Being a Librarian Is About Way More Than Just Books
A good library can change lives—on both sides of the counter.
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When someone talks about a library career, one often conjures up the usual stereotype of constant shushing, geeky staff with Coke-bottle glasses and miles upon miles of books. Well, I am here to dissuade you of those images. While employed in a library system in the Southeastern United States, I have seen it all.
In 1998, I started my career in the circulation department at a local library in Florida and was promoted to the position of graduate intern—essentially a librarian in training—in July 2000. After attaining my master’s degree in library and information sciences, I moved up to become a librarian, and then, in 2008, an assistant branch manager. In 2015, I received an opportunity to manage a small library, which is my current position.
Working behind the scenes at a library is the most rewarding career ever, since it lets me make a difference in the lives of others. Ever since I worked summer jobs at supermarkets, I developed a love for assisting and schmoozing with customers. I derive great joy simply from smiling and wishing the multitudes of customers of all backgrounds and ages a simple, “Have a nice day!” Along with my love of books—on history, politics and science, along with some fiction—my love of people made the field of professional librarianship a natural fit.
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Helping People Is My Favorite Part of the Job
There have been many instances of where I felt empowered from making a positive difference in people’s lives, ranging from simple interactions to much more complicated situations. During the Great Recession, I often assisted a customer who, like many, had become unemployed due to the near-implosion of our financial markets. He was a middle-aged man with a professional background in architecture. I personally assisted him on the computer to research available architect positions and let him work past our usual one-hour time limit, with his blueprints and assorted documents laid out on one of the study tables. This continued for weeks upon weeks until I noticed that he was no longer frequenting the library. Then one day, out of nowhere, he strode into the library towards the reference desk with his hand outstretched. He greeted me in the warmest manner and thanked me for my assistance and patience, which had ultimately landed him a six-figure job as an architect.
Another frequent patron is an elderly Jewish man from Brooklyn, New York, who I met at the library I currently manage. I.S. is a retired freelance writer with a passionate interest in politics and history. He and I quickly bonded over our shared interests and his delightfully corny sense of humor (much like mine). Sadly, I.S. only had a few friends and no family in the local area. Since I enjoyed I.S.’s company, we became friends. We had long talks about politics, history, life, and shared a few laughs. Twice a month, he and I would dine at the local Subway.
The enchanted land of librarianship can be full of surprises. Back at the beginning of my library career, while discharging (i.e. checking in) a paperback fiction book, a sheaf of photos fell out. When I picked them up, to my shock, I found myself looking at photos of a scantily clad teenager in fancy underwear. My jaw dropped. I showed them to another female colleague sitting near me. “Oh my God,” I exclaimed. “Look what I found!” Laughing, she told me that she had found a variety of other strange items in discharged books, such as a used tube of toothpaste. We had a good laugh, and I threw away the provocative photos.
Life in a Library Is Full of Surprises
Almost 15 years later, I moved to a library in an inner-city area and encountered challenges that I never envisioned a librarian facing. It turned out to be perhaps the most positive experience in my 21-year career. It allowed me to grow as a leader, improved my confidence to engage in potentially confrontational situations and exposed me to a tight-knit and generous community. My co-workers and my manager were a fun, supportive group who became a family away from my actual family.
Having that kind of atmosphere in a library is especially helpful whenever a crisis flares up. The combination of a cohesive workplace, with the presence of a community-friendly police officer, translates into increased safety for other customers and staff. On one occasion, I attempted to correct a customer when they were talking very loudly, and he—who was substantially taller than this vertically challenged librarian—stepped into my personal space and pumped his fists. Fortunately, the police officer on duty and I de-escalated the situation, and the customer eventually left the library under threat of arrest.
This incident was not the first occasion where I dealt with customers who were insulting or threatening. On multiple occasions, I was called a “white cracker motherfucker” and other assorted epithets. However, I learned that the best method of dealing with such verbal assaults is to let them slide off my shoulders and calmly tell the customer to leave. Once you argue with the unruly customer, you open yourself up to the potential of violent conflict. While many librarians may run away from working at a library fraught with these kinds of challenges, I embraced it as an excellent opportunity. It benefitted me immensely, since this work experience allowed me to address conflict with increased confidence in my personal life as well as in the workplace.
Once, a teen customer mouthed off to me while I attempted to correct his misbehavior. Years later, he visited the library and talked with the staff in a most respectful manner. He had matured and was already enrolled in college. Cases paralleling this example were not unknown or infrequent and proved to be most encouraging. It is incredibly empowering to see youth maturing away from rowdy behavior to a more settled, responsible lifestyle. It is one of the innumerable rewards of my career.
There have only been a very few occasions where I was witness to violent crime in the library. Over a decade ago, a man stumbled into the front entrance of the library. He was covered in blood from multiple stab wounds. Luckily, a police officer was on duty, and he quickly called the paramedics and backup law enforcement personnel. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the victim succumbed to his wounds and died. It was a truly traumatic experience that further taught me to truly appreciate life.
Being a Librarian Has Helped Me Grow as a Person
Librarianship has allowed me to escape my shell of shyness and lack of confidence. When I was in school, I was simply terrified of public speaking. However, my fears were forced to take a backseat in 2004, when I started a new position at a combined public and academic library. One of the duties my new position entailed was teaching computer classes to 20 or 30 students at a time. After watching my supervisor teaching these classes, I decided the best way to offset my anxiety was to crack corny jokes and to simply be my patient and soft-spoken self. Who would have expected—I fell in love with public speaking. Many of the students responded favorably to my approach.
After that, I grabbed every opportunity I could to conduct book and movie discussions and college student orientations, which covered library reference materials and research databases. In due time, I found that my biggest challenge was not being able to shut up about the subject material. Public speaking allowed me the opportunity to channel my passion for informing customers of the research tools that were available. (After all, I was a beneficiary of the availability of these tools since I am a history and politics enthusiast and a self-published author).
I also became involved with the development and facilitation of cultural programs. This allowed me to plan events by soliciting businesses for funds and food donations, which in turn provided me the experience of tasting cuisine from other countries such as India, Haiti, Argentina and Trinidad and Tobago. I became hooked on foods from all over the world. Haitian griot, a fried pork dish, became one of my all-time favorites.
If you’ve read this piece and are now wondering, “Should I work as a librarian or library manager?” my answer would be a resounding “yes!” My experience as a librarian and a manager has helped me conquer old fears, affect peoples’ lives in a profound way and has taught me how to transform lemons into lemonade.