Our jobs are not as quiet as you think…
Last week, I was asked to represent the library at a local middle school career fair. I was excited to have an opportunity to talk about my job, which people tend to have a lot of misconceptions about. In typical librarian fashion, I even made a handout.
The problem was the kids didn’t even come to my table, except for the few who hoped to score a free pen. It didn’t help that I was right in front of two police officers and a mother-daughter auto mechanic team. Yeah, I wouldn’t have chosen my table either.
Since I didn’t get to answer any questions at the career fair, here are some I wish I had been asked:
Do you read books all day? I wish. Seriously. Other than picture books, which I read constantly to prepare for storytimes, and middle grade books, which I have to read for the three book clubs I run, the only time I get to read for myself is at 3am when I have insomnia. So, while I do sometimes read books all night, I don’t get to sit at a quiet desk and read books by the hour, while shushing anyone who happens to speak above a whisper.
Do you shush people? Never! Actually, that’s not entirely true. When I do storytimes, I sometimes ask the kids to “make the sound of a waterfall.” But technically, they are shushing themselves.
What DO you do all day, since you’re not reading or shushing people? Ever so many things. This week, I have: read to three classes of second and third graders; taught a drop-in ukulele class for adults (in the library!); performed storytimes at three preschools and an infant daycare; led two book club meetings (one for middle schoolers, and one for parents and kids); taught a parenting class on the importance of talking, reading, and singing with your baby; and led two library storytimes (one for babies, and one for all ages). And it’s only Wednesday. When I am at the desk, I am mostly planning storytimes, in between helping patrons find books, or helping them find information on the Internet, print resumes or tax forms, fill out job applications, or download an ebook or audiobook. I should also mention that I am only part time, so some of my coworkers do a whole lot more.
5. What do you like about being a public librarian? The endless variety. Because I work with the public, especially kids, every day is completely new and different. When I’m at the library, I literally never know who is going to walk through the door of the library, or what questions or needs they will have. I get to work with people of all ages, from babies to seniors, and as libraries have evolved into centers of lifelong learning, all of the jobs in the library have evolved too. I have coworkers who lead or organize classes on painting, gardening, and cooking, as well as science workshops for kids, 3D printing classes, mental health programs, and community discussions on important local issues. We all also do a lot of outreach, bringing library services like storytimes, books, Internet instruction, and music, to local daycares, youth detention facilities, schools, senior facilities, and even beaches.
Also, showing up at a preschool and being mobbed by a bunch of four year-olds screaming, “The liberium is here!” is pretty awesome too.
6. What is the most challenging part of your job? Although working with the public does bring all of the variety I mentioned above, some of that variety includes some difficult personalities and behaviors. The vast majority of our patrons are wonderful (some of them even bring us cookies!), but occasionally we work with people who are struggling with mental illness (although most of these are more frightened than frightening), or people who are frustrated and wanting to lash out, or people who are just abusive and mean, or creepy. Very rarely, we even have to call the police.
Oh, and also, there’s the weeding, the real dirty little secret of libraries, especially small ones: we simply don’t have enough room on the shelves for every book, so some of them have to go. Some days, I can channel my inner Marie Kondo and callously pull dozens of books that are out-of-date, disgusting, or haven’t been checked out (much less sparked joy) since the last century. But I’ll admit that in the past, I have secretly checked out a book I liked, just to increase its circulation numbers and save it from execution.
Are libraries dying out? Not at all. They are evolving. Libraries have always been places where the information and media of the day is housed and shared, whether that be in the form of papyrus scrolls, like the lost Library of Alexandria (sigh), or downloadable ebooks and Internet hotspots (yes, we circulate those, as well as laptops).
The traditional idea of libraries as an equalizer, where people of all backgrounds and income levels can access resources for education and advancement, is still true. It’s just that now the resources include computers and high speed Internet. Even though a man once literally scoffed at me for saying that not everyone has Internet access in their home, our library computers are always occupied. And we are in the tech-saturated Bay Area. In rural areas, libraries are often the only place where people have access to high speed Internet. The FCC recently claimed that 24.7 million Americans live where broadband is unavailable. An independent study by Microsoft concluded that number was closer to 163 million. Yet, in a world where most job listings and applications are online (not to mention resources and tools for homework, and applications for affordable housing and federal benefits), not having access to the Internet can have a huge impact on your life.
Luckily, libraries around the country are working hard to bridge the gap between the digital haves and have-nots. They are also giving people the ability to check out more than ever before: tools, and ukuleles, and video games; prom dresses, cooking utensils, toys, and Halloween costumes. Many libraries let you borrow e-books and audiobooks, or print tickets to museums, without even leaving your house.
It’s an exciting time to be a librarian, and I’m thrilled to be along for the ride.