Library school teaches you all the theory you need to work at a reference desk, but they forgot to mention one little thing – you’re never fully prepared to work with the public.
I graduated knowing how to hunt down the best resources and how to “get the right book into the hands of the right person” but, when a 14-year-old kid in a bulging sweatshirt told me she needed help finding “stuff” about abortion or adoption, well, the way my heart dropped was not covered in any textbook.
As stewards of knowledge, it is our responsibility to disseminate all kinds of information to all kinds of people without blinking an eye, and without allowing personal bias to color our interactions with patrons. It was just awfully hard not to slap that man in the mouth when he laughingly insinuated that we were trying to turn people gay because he keeps finding “fag” books on the shelf and my male coworkers have long hair…
Library school makes the biblio-world out to be some pristine corridor of enlightenment, well-lit, highly polished and perfectly organized, where religion is always placed after philosophy because Dewey and the Library of Congress mapped it out that way. Knowledge can be found alphabetically by author, just look at the signs at the end of the stacks for guidance.
However, no sign points to the right words to say when a mother with tired eyes approaches you looking for books about sex written on a six-year-old level because she’s discovered her husband was molesting her daughter. And when you meet that little girl’s untrusting stare, hurt and more than a little angry, you realize no amount of knowledge will ever explain away what her daddy did to her.
Of course not every query is that heavy. I get questions all the time like folks looking for deer-resistant plants (Deer won’t eat daffodils, butterfly bushes or bee balm or mint!) or the mourning customs of the Victorians so they can incorporate them into their Civil War reenactment group (Cover the mirrors with black cloth and release a riderless horse at the funeral for the most effect.) Librarians are fonts of useless knowledge. They are perfect additions to a trivia team!
I had one woman call who wanted to know the top five quietest breeds of watch dog – what, like a greyhound that would just lean on you to tell you there was an intruder in your closet? There are plenty of folks simply looking for the most recent Stephen King release, or information on Oprah’s latest diet…or just wondering where the bathroom is. That’s a big one.
Then there are the crazies. Public libraries are like public parks. Anyone can wander in, and frequently do, especially if they stink, or like to steal clippings out of your newspapers and magazines. What do you say to the Cat Lady, offending people with her aroma, hard of hearing, who has snatched the newspaper and chosen stall number two in the women’s restroom to be her personal office?
Best of all though, no one could teach me how my heart would soar when I was reading to children, their eyes upturned to take in the pictures, grinning or gasping, engrossed in the books I have chosen. Afterwards, the children clamber to sit on my lap with the stories they have pulled off the shelves, holding them out like treasures they want to share with me. I feel positively privileged to spend Tuesday mornings with them.
I met students in library school, students who have never worked in libraries, who thought it was all about the books. Sometimes they even made comments like “I can’t wait to work in libraries because I just want to read all day long.” Well, that would be lovely, but I think if that’s your desire, you need to go into publishing, honey. Librarians used to guard books and shush you from the stillness of their offices, but not anymore.
Library school – or any school for that matter – can teach you the theory of your profession, but life is not that neat. Librarianship today is about the people you serve, the science of creating a collection of information to suit your population, the art of communication, and the beauty born of a genuine desire to help.
And when it comes down to dealing with real people, often all you’ve got is your intuition. Don’t be surprised when you have to put your textbook aside and figure out how to really make a difference.