The Public Library-Six Months in the Trenches

It has been one year since I graduated with my Master’s in Library Science, and exactly six months since I began working in a public library.  Obviously, six months barely qualifies me to say that my big girl librarian pants are fully on.  Despite this, I have cultivated some unique insights specifically relating to the theory taught in grad school and the application of them in my daily life.  Here is my six month reflection, or if you will, the real deal on what happens in one public library.

The RUSA Interview: Just Relax!

In my very first library science class, General Reference Sources, I remember falling in love with the RUSA (Reference and User Services Association via the American Librarian Association) guidelines for the “reference interview”.  Which means, there are a set of guidelines that one must follow in order to give top-notch reference service to a patron, whether face-to-face or online.

When I began at the library, refreshing my reference interview points were priority number one, and I tried so hard to remember all of them during any exchange with a patron.  I put so much pressure on following them to a T, but soon found that the five guidelines can be fluid and really do have a way of naturally presenting themselves in the conversation.

There’s a refresher, or a fresher, if you will:

Approachability: look like you want to answer a question…smile!

Interest: act like you’re listening, or better yet, actually listen!  You’d be surprised how many librarians fail the first two…

Listening/inquiring: listen and ask questions.  I find this to be the most difficult because often times someone will be uber-confident in what they are asking for, and that may cause you to doubt your own instincts.  For example, an older woman was sure that the new release she was looking for was written by Vince Vaughn.  It turned out to be the fiction writer Vince Flynn.  The point is, it’s okay to question their question.

Searching: you help them find the information.  This is my biggest area for improvement because in grad school reference classes, you have to explain how you found everything and describe it step-by-step in your homework.  However, this is real life, not a paper, and a patron is often standing in front of you.  I tend to just find it and give it to them, which is a huge no-no.  Sure, it’s easier for me because I know I can find it, but I need to help them learn to plant, you get me?

Following-up: I find this to be a grey area, and you just need to feel it out over time.  Sometimes the patron doesn’t need a strict follow-up after they have searched.  For example, if they are looking for the movie The Birds, and you find it on the computer and hand them the DVD, then a formal follow-up may not be necessary because you know that they are happy.  Usually what I’ll do is when I find the source or hand it to them, I’ll ask if that is what they want.

All in all, the reference interview is fairly intuitive.  Just smile, be interested, ask lots of questions and remember to stay calm.  Sometimes, the patron will even school you on sources and may know a lot more, and that is okay.  Swallow your pride and welcome the opportunity to learn something new–you don’t know what a “fake book” is?  I didn’t either until a patron told me!

Crowd Control

In graduate school, discussions of the homeless, those with mental problems, or just plain raucous patrons were always done in ivory tower style.  What happens if they smell?  What if they are looking at women in thong underwear on the Internet?  What if they are sleeping in a book carroll?  What if they are washing their armpits in the bathroom sink?  The solutions to these questions were never directly answered, but instead we gave them a big “whadda do”? with a shoulder shrug and went onto discussing online reference sources.  I can’t say if this was exclusive to my particular classes or because those teaching were librarians in academic libraries, which tends to weed out the general public.  Either way, these questions quickly materialized into reality as the nearby homeless shelter opened during the winter months and/or some of our regulars stopped taking their schizophrenia medication.

Naturally, each library most likely has their own policies and chains of command regarding who to notify and what steps to take in case someone gets a little rowdy.  Despite this, a lot of times the (assistant)directors may not be present on the floor and the librarians and circulation staff are left to wo/man that all to often, “grey area” that patrons usually dance in.  What if that patron does indeed smell?  Or what if someone is listening to their music too loud, but I don’t think it’s too loud?  These questions in turn may lead a disgruntled patron to complain and it can be extremely uncomfortable for the librarians because this is that grey area.  A patron may be annoying another person, but it may not be enough to take action on the part of the librarian, which in turn may infuriate the complaining party.  These situations can be a daily occurrence in the library, and whose job is it to educate us in interpersonal communication?  Looking back, I do think that a more thorough dialogue in grad school could have been helpful, especially in teasing out diplomacy skills and tactics to aid librarians that would prevent them from becoming overwhelmed when faced with an angry patron.  Library Therapy 101, sign me up!

There’s No Cryin’ in Librarianin’

When I began working in the library, my mind was swollen with ideas on how things should be done.  When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of it, no matter how much you learn in school, or how many journal articles you read, there’s no substitution for hands on experience, and if you’re lucky, that hand is usually that of an experienced librarian on your shoulder.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never lost my lust for spewing my opinions all over the stacks, but it wasn’t until I swallowed my pride and shut my mouth that the real pearls began to bubble up.

It’s a humbling experience to admit that you don’t know what you are doing, whether you’ve been in the biz for six months or ten years.  Like many careers, in the library you are constantly inspired by other people’s creativity and insight and you just cannot compete with a dedicated librarian’s decades of experience.  And no matter how crabby a librarian can sometimes be (yes, and unfortunately, that stereotype still does exist because that type of librarian still exists), a good librarian is a steadfast sponge for new information.  It can be a struggle, especially for me, to admit that I don’t know everything because I KNOW EVERYTHING ALREADY!  When a co-worker has graciously tried to mentor me, my guard sometimes flares up.  On many occasions my emotions have run the gamut from feeling like crying, being defensive, angry, and slowly and thankfully more often, grateful.  It’s difficult to zip the lips and admit that your knowledge base is lacking, but if you’re lucky, you’ll get paired with an old-school librarian who wants to share their knowledge.

Six Months to Life 

As Hank Williams has said, if God’s willing and the creek don’t rise, this is just the beginning of my library career.  I have no clue what this post will look like in six weeks, six months, or six years.  What I do know is that I want to be the best librarian ever and hopefully one day, I’ll be that kick-ass, and hopefully not the too crabby librarian that inspires some other new six-monther.


3 thoughts on “The Public Library-Six Months in the Trenches

  1. Wendy DalMonte says:

    Nothing like experience in ANY job! In order to become the epitome of the ‘crabby librarian’, one must have cat eye glasses that sit low on your nose, and of course, the bad hairdo. This all comes with time, and customer service burn out. Give it time girl…..give it time! 🙂

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