and end up, every single one of ’em, on not-too-common, romantically underused, hidden gem Isabella, the #1 girl’s name of 2010.

(For what it’s worth, in 2010 those too-popular names were #30, #120, #188, and #685.)

Yesterday, Ms4 was babbling to herself, as she is wont to do, cobbling together a story out of more or less quotidian parts. She built a library. Her library had an elevator, and an escalator, and little tiny fish, and puppets and toys for kids to play with, and 2080 books. In other words, it was very much like the Lexington, MA public library. (Well…except for the escalator. And the collection size. But when you’re 4, 2080 might as well be infinity, I guess.)

At any rate: a lovely library, perfectly useful, attractively renovated and full of things we like to read and do.

So when she’s my age, will this still be her mental model of a library? Whatever the library looks like in 2040 — much as I am sure it will benefit from elevators and books and little tiny fish — it cannot possibly be the same. If that is the library of 2040, it will be a fond, quaint memory in her head, and the real ones will seem — may be — utterly irrelevant to her.

I think about this when I hear people talking about, say, library advocacy, or the current interrogation of school librarians in Los Angeles. I know that school librarians can do amazing, vibrant, collaborative, cross-curricular, cutting-edge things, because I know people like Buffy Hamilton and the Fessenden school librarians. But I don’t know it from my own experience as a student. Because 1-6 was a tiny private school run on a shoestring budget with just a handful of teachers and a new building every two years, and junior high I don’t think even had a library, and high school had one that I escaped to during the occasional study hall (where I saw, labeled in Dewey on adjacent shelves, “education” and “prisons”), with a shadowy nameless dark-haired librarian I can’t remember ever saying a word, and a collection of books I don’t think I ever once read for a class, in the midst of a curriculum that never asked me to do a lick of research.

If this is the memory you have of school libraries, why would you believe they’re good for anything? If your world, thirty years later, is imprinted by Sarahs, how easy, how very easy, is it not to realize the ubiquity of Isabellas?

Which is to say: it feels sometimes that escaping the librarian echo chamber is shouting into the silence, fighting an uphill battle to fill the tabula rasa that should be inscribed with public knowledge of all the things libraries do, and can do. But I don’t think it’s silence that’s hardest to fight; it’s the decades-old voice inside people’s heads, the voice that sounds like the voice of truth because it is speaking from their very own experience, speaking old assumptions about what libraries are.

For what it’s worth, I do read lists on the internet, and I do my research. I cut out the entire top hundred, including one of my favorite names. I relegated another choice to middle-name status out of concern — as it turns out, well-justified — that it was on the cusp of popularity in my area. Her name is Verity.

5 thoughts on “library advocacy and the ubiquity of Isabellas

  1. I’m not sure from your post whether you might in fact be blissfully unaware of *why* “Isabella” is such a popular name right now. As it happens, this one isn’t just a random convergence of young parents looking for something distinctive. (Nor is it a coincidence that “Jacob” tops the boys’ name list… though the lack of “Edward” there surprises me.)


    1. Freakonomics disputes, I think convincingly, the popular notion that celebrity and media exemplars drive name popularity (rather they ride on the leading edge of rising trends). Even without their, er, turboboost, Jacob and Isabella sit squarely in the middle of some major trends of the last few years; if you look at the historical data you’ll see they were on their meteoric rise before the world had heard of Ms. Meyer.


      1. Yeah, Jacob’s been #1 for nearly a decade. (My husband and I have been obsessed with the Baby Name Voyager site since before we were even married.)

        Verity is a lovely name! Uh, I’m just going to assume at this point that you’ve read To Say Nothing of the Dog . . .


      2. The Connie Willis one, yes :). (Plus the rest of her time travel novels.) Although four years ago I had entirely forgotten there had been a character by that name…


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