“Sometimes Caring is Enough” and Other Library Wisdom to Enrich Your Life
It’s a cliché among library workers that books are part of the job but reading them hardly ever is. What is part of the job is working with people and technology to provide access to materials, including books. The things we do are often nuanced because people are complicated, and this nuance, along with the general nature of being information workers, is a ripe stage for developing wisdom for those that do their jobs in a mindful way (read: Those who pay attention!). I’d like to think that my two decades of work in various libraries have taught me some things. Here are nine pieces of wisdom I learned from working in libraries:
Other people’s emotions are rarely about you
“How do you stay so calm in these situations?” Asked one my regular customers after a particularly gnarly encounter at the reference desk, “I would’ve thrown a stapler at him!”
Unfortunately, I’ve been asked variations of this question many times over the course of my career and the answer is simple: My job is to serve people and I can’t do that when I’m hollering back at them. Even if they insult me, threaten to get me fired, or tell me they pay my salary! (You wouldn’t believe how many times librarians get lambasted with that last one) Now, while there are limits to what I will stand, I remain acutely aware that people come into the library with all sorts of physical, emotional, financial, familial, difficulties — that guy wasn’t screaming at me because his hold hadn’t arrived; most people can wait a few extra days for the latest John Grisham, so he’s likely actually angry about, who knows, a fight with his brother. The real answer to how I stay calm is that I always keep in mind that bad behavior is rarely personal.
It’s a lesson that I try to carry with me outside of library work, too. When I get poor customer service somewhere or the people around me are challenging in general, I remind myself that their emotions are their own and that I can only truly be responsible for how I act and react.
Getting the question right is as important as finding an answer
Research is tough, especially inexperienced students studying a new topic. I saw this frequently when they came to me and asked for books on huge subjects like WWII or psychology. “Hold your horses,” I’d say, “tell me what your assignment is about…”
A secret to being good at answering people’s questions is to ask them questions in return. By doing that, we would work together to determine the best resource or answer for them. So often, people would ask me for something very specific and by simply probing a little further, I’d find out that they were really looking for something totally different! Like that guy who asked me to pull a range of back issues of the NY Times for him when he was really looking for a specific stock price from a particular time period. Turned out, we had reference books that presented that information in a quicker and easier way than searching through old newspapers!
This comes up all the time in miscommunications with those closest to us, especially in romantic relationships. So next time you feel like an argument is spiraling out-of-control, think to yourself, “What is she/he really asking?” and then lower your hackles and engage your curiosity.
Abundance is overrated
Writer Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring you back, you know, a hundred thousand answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
In fact, Google can usually bring back many more, but what Neil Gaiman is getting at is the concept of relevance. Unless you’re a data scientist who works with gigantic data sets, an abundance of information is rarely beneficial. The rub of it is, relevance is the reason that Google became the most useful search engine around, not abundance; their Page Rank algorithm, from the beginning, was able to sort through the world wide web and bring relevant results up first. This is important because people rarely click beyond the first page of results anyway.
Does that mean that Google is a replacement for librarians? Surely not! As I mentioned above, research is complicated and the information landscape goes well beyond a single web search. Relevance, too, changes depending on elements that may not factor into an impersonal algorithm (or one that’s too personal…look up “filter bubble”).
Abundance tends to bring a sparkle to our eyes, a fact marketing and salespeople acutely understand. That’s why this bit of wisdom is so important. In decision-making, don’t be swayed by a plethora of choices if that abundance doesn’t directly meet your need. Ask yourself, how many members of 24-Hour Fitness joined because of the 24 whole hours that it stays open? Then consider how many of them are really going to the gym at 3am (or at all)?
Searching is a skill and most people are ‘good enough’ at it
Just as identifying the right research question is a skill, so is searching. I’d venture to guess that the majority of normal folks don’t do much to develop this skill because the results they get through basic web searches tend to be satisfactory. This complacency comes with all sorts of unpleasant side effects (again search “filter bubble,” and also “search engine bias”), but I’m realistic in thinking that most people probably don’t have the background, technical skills, or time to do anything about it.
But let’s talk more about search skills. Whole books and many academic articles are written on the subject. We read some of them in library school. But really, for most public librarians, developing knowledge of the information landscape, advanced search techniques (for example, searching by site type or using boolean operators), a broad base in science and the humanities, and a little grit works wonders. Add to that a hyper-local familiarity with their community and its history and you’ve got a star player!
With the rise of the world wide web over the past 30 years, librarians are less busy answering basic “ready reference” questions like what is Shania Twain’s birthday (August 28, 1965), and more focused on complicated queries (more on that later), battling the digital divide, and building community capacity. Search superpowers help in all three.
Information science is everywhere!
If you ask most people what they think information science is, they’d probably shrug. Let’s start with it’s the field in which librarians get a masters degree. Beyond that, it’s difficult for anyone to go through life without running into it! Information science is defined in the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (ODLIS) as “The systematic study and analysis of the sources, development, collection, organization, dissemination, evaluation, use, and management of information in all its forms, including the channels (formal and informal) and technology used in its communication.”
But it’s much more down-to-earth than that. The way that you search for answers online and off? That’s a sub-field of IS called “information-seeking behavior.” How Spotify describes a song? That’s metadata (or, information used to describe an object). The Dewey Decimal System and many other classification schemes for organizing objects? They’re information structures, and I took a class on how they work in library school. Google and other search engines? In our parlance, they’re information retrieval systems. And spotting fake news is under our purview as well since we routinely teach people how to evaluate information.
Why is this important? Other than having the knowledge to identify fake news, having some semblance of information structures, how metadata works, online privacy discussions, information policy regarding ideas like net neutrality, and (at least for me), the history and development of hypertext systems (I did a project on this as a grad student), to name a few, make me a better researcher and make my daily life a bit more crisp; seeing the patterns in how information is organized and presented gives me a different level of understanding than my non-library friends and family. It’s nice to have a different perspective.
Ready reference is easy, context is more complicated.
Before the web, librarians trafficked much more in “ready reference” questions— simple questions whose answers librarians had at the “ready” via “reference” books. They were questions like “When was George Washington’s born?” (February 22, 1732) or “What years was the Russo-Japanese War?” (1904–1905), or Shania Twain’s birthday (remember above?) which didn’t require much clarification and could be answered in under a sentence. Librarians rarely answer these kind of questions anymore because modern search engines are really really good at it! On the other hand are questions that are poorly phrased or undeveloped, where the asker isn’t sure what the correct answer looks like. Search engines aren’t great at those, but librarians are.
Appropriately answering questions that require an understanding of context is part of library school training. If two people asked the same question, would we give them the same answer? That depends. What if one was six years old and the other twenty-five? What if one was an expert in the subject and one a novice? What if one was doing a school project on Alzheimer's and one was just diagnosed with it? Context requires a special sensitivity in library work and beyond.
It’s easy to look at political issues, celebrity failings, or people who are different from us in a simple way, but context requires a special sensitivity in life also. Many things we deal with are not “ready reference,” and shouldn’t be treated as such. Context matters.
Life looks radically different when you’re poor
When I told her the address on her account, her eyes went cloudy. “That was a long time ago,” she said, “I’ve stayed in so many place since then…” She had last updated her card two years ago and had lived in eight or ten places since, she estimated. This was something I learned during my first librarian job: Poor people move a lot. Like a lot. I learned other things about poor people, too. There were middle-aged men who saw me, a twenty-something year old, as a figure of authority because I wore a tie and sat behind a big desk. It also became very clear that some of my patrons had almost nothing, so when their fines reached ten dollars and they lost internet access, they literally had no money to settle the debt.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been rich. My family immigrated to the United States when my brother and I were six, and we didn’t have a lot of fancy things growing up. But even then I knew that we weren’t scratching poverty. We may have gotten most of our toys at Goodwill, but we were never hungry…And I only lived in three places growing up (post-immigration).
Working at the library puts one in touch with people from all over the socio-economic spectrum and those who are paying attention learn that the way people look at life varies drastically. For example, Ryan Dowd’s excellent book The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness talks about the how people experiencing homelessness have a different time sense than the rest of us, which checks out, because when you’re not sure where you’ll sleep that night, foreseeing where you’ll sleep in a month isn’t exactly the priority. This is also an issue for those not homeless, but in serious poverty. It’s practically impossible for many to follow through with long-term commitments when daily life is so unpredictable.
Working at the library, you also learn that socio-economic status has little bearing on how winning someone’s personality is. Poor people, rich people, all just people. Some nice, some putrid. That’s just how it goes.
Information is time-biased
Probably a better way to say this is that people tend to be biased towards newer information, regardless of its quality. Most people want the latest books, music, movies, technologies, scientific advances, etc. Holds lists for the latest best-sellers are gigantic in large library systems, and have you noticed how article headlines on the web all end with “in [this year]” because either search engines or information-seekers think that there’s a significant difference in, I don’t know, Microsoft Excel tips, toasters, wifi routers, or whatever, year over year. As an information professional, I can tell you that occasionally there is, but mostly there isn’t.
That’s the crux of it, librarians evaluate information all day based on a variety of factors with one easy-to-remember guide being the CRAP Test (pdf). The C in CRAP stands for “currency” and asks such as questions as “When was it published?” “Is there anything newer?” and “Is this a subject where timeliness matters?” The last question is the most important, in my opinion, and also the most complex; different topics have vastly different timelines when it comes to information quality. For example, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (published in 1926) is still a solid introduction to the greatest hits of western philosophy because developments in philosophy take many decades to mature and even when they do, they tend to matter most to academics and advanced enthusiasts. Likewise, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (published in 1990) is still a prime book in the field of positive psychology. Though the social sciences tend to advance faster than philosophy, books like Flow, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), and Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture (1976) are still thought-provoking even if some of their ideas have been further developed or superseded.
The health sciences work at a different pace and with more consequences. To answer functional questions, it’s usually safer to go with a newer book, though unless there was some monumental discovery in that specific sub-field, a year or five don’t always make a big difference since major changes in medical thinking take many years and mountains of evidence. It should also be noted that there are topics like breastfeeding and the priority of specific elements in nutritional science which yo-yo over decades for reasons that may or may not relate to clinical findings. An overriding concern with health science information, as opposed to most other topics, is that bad information may cause harm, so it’s especially crucial to be careful.
I could go on for much longer about what is timely in each field, but that’d be too much like a library school course. The takeaway is that you shouldn’t blindly stick the newest. Instead, critically consider whether publication date is even relevant to your area of interest.
Memory is rarely accurate, and that’s okay
The faults of human memory are well-known. In the library, people claim they distinctly remember putting an item in the bookdrop only to slink in bearing the “returned” book which had been under the car seat — where go all lost library items — the whole time. Likewise, how many people come up to the information desk in search of this one book that was published in the early 1990s, with a blue cover, and the word Duck in the title. Turns out it was published in 2002 and has a yellow cover with a duck on it! Both of these are very common scenarios at all public libraries. Is that a problem? Not at all!
While some library workers judge patrons for accruing fines (fwiw, I judge those library workers), the majority aren’t fans of fines. Really, we just want to get the items back so we can lend them to someone else! There is even a long-term trend in libraryland to end fines altogether (https://endlibraryfines.info/ is the best website for info on this). It’s the same with books of yore whose details have been mangled by memory. I don’t know about other librarians, but I’ve always loved tenaciously sleuthing around to find the book with the [insert color here] cover where [plot point] happens published in [wrong year]. It often ends up being a conversation about books in general, and I can’t say I don’t relish the amazed look on people’s faces when I actually find the book.
Basically, it’s fine if you don’t remember. I barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday. Don’t worry about it! The library intends to be a welcoming place and even if you can’t recollect everything exactly, we’ll help you find it! Remember that section above about searching being a skill? Well, we’ve got it and we’ll put it to good use for you.
Sometimes, simply caring is enough
“Sir, are you okay?” I asked the man violently pacing back and forth at the back of the library and whispering to himself. As soon as I finished speaking, he turned to me. Full honesty, I was readying myself for the worst — was this guy going to lunge at me? He seemed pretty agitated. He could just as likely have ignored me and went back to his conversation. “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I’m okay,” he responded. It was as if my question shook him out of whatever bubble he was in and brought him back to the quiet evening in the library with its ambience of pages-turning, keyboards-tapping, air conditioning, and us. I bowed my head slightly, and he nodded back and walked over to the easy chair beside which his bag stood. He nodded at me again as he left the library that evening, and every other time we ever saw each other in the library or on the street.
I don’t know if I was helpful to this person on that evening, or just a face in passing, but the question “are you okay?” or “is everything alright” were mainstays for me when I was front-line staff at multiple libraries. My routine whenever I worked a public desk was to take a walk around the library before I sat down and sometime during my shift (unless I was so busy answering questions that I didn’t have a free moment). During these walks, I would say hey to my regulars, nod to irregulars, and check in with those who appeared lost or whose body language showed unrest. It never happened to me, but I have had colleagues who’ve called the ambulance or mental health professionals because they checked on patrons who responded that they were not okay and needed help, or were in such distress that they couldn’t answer.
Believe it or not, a lot of library work has nothing to do with access to materials, teaching people to evaluate resources, helping with technology, or any of the other tasks traditionally associated it. A good deal of it (sometimes overwhelmingly so) involves the difficult-to-define act of caring for the people we serve. Not just looking out for whether they get their information needs met, but also for what in their general well-being we can control. This fact seeps into life easily; people often try to do too much when someone they know experiences death, a messy breakup, or some other travail, when all that the other person needs is the presence of someone who cares. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Oleg Kagan’s book Inspiring Library Stories: Tales of Kindness, Connection, and Community Impact is now available from HINCHAS Press. If you want to go beyond just buying the book, EveryLibrary has teamed up with HINCHAS Press for “One Book, One Congress,” an initiative to send a copy of Inspiring Library Stories to every member of Congress. A link to support that is here. Likewise, HINCHAS Press is offering a way to “Buy One, Give One” where you buy a copy of the book for yourself and the publisher sends a copy to a member of Congress for “One Book, One Congress.”