Cool Stuff Librarians Do: War Ink

So you’re a librarian. You went to school for it. It’s your Dream Job. Libraries serve the community. People in the community have needs. So what do you do? You give them War Ink.

Chris Brown, Senior Community Library Manager in California’s Contra Costa Public Library system, understands that it’s not always all about the books. Brown made it his goal to get to know and understand the people in his community, and what they need. Debuting on Veteran’s Day 2014, War Ink is Brown’s love letter to the community, a virtual story, a picture book with grown-up themes. It’s an online art exhibit that tells the shared story of a specific part of the community, war veterans, through their tattoos. It is beautiful, and emotional, and a complete labor of love.

War Ink - Johnathan Snyder

Johnathan Snyder, Veteran, War Ink participant. Photo from

“Libraries have a duty to provide resources to all citizens, but place special emphasis on serving our returning veterans – a segment of our community that can be overlooked. Libraries also collect the stories that tell us who we are as a society. The experiences of combat veterans returning home have serious cultural significance. They need to be told.” –War Ink

Jason Deitch, U.S. Army veteran, social researcher, and veteran advocate, is the co-director of the project. An Afghanistan/Iraq Army Special Forces medic, Deitch had tattoos and stories of his own, and helped Brown understand that the wartime-inspired tattoo designs are very personal, containing unit symbols and narratives of personal experiences and stories. Together, Brown and Deitch traveled the state, one veteran’s center and tattoo shop at a time, to recruit veterans for the project, a task that proved more difficult than they anticipated. Not a veteran himself, Brown relied on Deitch as a community ambassador, explaining what the project would look like, making veterans comfortable, and convincing them that a project like this, sponsored by the public library, was legit and something they would be proud of in the end.

War Ink - Heather Hayes

Heather Hayes, Veteran, War Ink Participant. Photo from

The whole project took eleven months total, from conception to completion. To get there, Brown wrote and won a series of grants, raising a whopping $400k, and was able to secure professionals to actually record the project. StoryCorps, national nonprofit whose mission is “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, preserve, and share their stories,” recorded interviews. Professional photographer Johann Wolf created the visuals.

It’s about people.

In November 2004 Mike Ergo fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah as a Team Lead, and lost 24 comrades. Now a VA counselor, he witnesses soldiers returning from war, wounded, expressing how part of them died serving. It’s a feeling he can appreciate. Ergo was one of the final War Ink interviews, and his wife was pregnant at the time. They welcomed a baby that November. Ergo was able to share with Brown how November is now a happy month, full of life and love. With a new baby entering his life in the same month he lost so many friends, Ergo can now put the Fallujah experience peacefully to rest.

War Ink-Tracey Cooper-Harris

“And Still I Rise” Tracey Cooper-Harris. Veteran, War Ink participant. Photo from

Did you know there are veterinarian veterans? I didn’t until I read Tracey Cooper-Harris’s story, and saw her tattoos: a phoenix rising from a Maya Angelou quote, and on her arm a Theodore Roosevelt quote from 1899. Cooper-Harris served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an animal care specialist working with military dogs. The veteran was also active in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ dismantling.

One of the veterans not featured in the project expressed to Brown that War Ink allowed him to revisit his experience in the service. Re-living his own stories and hearing others allowed him to actually get to a place of forgiveness: for the people he fought against, and himself. And that’s what it’s all about for Brown, who stresses that War Ink “was just to make sure an issue was raised, and that we were talking about it.”

Brown himself ended up getting three tattoos over the course of the project. As he got to know the veteran community in California, he noted that this state, with its sheer size and diversity, tends to take on issues that become national conversations.

The library has potential to be a catalyst for concerns that are community-based, that involve identity, personal narratives. Sometimes, he notes, you just need to search for that thing, that story, that your audience doesn’t even know it needs to hear.

I love to read, and War Ink is some of the best reading I’ve done this year. It is a reminder, in the project’s own words, to “Talk to a veteran. Really listen.”

And hear their stories.


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