This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the beginning of my career in public libraries. I’ve been promising and/or threatening for years to write a book about my work experiences. While I’m willing to concede that that may not happen, I won’t be cheated out of a blog summary. It follows below, and as an added bonus, above is my favourite comedian, Carol Burnett, expressing what every library staff member feels at some time or another.
"You work in a library? That must be such a nice, quiet place to work."
Once upon a time, maybe. In an academic or professional library, maybe. But a public library is for everyone. Small children who need naps. Youth who need a place to unwind after school on rainy days. Tweenagers who need a place to court because they’re too young to date. Large groups of elementary school students on class tours. Adults with physical or developmental or emotional or mental handicaps. Adults who are cranky. Staff who are cranky. Then there’s storytime and other programming for children. Here I grin, as I secretly delight in using storytime to explode the myth that the library is a “shhh!” place. The truth is, the parents who come in telling their children to be quiet are often louder and more distracting than the kids they’re with.
"You work in a library? That must be such a nice, clean place to work."
Again, the library is for everyone and anyone who wants to enter it. Unlike a store or shopping mall, the library doesn’t have the right to refuse service. Yes, there’s a code of conduct (no offensive language, no drugs or alcohol, no behaviour that is harmful to other customers, the furniture, the building, the books, or the staff) but people are given a lot of leeway because library staff really don’t want to kick people out or ban them from the premises. This means that – well, in my time I’ve cleaned up spilt Slurpees, candy wrappers, vomit, feces, and stuff that I’m glad was unidentifiable. I’ve disinfected the counter after a customer drooled on it. I’ve worked in and around buckets while the ceiling leaked. I’ve found things in books that I will not tell you about. Public libraries all have sharps disposal buckets in the back room. In some branches, on any given day, there may be a drug deal going down in the bathroom. (The bathroom is convenient because sometimes sex is the method of payment.)
"Everyone who works in a library is a librarian."
Front line public library staff might be trained high school graduates. They might have post-secondary education in a non-library field, like a Bachelor’s degree. They might have completed a two-year program in Library and Information Technology. A librarian has a Master’s degree in Library Science. The tasks these people carry out overlap somewhat. They are all necessary. They are all important. But here’s the thing (and I say this as someone who no longer has to face this on a daily basis): the staff who sometimes get the worst task are the ones who get the paid the least. Ironically, the worst task is collecting overdue charges.
"What do you mean, I can’t renew that book for a fifth time? I pay your salary!"
OK, dealing with this attitude is just as bad as collecting overdue charges, and again, it falls to the staff who get paid the least. There are certain things library staff would really like to say sometimes. One of these is, all the services the library offers are free. You can take home our books, movies, CDs, and magazines, and keep them for quite a long time if you want to – no charge. Extensive and creative programming: babytimes, storytimes for toddlers, Spring Break programs, one-on-one computer tutorials, Summer Reading Club for preschoolers, elementary school kids, teens, and adults, author visits, school tours… too many to list – no charge. We have computers you can use here, to do whatever you want on the internet, or type letters or resumes or anything at all – no charge, except a small fee if you print something, and even that is on the honour system. You are welcome to come here and hang out all day. It’s warm and dry (air conditioned in the summer) and the chairs are comfortable – no cover charge.
So maybe you pay taxes to support the library. Does that mean I am your employee? I’m afraid not. Your taxes go toward all the free services that are available to you. You’re welcome to borrow, attend, learn, read, even if you’re ill-mannered enough to try to browbeat me into extending your book again.
“The library is a safe place. I can leave my purse or wallet or laptop or small child or cell phone or iPod unattended there and no one will steal it.”
Repeat after me: “the library is a public place; anyone and everyone is welcome in there.” Treat your valuables the same way you would if you were at a hockey game, in an airport, at a movie, in a shopping mall. In the past four months, one laptop, one wallet, one iPod, and one backpack have been lifted in the time it took their owners to go to the bathroom or the printer or the coffee shop. It’s amazing that so few valuables have been stolen. I couldn’t begin to say how many times I’ve seen people leave them just lying there for the taking.
"You're the librarian; you should be able to find the book I want/need. Right now."
There is actually no secret magic to the way library books are organized. In a public library, it's either alphabetical by the author's last name (fiction) or in order by the Dewey Decimal system (non-fiction). Ask questions; we'll gladly explain the different labels and stickers. We want to help people find what they're looking for but sometimes it isn't possible, for any number of reasons. Or it may be possible but involve a wait, for the book to be returned or for it to arrive from another branch. And another little known fact: library staff aren't miracle workers and, for the most part, aren't clairvoyant. This makes it very difficult to find a certain book that someone took out last year ("the blue one; it was hardcover, and the author's name started with D, or maybe P").
Should you notice a library staff member open his or her eyes very wide, then blink rapidly a few times (this helps stave off eye-rolling), the person in front of them may have just asked for "that blue hardcover book by D-something, or was it P-something?"
In 25 years working in public libraries, I've been yelled at, sworn at, and called white trash. I've been kicked in the shins by toddlers. I've cleaned up disgusting messes because it had to be done immediately and the janitors couldn't come till later. I've broken up fights. I've been on strike. I've gone home with pounding headaches because of the noise level and/or because someone's perfume or cologne is overpowering. This is the seamier side of working in a public library, pretty much par for the course these days.
But there's more to the story. I wouldn't still be doing this if I didn't love it. There are a lot of lifers in public libraries, people who have been at it all their working lives. Some even stay in the same library system for 30 or 40 years.
It is a great job! I'm going to go out on a limb here but I think many library staffers feel that the library is an essential service. Just please, understand that it's not clean and quiet. Next time you enter a public library, know that it is also a place for the marginalized, and library staff are having to add social work to their training and other related duties.