5 Intriguing Reasons Public Library Staff is Crucial to Communities
I recently read a study in which researchers placed book-vending machines in “book deserts,” or low-income neighborhoods where there was little access to books, and studied their use. What they found wasn’t surprising: Access to books increased literacy and school-readiness. Even less surprising was this quote:
“Our findings suggest that only having one side of the equation — access to books or adult support — is insufficient. Rather, both are necessary. Without access to books, one cannot read to children; without adult supports, children cannot be read to,” said Neuman.”
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Reading this, my mind immediately went to libraries. There are misguided people that define libraries as warehouses for books, and feel that this is enough. What they fail to notice is an equally important element of libraries— trained, specialized, engaging, and enthusiastic library staff that connect young people (and their parents) to age and skill-appropriate reading. It is the people who labor there that make what would otherwise be an simple item-storage place into a library. Here are five intriguing reasons why:
1. Library staff knows the community
Aside from the local historical society or university, the public library is a place where you can come and ask questions about the community past and present. It’s not just because library workers often live in the area they serve that this is the case, indeed, I’ve worked in many places where I did not live, but have always made it a point to get to know the history and current events of the town. Especially in close-knit communities, the librarian (or clerk, or library assistant, or page) becomes a weaver, connecting members of the area with each other when the need arises. Not surprisingly, I’ve always been good for lunch recommendations in my service areas.
On a wider scale, a knowledge of community needs is an essential element in developing a collection that will suit its users. Out of the hundreds of thousands of books, movies, music, etc. that is released every year, it is the librarians who select what to get for the library. Selection can be a complicated task (there are many books written on the topic), but it’s a very important one.
2. Library staff have tangible skills
There is a reason that librarians spend a couple of years in graduate school getting an MLIS — is it to learn how to renew books? It is not. In fact, the trouble with a librarian’s tangible skills is that they tend to hide in plain sight: To put it simply, librarians (and experienced library staff) know how to evaluate information and people, joining the two when appropriate. Though it may sound simple, the evaluation of information (whether that information is in the form of a book, website, or archival ephemera) can in incredibly complex, taking into account a diverse, ever-changing set of variables.
Librarians also know how to find relevant information, an essential part of research. Prerequisite to that is a general understanding of an information landscape; the lay of the land, if you will, when it comes to any subject area. For simple queries, Google is easy. For more complicated research requests, it’s useful that librarians understand the nuances of information retrieval systems (a search engine is an example of one, there are many others); the general public neither knows nor cares how to structure a search to get the best, most relevant, results. Which is fine, tracking down information is the bailiwick of librarians!
3. Library staff has organizational memory
Just as staff understands their community, long-serving staff members also understand the culture of the organization. They remember when the library tried this or that, and can give invaluable feedback on how to make the initiative work better now. That same experience is also true in charting the many changes that libraries have undergone since their formation. Not just the now-ubiquitous presence of computers, but literacy tutoring (libraries didn’t always offer that), trends in collection development, and much more! Though it rarely comes up for the public, as a librarian, I assure you that the historical context provided by experienced staff is seen by me as a welcome insight into the library’s world, and the world in general.
4. Library staff show up!
Fifty years ago, you only found librarians in the library. With the times, this has changed; outreach to schools, chambers of commerce, senior centers, prisons, local civic organizations, parks, non-profits, and other neighborhood staples is now the norm for most libraries. Library staff go out to these places not just as emissaries of library service, but also to use their unique tangible skills to assist others where they are. In my article “Library Visits Have Gone Way Over the Last Two Decades. Here’s Why…”, I talk about librarians how librarians embed themselves in other organizations:
“…Some libraries have [formed] partnerships with nearby non-profits allowing their librarians to temporarily work in those organizations, using their skills in information architecture, metadata development, and (more often then not) technology, to assist in ways that furthers the mission of both the library and the [other party].”
5. Library staff is there to help
Short of the hospital, the purpose of most of the places we go to on a daily basis is to sell us something. At the library, on the other hand, staff’s sole purpose is to help! What a refreshing thought, a place you can go where you won’t be pressured to purchase, up-sold, or hassled to part with your money. If you need assistance, you can simply ask and you shall receive!
Librarians are specifically trained to ascertain people’s needs. When a patron is having trouble formulating a question or explaining what they’re looking for, librarians use their reference interview skills to suss out exactly what’s needed. And some people may not be aware: It doesn’t have to be about books! Though library staff can definitely give book recommendations (“readers advisory” is also a library school course), they can help with a plethora of other inquiries.
Studies show that up to 60% of people have experienced “library anxiety”. If you’re one of those people, don’t be afraid. Library staff is there to help!
There you have it, five reasons why library staff is crucial to communities. Though it doesn’t have to stop at five! Obviously, every library lover knows that there are many more reasons why library staff are the cat’s meow. Truly, I’d bet that somewhere in the world at this very moment, a library staff member is making someone’s day. It’s a truth that makes me smile!