I’ve worked for a public library for the past two years, during which I found a new direction for my career and a passion for both libraries and the business casual sneaker. As I move to my new job at an academic library, I’ve been thinking about what I’m taking with me, besides my sneakers. Last year a friend of a friend looking at a career in libraries emailed me a bunch of questions. These are my answers.
What kind of an educational background do I need to work in libraries?
One of the coolest things about libraries is the fact that everyone’s backgrounds are so unique. I have a theater degree, my branch manager’s degree is in anthropology, and within the other library employees we have social workers, history teachers, ski patrollers, school administrators, parents, biologists, and boring people too. I think the opportunities to succeed will be there no matter what you study; by picking a major you’re not making certain opportunities go away, you’re just picking which opportunities you’ll be more ready to take advantage of.
I get questions at the reference desk from patrons ages 5 to 105 varying in difficulty from 5 to 105 (on a 100 point scale). And let me tell you, having someone come up to the desk and say “hey, I have a question about a really specific topic and I’m asking you instead of Googling it because I know it’s your expertise” is the best feeling. So pursue your own interests. Don’t bother thinking about how it’s going to apply or where you’ll fit in a library. You’ll fit. Just become an expert in what you’re passionate about and I guarantee you will be a resource to the community you serve.
What are some pros/cons about your job?
-Intellectual freedom: Libraries actively broadcast voices that are usually silenced.
-I CANNOT EXPRESS HOW GREAT IT IS TO WORK FOR AN ORGANIZATION WHERE MY IDEALS ALIGN 100% WITH THE ORGANIZATION’S GOALS.
-No sales goals, no monthly quotas, no meticulous records of every customer interaction. If you’re helping a patron, you’re golden. I’ve taught old people how to facebook stalk their grandkids (sorry grandkids) and I’ve sat down on the ground in the middle of the stacks and read a book to a kid because they tapped my knee and handed me a book.
-Sometimes I can’t stop smiling while driving to work because I’m so excited to see what new questions people will ask me and what new books I’ll get to give kids.
-Librarians are the weirdest people. I love them all.
-I will never be rich.
-People say “There’s a masters degree? What do you study, the Dewey Decimal System?” all the damn time. The trick is to give them dead shark eye and with no elaboration say “Yes.”
What do you actually do?
I help people with whatever sort of questions they have. Sometimes they need to research appliances or a new diagnosis so I help them sift through online databases to find the articles they need. Sometimes they heard about a book on Good Morning America two weeks ago and don’t remember anything except the color so I track it down for them.
Once school gets out, I mostly help kids. I find them books, try to talk up our programs, help them do research for school or their own projects, and sometimes I just sit and listen and they talk to me. Did you know that people do that? Did you know that if you just sit there with your mouth closed they’ll start spilling all their secrets? Once a kid told me he’s going to be a writer to pay the bills but his real dream is to be an architect.
Why would you recommend your job?
Imagine watching someone devour a book you gave them, or start exclaiming “This is it! This is what I’m looking for!” when you show them a website or database, or hug you because they can finally use the iPad their granddaughter gave them for Christmas. The pay isn’t anything to write home about and even if you’re making huge career advances they’ll be totally invisible to anyone outside the little library bubble, but I swear it will be worth it every single day. Libraries make a difference and when you can put your ideas and skills to use within them, you can make a difference too. Like, the kind of difference your kindergarten teacher told you you could make. Unreal, I know.
Why would you tell people to pursue a different field?
The world where librarians can sit behind desks and shush people has faded and you’ll find yourself directly interacting with the public most of the day. It’s different from most customer service industries because people usually like libraries so you’re already on the same side as the patron, but you’ll still deal with angry patrons every now and then. Personally, I enjoy it because it’s direct service to a vastly diverse range of people and you can almost always help them leave happy. But if customer service is a no for you, public libraries are not the place to look for a career.
What are your worries and concerns about the future of this field?
Honestly I’m not worried. Besides the sexy librarian fetish (seriously, total strangers bring it up and it’s very uncomfortable), that’s the other obnoxious thing people say to me all the time: “That’s not a long-term career. What are you going to do when libraries die? Where will you work when everything is e-books? Didn’t you know the internet is taking over the world and nobody reads and the apocalypse is upon us?”
But the role of libraries has always changed with the times, and fortunately tax payers and government officials are usually able to see this. As more of a social service than anything else, it’s true that we do less handing out of books than we used to, but libraries aren’t going away and neither is learning. We will always have an integral role in creating opportunities for education, building community partnerships, and providing a safe place for people to find the resources they need. The library world is full of visionary people who see the changes in modern life as an opportunity for libraries to fill new gaps, and I’m confident we’ll always find ways to innovate and improve. It’s a wonderful place to be.
Are you amazing?
(Okay, I added that last one. It felt like a nice conclusion.)