Librarianship is not all about reading books and shushing people. At least not anymore. As I have discovered over the course of several decades of library work, the patrons we serve expect a lot from us, some expectations more reasonable than others.
For those of you of the non-library persuasion, I present to you for your amusement (and bemusement) some of the official and unofficial duties that I and my co-workers have performed in the name of good customer service.
Naturally, I’m listing these duties in alphabetical order because 1) I work in the youth services department where the alphabet is sort of important, and 2) if I put the list in Dewey Decimal order, your heads might explode.
Advocates: We are the defenders of the library world. With the rise of technology, many non-library users assume that the brick-and-mortar libraries of the past are now obsolete. Some feel that libraries are a waste of tax money. I can only speak for my own place of employment, of course, but I can guarantee that we’re anything but obsolete. The uses of the library have changed over the years, but our usefulness has not.
Baby-sitters: A number of patrons with young children tend to view the library as a free day care center, ignoring the fact that we are a public building where anyone, and I mean anyone, can come in. The children are dropped off in the children’s department while the parents find other things to do (although technically this is against the rules, but hey, rules are for other people, right?). Meanwhile, the librarians on the floor divide their time between doing their actual work and herding kids. Surprisingly, tax-payers seem disinclined to pay librarians extra for this service.
Collection concierge: In library lingo, this duty is known as “readers advisory.” When a patron comes in looking for a good book, librarians who are well-read in a number of genres have a near-magical ability to find that right book, rendering the patron well-pleased. This ability has led people to think that librarians know everything. Well…keep believing that ; )
Disciplinarians: Sometimes, we just gotta lay down the law, often resulting in a patron being asked to leave the library. Sometimes rule-breakers invoke the First Amendment to justify their behavior, but I’m sorry, where in the Constitution does it grant someone the right to be obnoxious to other patrons and staff members?
Entertainers: We bring in many performers to amuse our patrons, but on non-performance days, the librarians become the entertainers through hosting story times, setting up video game consoles in our meeting room, distributing stickers, bookmarks and coloring sheets with reckless abandon, swearing at malfunctioning computers, juggling flaming chainsaws, you know, the usual.
First aid responders: Thanks to some library in-service training, most, if not all of the staff are qualified to perform CPR or to use the defibrillator on patrons (or on each other). For the most part, though, the most we do on a given day is to hand out band-aids and ice packs.
Game piece distributors: We have board games in our children’s department. As a way to keep the game pieces from getting lost (or eaten), we keep said pieces behind our desk and distribute them in an orderly manner. Other than directions to the bathrooms, this is our most frequent request (I’m kidding…mostly).
Homework helpers: We do what we can to help children with their homework assignments, although we do draw the line at actually doing the assignments ourselves. Personally, I draw the line at anything pertaining to math work (unless the student doesn’t care that I’ve given them the wrong answer). One time, I had a boy ask me to type up his book report for him because he figured that I was the faster typer than he was.
IT: We do have an IT guy at the library, but as he needs to go home and sleep at some point, we library employees are still expected to know how to fix some of the more common problems that plague our computers (like when a three-year-old hacks a top secret government website and launches missiles at Canada. If I had a nickel for every time THAT happened…). Fortunately, most of the repairs merely involve turning the computer off…then on again.
Janitors: We also have a maintenance department. Still, we’ve all had the pleasure at one time or another of having to clean up various items like dust, mud, spilled liquids, food wrappers, poop, pee stains, blood, dead bodies, etc. All in a day’s work, I guess.
Kowtowers: We serve at the pleasure of the patrons and do so willingly and cheerfully. Even if we are not thanked for our help. Even if we are treated disrespectfully. Even if we are used as personal servants. We bend over backwards for our patrons. But once our shift is over, all bets are off…
Lego guardians: twice a month, we host a Lego Builders Club in which kids work very hard on some pretty amazing creations. Their work is then put on display on the main floor of the library. Unfortunately, the projects are easily accessible to anyone, adult or child, who neglects to read the display signs saying that they’re not to play with them.
Mind-readers: “I’m looking for a book that I read years ago. The cover was green and it was about a guy…or maybe girl who did something. There was a dog in the story too…or a cat, I can’t remember. Do you have it?” I exaggerate this request…a little. I suppose this goes back to the fact that librarians seem to know everything. We do, of course, but we’re not mind-readers for goodness sake!
Notary publics: Yes, we have librarians who are notary publics. No, none of them are working today.
Office supply dispensers: If a patron doesn’t have it, we at the youth services desk probably do. Paper, pencils and pens, glue, scissors, tape, staplers, rulers, paper clips, markers, crayons, colored pencils, Post-it notes, highlighters. Kids, we have everything except the answers to next week’s quiz (for those you need to go to adult reference).
Psychologists: I find it amazing how sometimes complete strangers are willing to divulge personal issues to their librarian. I suppose it’s because we’re trained to be good listeners. I am reminded of a time when a mother came in looking for a book that dealt with the death of a pet that she could read to her young children. I found a picture book that was titled “A Dog Like Jack.” The mother burst into tears when I gave her the book. She told me that, in fact, it was their dog that had died…and his name was Jack. This job can break your heart at times…
Quixotic questers for quiet: Yes, I still do shush people (and no, I’m not wearing my hair in a bun), but the concept of a quiet library (at least for my place of employment) has gone the way of the dodo…and card catalogs. In general, we tend to be pretty busy (and we are a one-floor library where sound bounces all over the place), but it also seems like patrons are less comfortable with silence. Perhaps it’s just me but…wait, hold that thought. I have to get up and shush someone now…
Resume editors: Once and awhile, we have a person who comes in to work on their resume and asks us to proofread it. I’m okay with correcting grammatical errors, but if they want expert advice on building the perfect resume…er, not my department, What’s more, if they ever got a look at my resume, they’d run screaming (quietly) from the library.
Security: During the school year, we have security guards who come in to patrol the library on weekday afternoons (If you’re surprised that a library requires a security guard, then you haven’t been cooped up in a one-floor building with 40-50 hyperactive and hormonal middle schoolers for several hours). Unfortunately, not all of the guards we get are proactive in enforcing discipline as we would like. When this happens, the librarians drop whatever they’re doing and take up guard duty. We call this event “Teen Patrol” (and we’re trying to come up with a theme song to sing while we stalk the aisles).
Telephone operators: When a child needs to call home for a ride, an adult wants to do an over-the-phone job interview, or a patron with a dead cell phone desires to shoot the breeze with a buddy (or prank call 911 for kicks), we provide our desk phones. We also provide comprehensive instructions for those who no longer know how to use a push-button phone (a surprising number of people as it turns out). We also have a payphone at the library (insert cynical laughter here).
U.N. ambassadors: Speaking for my library, we serve a very diverse community. There are some days where I sit at the reference desk and not hear a word of English spoken for long stretches of time. I find it to be a wonderful cultural learning experience; Spanish, Hindi, Polish, Vietnamese, Klingon, you name it, it’s spoken here. However, this does make for difficult (and sometime embarrassing) reference interviews at times. There are probably a fair-sized number of recent immigrants who think I’m a complete idiot because I have to keep asking them to repeat themselves multiple times.
Video game gurus: Several afternoons a week, our library sets up a couple of video game consoles in our meeting room for our rambunctious middle school crowd. Two lucky staff members are then assigned to stay in the room to resolve disputes and to generally keep the kids from hitting each other with the Wii remotes and insulting each other’s mother. Surprisingly, knowledge of video games are not actually required for the staff members (otherwise, they’d never let me step foot into the room).
Wordsmiths: At the youth services desk, we have two boxes of sight words, each color-coded by grade levels. A child picks out a word and tells us what it says. A correct answer earns the child a sticker. For pre-readers, we have cards with letters and colors. This has been a hit with parents and children. Wanting to capitalize on the success of this enterprise, I made up my own box of sight words for those who wanted an extra challenge. Unfortunately, the words I picked were a little too challenging (or so people have told me). But hey, if I can get at least one child to learn to use words like “obstreperous,” “winsome,” or “bifurcation,” I would be a happy person.
Xylophagous: Eating, boring into, or destroying wood, as certain mollusks or the larvae of certain insects. I bet you didn’t know that. Did I mention that librarians know everything?
YouTube police: It’s amazing what those crazy kids will find on YouTube these day, despite content blocking. Staff members frequently remind our internet users that what they’re watching can be seen by everybody, including that little toddler who is staring mesmerized at your screen.
Zombie monitors: By “zombie,” I am referring to the glassy-eyed patrons who stagger into the library and spend every spare moment they can on the internet. They don’t need too much looking after, but one has to be proficient in interpreting the grunts and moans that occasionally come from the internet stations.