Kyrsten Bean, who works with teens at Orinda Library in Contra Costa County, California, is not easy to categorize. And that’s just fine with her. She’s a punk rocker with a classical-pianist father. By day, she travels to alternative schools to introduce books to teenagers and plan activities. By night, she lets loose with loud rock and roll in a number of genres (krautrock, industrial, and psychedelic are just three of the words she uses). Kyrsten does everything with exuberance, from reading voraciously about quantum physics to helping old ladies access the Internet to working on two EPs of her own, in addition to backing up other musicians. She’s a reader, a writer, a musician, and she embraces all three with an “all-in” attitude. We’ll let Kyrsten tell the rest of her story.
Part of your job is doing outreach to teens and visiting alternative schools. Describe your primary mission with the kids.
Mostly, the mission we have with the kids is to bring them into the library. We want to provide resources to teens and let them know they can access the library for support in a number of different areas, from homework to a quiet community safe space they can gather in after school. We want them to get involved with any number of fun programs they can imagine and help curate themselves, using the library to back them up. The possibilities are much more than just reading or using the Internet. They can volunteer in order to gain valuable skills for their future adult lives, and they can learn how communities work and experience a variety of people they wouldn’t normally have exposure to. I try to find what they like—whether it’s playing guitar or making zines—and offer them a way to do it in the library space.
Your life seems to be divided into one part books, another part music. Are the two related?
I am a lover of books and a lover of music. I enjoy reading about almost anything and everything I can, and this often goes into my music and writing. For example, a number of climate change and quantum physics books cross my desk almost every day. I usually read the book flap and skim through and find all sorts of wacky ideas that later come out in science-fiction stories I am writing. I also see a lot of memoirs and biographies. I skim through those too, but often get annoyed, because why am I glamorizing someone else’s life when I could be out living my own? I don’t idolize many writers’ or musicians’ personal lives because having human, fallible idols is a natural recipe for disillusionment.
My introvert side and my extrovert side are constantly at battle, and sometimes I’m purely wanting to read and write in my room, other times I just want to be on stage smashing bottles or dancing like a stripper or screaming into the mic and walking out into the audience with high heels, singing about existential crisis, sex, and the chaos of the universe.
How would you classify your music?
I’m not sure. It’s loud, rock-and-roll music, with heavy guitar, drums, and bass. My voice, however, is pretty, soulful, strong, and melodic. Who I’m compared to depends on what the person comparing listens to and lives within their own frame of reference, so I can’t rely on that. I’d like to think I’m a gritty Blondie or Joan Jett in personality, but if I compare at all, I make myself a mimeograph.
My music is quirky and it’s rough and often untamed. I will always be punk in spirit, due to my desire to just be able to grab a mic or a guitar and play whatever I feel like in the moment (as well as a lack of classical training and practice, in spite of growing up with a classical pianist for a father).
Imagine if Karen Carpenter had a bit of an edge in her voice, a bunch of tattoos, and sang in a slightly sloppy pop-punk band with Black Sabbath-style flair and you might be in the ballpark of what we sound like.
E-readers vs. print books. Or, does it have to be either/or?
No. Absolutely not. I do both. I have Kindle on my phone for waiting in line and doctor’s offices and books that are too expensive in hardcover, but I still check out tons and tons of books. I dog-ear and underline my books and stack them on shelves. It’s a way to pass the time in this life, I suppose. You can underline and highlight and even search an e-book, which is awesome. I wish hardcover books had a search feature. That’s the main thing lacking from the design, other than being heavy.
What are “the kids” reading and how/why are they reading it?
Oh man. This question is tough because it depends on your community. We went from vampires to romances to what seems to still be big, retold fairy tales, such as Cinderella, done in a bionic dystopian style. The dystopian style hasn’t gone away, but neither have the high-school gossip and crush books. Depends on the teenager! Kids are still looking for Harry Potter read-alikes all of the time. Some kids are asking me for quantum physics books and blowing my mind with knowledge I don’t have. I want to put them in my chair and say, “You might be better at finding what you need than I am.”
Was there any single book that you read in your childhood or teen years that changed your life or your way of thinking?
I’d have to say the first was Go Ask Alice, which I was bummed to find was a complete work of histrionic fiction created by a woman who worked with wayward adolescents. She was a Mormon youth counselor who had apparently seen a lot of things and fabricated a tale of this girl who fell into drugs and ran away from home and then got poisoned with bad acid and was found dead. It was horrifying. But for some reason, the running away to San Francisco really resonated with me, and I ended up living out a wild teenage life that mirrored the one in the story a little bit—traveling to thirty-two states and Canada, and then getting sent to Jamaica to a correctional program. I don’t regret a thing! I got that wanderlust and travel bug out early.
What about your job gives you the most satisfaction?
I love working with information. I like research. I like that when someone comes to the reference desk with a question, I can help them find the answer using a variety of resources they may not have. I like helping 90-year-old women learn how to navigate the Internet, and I like finding a book for a tween so that they skip along through the bookshelves happy as a clam.
Do you incorporate your music into your book talks?
Not really. They’ve tried to make me play music at the library for part of the programming but the thought depressed me. I’d rather keep my performances in loud sweaty venues late at night, wearing leather and a short skirt. I have a block. Something about the stained industrial carpets and odd, janky buildings of the library world I am familiar with doesn’t go well with being too wild.
What is the biggest misconception people have about librarians?
That we only work with old people and books. Those things are true, but it’s a small portion of our job. We work with local communities, we do social services, we do outreach to underserved communities, offer free lunches to kids who don’t have enough money to eat, provide safe spaces to hang out in by policing bad behavior and designating certain areas of quiet and study for the public. The library is one of the last quiet societal places you can go to just be. We visit shelters, visit high schools, research all sorts of information, do tech support, help with job hunting and business licenses, psychotherapy … you name it. Some of it is in our job description, some is not.
You get two great offers. 1) You’ll run the library system in a major metropolitan area; or 2) A major music label offers you a multi-album deal. Which do you choose? Honestly.
That’s a no brainer. People can dream…
But frankly, I’m too logical to pursue a paid full-time music career (is that even possible if you’re not Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, or Lady Gaga?) in this modern climate. I only want to make the best music I can make and then put it out there on my own, without needing to be under the thumb of any other organization. If it was the days of Led Zeppelin, I’d be all for it. But my intellect gets in the way of what needs to be done, which is blindly, delusionally throwing yourself and your creations out there and not giving up, believing what you do matters and that a lot of other people will like it, hoping that you won’t spend your life schlepping gear in tiny cramped vans with smelly, broke musicians hoping for a big break. Hopefully something will snap, because all I really want to do is sing, dance, and travel, but my brain gets in the way. I’m too practical to be Iggy Pop, even though I am yearning and burning inside. I’m more Bette Midler. I have punk rock spirit inside of diva sentiment. I like the concept of being wild and full-throttle like, but I’d rather be enigmatic and slightly untouchable with a bit of an edge, like Robert Smith or Blondie. I’ll figure it out.