I’m a Librarian. Here Are My Very Favorite Things That We Do.
I was at the beach with my toddler son recently and got to talking with another dad, a financial advisor. After some small talk, he told me something interesting: “We really appreciate the library,” he said “My wife and I take our son there all the time. But I’m still not exactly sure what librarians do…” As a library advocate with around two decades in the business, that statement is like the smell of baked good to the Cookie Monster! Before he could even finish, I began to talk, giving him an only slightly condensed version of a mashup between “What Exactly Does a Librarian Do?” and “Day in the Life: Reference Librarian at a Public Library”. I gave him oodles of information, way more than he wanted — it was clear and organized, and unfortunately, not memorable at all. The problem was that I gave him the from-the-brain run-down of library work instead of approaching the question from the heart, sharing what librarians do that has kept me passionate about the work for so long. Thankfully, you and I are together for a few minutes so I could share with you my favorite things librarians do.
The overarching theme of my love of librarians is our focus on service; we come to work every day to help others. And that’s it. That’s where it all starts. Back when I worked on the front-lines, my first thought when someone approached me or looked confused in the stacks was how could I assist. I hung on the words of the questions people asked, doing my best to understand their need beyond the words; years ago I had a regular patron, a young mom, who would come to me for book recommendations. Every month or so, she approached the information desk and asked for suggestions. I developed a sense of her reading tastes over time and looked forward to taking her on a mini-tour of the stacks, talking her through four or five books that orbited her literary moods.
On the outside, this was a basic readers’ advisory interaction, but I was also aware that ours was probably one of the only conversations she had in her life where nothing was expected of her.
Our time together was a period of rest for this young mother, a special luxury. She clearly enjoyed telling me her impressions of what she’d recently read and then welcomed being whisked away into the world of possibilities. The library is one of the only places in the world where such an interaction is possible.
Besides the service mentality, librarians also tend to be naturally collaborative people. We work in a community, for the community, attempting to amplify its positive forces, so when people came into my office with ideas, I was thrilled. In my mind, I asked:
- Does this idea work for the library, physically and purposefully?
- Will it delight, enliven, educate, invigorate our patrons?
- Who can I invite to come?
Realistically, if the first two questions had good answers, I could already imagine library patrons that I could either bring on-board as a participants or collaborators. This is how we began a chess club that saw as many as fifty people a week (young and old, beginner and expert) sit down and play that most excellent game. It’s how we established a weekly ukulele group that went on to perform public concerts, bringing the benefits of music to a whole community. It’s how we brought together a network of writers, inspiring the publication of a literary magazine, and launching an annual festival celebrating creativity. I’ve said and written this often:
Skilled librarians are the hubs, the facilitators, the weavers of potent connections. Collaborating with community members has probably been the most rewarding aspect of my time in the library.
Where can I go from there, right? Well, why not bring things back to the library entryway where a patron enters in a horrible mood. It happens more than we care to admit. But we make no assumptions; that mood could have been caused by anything — traffic, a headache, drugs, a death in the family, job loss, exhaustion, government bureaucracy, mental health issues, a mosquito bite, you name it! And sometimes people are just mean for no reason. We make no assumptions. That person comes up to me and starts at 11. I stay calm and listen, maybe ask a question. They’re still yelling, but maybe it’s come down to a 9. I take them over to the computer, pull out the chair for them, and help them get logged in. It’s nice to have a chair pulled out for you, they’ve come down to a 7.
Still frustrated, but at a simmer rather than a boil. I will commiserate with them on a website’s terrible user experience and then I will help them navigate through it.
They’re at the page they need, at a 5. We print it out, for free, because my library gives people 10 free pages a day. They log out, and get up with sought-after print-out in hand. They’re at a 3. “Thank you for your help!” the person says. “You’re very welcome.” I say. They smile. I smile. It took 25 minutes to make this person’s day better. Librarians can do that every day. Isn’t it great?