You think you know libraries. They’re quiet, calm, tranquil places of wisdom, learning, a corner of the world where you can hide away and lose yourself in someone else’s fictional creation.
None of this is actually untrue; but there’s more to the story than the common image. Also gone are the days of librarians being 100-year-old ladies with blue hair and huge glasses who threateningly shush you if you dare to whisper a reference question to a fellow patron. We tend to be moms with kids still at home, politely checking out whatever materials you pass our way, no judgment, only shushing you if you’re really pushing the limit.
And we are busy. You wouldn’t believe how much we have to do to complete the supposedly simple tasks that result in you having those coveted books and discs in your hands. It isn’t just scanning the barcode and placing it on a shelf or in a bag. Oh, no. It’s not more complicated, but the process is more time-and-energy-consuming than many realize.
For example: We begin our day with collecting all the items people returned the evening before, or early in the morning, when we weren’t open. Most libraries have a “dropbox” outside the building, which does just what it says on the tin. And we go out in whatever sort of weather to toss into bags and haul inside the realistically several dozen returns.
Then we can begin processing which returns are going back on our shelves, to other libraries, or are going on hold for someone else who has requested that title. When you need to scan the barcode and find where an item is going…at least 50 times…all in the half hour before the library once again opens to the public for the day… You get the idea.
And when people start arriving, they bring more returns with them. And they need things (how dare they). They need to collect their holds, and check more stuff out, and print or copy or fax things, and…
And when the printer is down and the IT guy is forbidding you to get near a single computer, even to make the literal 3-foot-high stacks dwindle quicker… Yeah, you get it.
Being a library clerk is a position that requires patience, and flexibility.
And if you thought that working in a library would be a bookworm’s paradise… Well, not quite.
The fact is, we simply don’t have the time to peruse all the interesting new titles that cross our paths. Even when we’re not at work. And there are days when you go home and the thought of handling another book just…isn’t appealing.
But there absolutely are bookworm perks to this position, too. Free ARCs, and first shot at brand new releases. Not being charged to use the copier, fax, or printer. Not having to wait in line to check out your selections, because you can glide right behind the desk and do it yourself!
You also never have to wonder what next month’s book club pick is, since you’ve just been discussing it with your co-workers (and you get a copy early, too). If there are extras in giveaway piles (leftover from programs and events), you may not even have to ask for those.
One thing that definitely has not changed about libraries since I was a kid is: They are positively overflowing with books. And not just regular fiction and nonfiction; there’s also large print and paperbacks, audiobooks and movies and TV series, plenty of YA and MG and picture books, not only currently bestselling authors, but plenty of great writers you’ve never heard of. One of the joys of the job remains seeing readers (and watchers) find their next favorite.
I also have a new appreciation for the community services libraries provide nowadays. Yes, I’ve been taking advantage of sending White Fang to the kids’ programs for free for years. But since being “on the other side of the desk,” I’ve begun to realize just how important a library can be, as a fixture in a small town where many residents have few resources when it comes to technology and extracurricular activities. Until the means catches up to the vision of how people are supposed to be living in the 21st century, we’ll be here.
And I’m sure even long after that. The general public being literate is a relatively new concept in the world. We librarians still have a lot of work to do.
And some complications or frustrations or obstacles aside, most of us really enjoy what we signed up for.