Day in the Life: Reference Librarian at a Public Library

Day in the Life: Reference Librarian at a Public Library

There are many different types of librarians. For years I served as an adult services, or reference, librarian, (and very briefly, a youth services librarian) at a several libraries. Because a common question asked of librarians is “What do you actually do at your job?” I wanted to give you a typical day in the life of a reference librarian at a busy public library. Off we go!

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9:00am — My day begins when I arrive at the library. Greeting my colleagues, I unpack my briefcase, turn on the computer, and login to email. I can only read a message or two because we have a stand-up meeting in 15 minutes.

9:15am — In a large and busy library, a quick all-hands stand-up meeting is extremely useful to keep everyone apprised of the day’s happenings. When all of the librarians, shelvers, desk clerks, and library assistants are gathered, the library manager goes through the staff schedule, gives a run-down of daily events (for example: Toddler storytime at 11am, book club at 2pm, coding workshop at 5pm), and informs us of relevant city news and initiatives coming down the pike from library administration. By 9:30am, the meeting is over and everyone scatters to get ready for the day.

9:35am—Back in my cubicle, I work on email — coordinating a future wikipedia editing workshop, following-up about a difficult reference question, reading a few posts from a library list-serv. Glancing over at the desk schedule, I notice that I’m due on the reference desk for the first two hours, from 10am-12pm (we open at 10am). It’s 9:53am, meaning it’s time to hustle out there and get everything set up.

9:55am — At my library, we have three public service desks: At the entrance is the circulation desk, where materials are checked-out, returned, and patrons handle account issues. In the children’s area is the youth services information desk, where young people and parents go to ask reference questions. And upstairs, in the adult section, is the reference desk. That’s where I work. There are two computers because our workload is such that it requires two staff members during much of the day.

When I arrive, I make sure I have a pen and p slips, and get the computer ready to go.

10:00am — The floodgates open! A crowd of people stomp up the stairs towards the public computers and to reserve study rooms. My colleague and I at the reference desk are immediately swamped. We sign people up for their study rooms and help others login to the computers.

10:05am — The phone rings. An impatient patron wants to know if we have a title on the shelf. Their tone suggests that I should know the answer without even checking, which is difficult since my library branch has tens of thousands of volumes. I look it up in the online catalog, and we do have it. “Would you like to me to set it aside for you?” “Yes, yes. I need it immediately!” So I put them on hold and go search for the book on the shelf (I always do this while the person is on hold, since sometimes the book turns out to be missing, and I don’t want them to make a wasted trip). The book is on the shelf. I pull it and head back to the desk only to find that the patron hung up without giving me their name. I put a post-it on the book and let my colleague know that someone may be coming for it.

The next hour and ten minutes are a standard reference shift; I help people with computer issues, search for library materials,and answer reference questions on a variety of topics. Probably, I help 15 or 20 people, most of them with simple questions. It gets busier in the afternoon.

11:15am — A volunteer arrives! Aside from being a reference librarian, I also serve as the volunteer coordinator for my library, which means I am responsible for recruiting, interviewing, training, and scheduling volunteers. This volunteer works 4 hours a week on two different days. I explain today’s assignment: Use a handheld scanner to go through the adult fiction section and pull the books that have an incorrect status (lost, missing, not in catalog, etc.).

Every volunteer has different skills and preferences, this young man likes working independently, so I give him assignments that are both useful for the library and enjoyable for him. In a couple of hours, he will likely find a few misplaced books which is satisfying to him and important for collection maintenance.

12:00pm — My desk shift is over! I head back to my cubicle to get a few things done before I take my lunch break at 1pm. It takes me a few minutes to get my bearings after working with the public for two hours. As a palate cleanser, I log-in to the library’s Twitter — no replies that require responses since last time I checked. Seeing a post in my feed that would be interesting to library patrons, I re-tweet it.

In the following 40 minutes, I fill out my timesheet, read and answer emails, call a new volunteer who has passed a background check to schedule an orientation, and submit a few future library programs to our website calendar. It would be nice if my day included more deeply focused time, but in reality, with 4–5 daily hours on the reference desk, managing volunteers, organizing library programs, collection development, and chatting with colleagues, I end up doing many more small tasks than deep work. It’s hard to find long periods of uninterrupted time working in a library!

1:00pm — Lunch time! I didn’t bring lunch from home today so I head out for a meatball sandwich at pizza place down the street. Having worked at this library for the last couple of years, I’m on first-name basis with many of the local restaurant workers and baristas. Sometimes I visit them at work, sometimes they visit me at the library!

2:00pm — Back on the desk for another two-hour shift. I notice that the caller from this morning has not picked up their book. Oh, well.

About 30 minutes in, a regular patron stops in to chat about what she’s been reading and what she should read next. In the library world, we call this book recommendation service “readers’ advisory” (or RA) and it’s a whole sub-field of library science with many books written on the topic (Joyce Saricks Readers Advisory in the Public Library, and Genreflecting, edited by Diana Tixier Herald and Wayne Wiegand, are still on my shelf to this day). A good RA librarian has both a vast knowledge of books and the sensitivity to interview a patron and quickly determine what will appeal to them. Readers’ advisory is one of my favorite parts of being a reference librarian, so it is especially gratifying when patrons return many times to continue our literary conversation.

As I’m on the reference desk, I should say that another aspect of librarianship I enjoy is reference service. People come to the library to ask questions about everything! Being competent at reference is a combination of at least two qualities: 1) Performing a solid reference interview, meaning an interaction specifically designed to work with the patron to determine their need — sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes not so much (for an example, see #1 in this article), 2) Having a wide-ranging knowledge of the information landscape; librarians know that a Google search is just one avenue of search, and there are a many, many more. Often enough, when I’m asked a reference question, I can bypass a search and go straight to the correct resource, saving time and energy for all involved.

Explanations aside, it was a busy reference shift; with readers advisory, reference questions, computer assistance, and more, the two hours flew quickly by.

4:00pm — I need a break so I pop over to the local coffee shop for an espresso and a chat with the barista.

4:15pm — Back at work it’s time to prepare for my weekly drop-in coding workshop. Though I am not an expert programmer, I do have enough experience with fundamental programming concepts and building websites, to help people get started on their journey. More importantly, I have a good grasp of the variety of learning resources out there. Lucky for me, I also have an intelligent and personable volunteer co-leading the workshop. We set up tables and chairs, loaner laptops, a few useful books, and are ready to go.

5:00pm — The workshop begins. Since it’s an open-ended drop-in program, people come at different times and for different reasons. Today, we get a couple of newbies started on beginner lessons, I help a local blogger figure out the intricacies of customizing his WordPress site, and a few people come in to learn mostly on their own (asking the occasional questions). The average attendance of the workshop is 5–10, with some coming weekly, some every month, and some just once or twice. Aside from individual learning, the purpose of this program is to establish a community of practice — the fact that ours is a social learning space is part of what differentiates it from the numerous excellent tutorials available online.

6:15pm — The workshop is winding down, we begin to put away the loaner laptops and tidy the space. People are asking their final questions and finishing up.

6:25pm — I’m back in my cube chatting with my supervisor about the workshop went. He brings up an issue we had with a difficult patron earlier and we discuss how to handle that person in the future. The day is winding down, I give my email a final check, and pack up my stuff.

6:55pm —I go out onto the floor to help with the walk-through. Ours is a large library with many places to hide so we are diligent about sweeping the place. Anyway, spending the night would be pretty difficult with our building alarm wailing.

7:00pm —The library is closed. I go to the office and grab my stuff. We do a final sweep and head downstairs to set the alarm. That done, we say our goodbyes and head home.

No two days are exactly alike at the library. Between the variety of duties librarians have and the fact of working with the public, being a reference librarian at a public library is an adventure!