We Continue our Women’s History Month Celebration by Shining a Light on the Amazing Ladies of NPL
Every year, Women’s History Month offers people across the world the opportunity to discover, explore, and celebrate the achievements of women from all walks of life. From changing the faces of nations to helping improve their communities, women have helped to shape the lives of those around them since the dawn of human existence, and continue to do so today.
And — call us biased — some of the women we’re most enamored with are the ones who call Nashville Public Library (NPL) home. Whether folks need help researching a wide array of topics, brushing up on their job interview skills, learning to connect with the internet for the very first time, or simply finding their next favorite read, the women of NPL are a force for positive change in our community.
To celebrate our amazing ladies, we’re taking the time to share the stories of just a few of them throughout the month of March. It’s our privilege to share these stories with you and our honor to work alongside them.
Today, we’re sharing the story of C. Magda Underdown-DuBois, a Youth Services Librarian at our Thompson Lane Branch Library.
So, please: enjoy reading and take the time to thank all of the amazing women in your life, whoever they are!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in East Tennessee, in the Appalachian Mountains, which is why I have such an unusual last name! All my family is in East Tennessee. My mother was a fourth grade teacher, so she’s a big fan of public education. When I went into an education-adjacent career move, she was a big fan of that.
I came to Middle Tennessee to go to college at Middle Tennessee State University. I ended up with two degrees because why not? One in Journalism and one in English. It took me six years to get back to school — because, honestly, I didn’t want to — to get my Masters in Library Information Science.
Interesting tidbit: I am “fall crop!” There is a 13-year difference between me and my next youngest, older sister. My parents and I are at least about two generations apart.
My nickname, Magda, has been my nickname for years. It comes from my middle initial “M,” which is short for Magdalena. It can definitely get confusing, and every time I hear my first name, Christi, I wonder, “Is my mother in the room?”
What led you into working in libraries and specifically NPL?
I’ve always been service-oriented. My mom’s a teacher, and my dad worked for the state, so we’re a service-oriented family. Whether that led to me volunteering at our community farmers market or being a counselor in my spiritual community, I follow that naturally. So, the library just seemed to be a good fit, especially public libraries.
I’ve worked in academics, in a book distributing company, and for academic libraries. Public libraries seemed to be a good niche for that inclination. I’ve been in this area for about 20 years, and so now, it seems funny that I only started working for NPL about six years ago. Looking back, it just made sense to start looking into the public library that I was already a patron of.
Tell us a little bit about your job at NPL.
I was hired as a Teen Librarian at the Bordeaux Branch Library, and I was there for five-and-a-half years. This past September, I transferred to the Thompson Lane Branch Library as the Youth Services Librarian, and that encompasses everyone from birth through age 18.
I have a great partnership with our associate librarian, so we just divide and conquer the labor! She mostly works with the 6th through 12th grade age groups, and I focus on everybody younger than that. That being said, I still help her design programs and support her in other aspects of her work. Since I have all this background in teen services, I might as well use it!
About a year-and-a-half ago, [former Bellevue Branch Library Manager] Katherine Bryant , was looking for someone to take over the mantle of the Seed Exchange, which launched in 2014. I had been the Seed Exchange liaison for Bordeaux, making sure that collection was up to date. While I was eager to accept, I said, “With all my other responsibilities, I would really like a partner.” So, [Looby Branch Library Manager] Greg Hall is now my partner and my co-chair, and that takes a lot of the work off of just one person. Greg and I actually went to grad school together, so we’ve known each other quite a while, and it’s been a great partnership. We just opened up our new season of Seed Exchange and got new seeds coming in, so it’s been an exciting time!
Funny story: recently, on our Seed Exchange Facebook, we had a person ask, “How do you garden online?” I was just like, “By planting seeds of knowledge for all of our gardeners out there! We’d love it if you'd come to one of our programs!”
And that’s really the whole push of the Seed Exchange newsletter: getting to know people. I’m a really big advocate for our patrons knowing us as people. That doesn’t mean not having boundaries, or not respecting privacy if staff want it, but I really feel like our staff and our patrons need to know each other as a community. If any of our newsletter contributors write something like, “I’m doing some crazy gardening things in my kitchen!” that’s a little personal glance at who our staff are and getting to know us as people, not machines who provide a service. I think it’s key that people realize there are human beings behind that service.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspects of working in libraries and at NPL?
It’s definitely the knowledge that I have made a difference in someone’s life. It is a tangible kind of thing. You know, you've heard the whole thing of, “Smile at someone — it might be the best thing you could do all day long! You have no idea what your influence on your community might be!” Being on the front lines of a public library, you see those effects.
You see the little kid who gets super duper excited that she takes home books for the first time. You see someone who says, “Social Services told me to come here to fill out my housing applications. I don’t know how to use a computer,” and if you have time, you can spend an hour with them and they walk away going, “Cool! That’s one thing I don’t have to worry about now, and someone nice helped me do it.”
It’s just one awesome extreme to another!
What do you find are the biggest challenges about working in libraries?
Working in libraries is often called a noble profession. That means that it’s very service oriented, and like other jobs in that vein, like nursing or teaching, we’re often underpaid and underappreciated. We’re often not treated as professional; we’re more so regarded as clerical. That’s a serious problem when many NPL librarians actually live outside of the county. They have to commute because they can’t afford housing in Davidson County.
Librarianship is part of that conversation when we talk about, “How do we value people in a capitalist society? If we’re putting value on their tasks with money, then how do we emphasize the value in the things that build the foundation for society?”
Who are the women you admire most in your life?
I have two huge heroes at this moment: two librarians in Chattanooga: Dr. Lyn Hunter and Caroline Mickey.
Dr. Hunter is a public librarian who works with teens in the Chattanooga Public Library System, and she’s on the book review committee. With all of the challenges and censorship concerns going on in Tennessee, it’s a very hard place to be right now. She’s going in and saying, “Here are my professional opinions about how school librarians are trained, and how we need to trust them to do their jobs, and we need to trust our children to choose books right for them,” and she’s getting that whiplash of, “No! Everything on this list is terrible!”
Caroline is a friend of mine, and a school librarian in Chattanooga. She works in an elementary school, and while most of the books being challenged are high school level, it’s affecting the entire school system. She’s feeling the effects of, “How do I protect my students and their right to read and explore and figure out who they are? If I’m not allowed to put age-appropriate representations of them in my collection because someone, not trained in these kinds of situations, says they’re inappropriate, then how do I deal with that?”
These two women are my heroes because they stay committed to their jobs and their patrons during these events.
What advice do you have for the next generation of women?
I think the most important thing young women need to know is that they’re not alone. Whatever their experiences, someone else has gone through it. Even if there are generational gaps, those are just details — the themes and emotions are the same. Being treated as a welcome part of the community is something all women deserve.
We’re at roughly 52%, a little more than half, of the U.S. population being women. So, technically, women are the majority in this country, yet we’re still being paid less and treated as less in many, many ways. That’s something that women have dealt with for generations, so young women need to know that they’re not alone in dealing with these issues.
They need to know that they need to be themselves, be their own personality, and find their own tribe, no matter what people are telling them. The more they share their experiences and the more they are themselves, the more they will attract people who can support them.
Humans are social creatures, and — my god! — the past few years have proven that more than anything! Being locked down and isolated has shown us that we need each other. Young women need to know that they are complete within themselves and they need to express that so that people come together and collaborate with others like themselves.
We will get the work done; it’s just a distribution issue!
What are your favorite books and why?
Interestingly enough, I was a Gender Studies minor, and my two favorite authors are male! So, I want to lift up Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint. It was my introduction to urban fantasy, and his character Jilly Coppercorn was just mind-blowing. I started reading this series in middle school, and what it taught me is that magic is at our fingertips, even in everyday, real life and outside of books. It’s just a matter of curiosity and wonder, and how we approach the world is how we bring that out.
And, because I’m a children’s librarian, I have to mention a picture book that I just love so much! Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is a story about a little boy and his abuela going throughout their day, and it shows their beautiful love for each other. Julián has this love of mermaids which could be seen as not-quite-normal, and his abuela just embraces him and loves his flamboyancy, and she introduces him to other people just like him. There’s this part in the book where they see a parade and she asks him, “What do you see?” and he says, “Abuela… Mermaids!” because it’s a costume parade, and she says, “Just like you.” And to me, it’s a powerful testament that we all need to just go find our people and be with our people.
I also want to mention Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni. She has influenced me in so many ways. She came to NPL a couple of years ago, and I was just shaking because it was so brilliant to hear her recite her poetry and talk about it on stage! She opened up my small world just a little bit more, not only because of her poetry, but also this immersion in Black culture. I was raised in a very small town, and it was life-changing relating to this particular poet on so many levels. No one in the world can put words in rhythm like she can!