The Reality of Working in a Public Library

  • Planning programs for adults and children alike that can entertain and/or inform. Hopefully they don’t cost too much money. Maybe the presenter even volunteered for that privilege. And you’re hoping patrons actually come to this program. Many times patrons say they want particular programs at the library, but then don’t actually show. This is the case at almost all public libraries, so don’t take it too personally.
  • Ordering books for the collection. You’ll get to read the reviews, but you may or may not have time to read any of those books in your personal time, and you will rarely if ever have the chance to read books while on the clock. Some employers actively discourage it, in fact, unless you’re reading it aloud to children during a storytime program and giving the delivery lots of emotion and vocal changes. Maybe you’ll be given the chance to recommend lesser-known and excellent writers to new readers, but you might also get discouraged by how many copies of James Patterson’s latest releases that you keep having to order to meet the demand.
  • Walking through the floor/the stacks on a constant and regular basis to “customer service” your patrons. This is where my bookselling experience has come in the handiest. You make eye contact with all the patrons, you greet them, you ask if they need assistance. I have worked at three different public libraries at this point, and each has gotten gradually more active when you work the floor. At my current library, we don’t even have chairs at the front desk. We’re always on our feet. We’re helping patrons figure out how to print from their email, hop on the wifi, find that one book that our catalog says is in but isn’t on the shelf, and listening to lonely patrons tell you way too much personal information because suddenly they have a captive audience that is being paid to be polite and helpful.
  • Oh, there will be plenty of opportunities for performing tech help for people. I’ve said that library workers tend to be substitute grandchildren for some older folks — they come in with relatively simple tech questions and we can just fix it for them. In my experience, people with a Yahoo account have the least amount of knowledge about how computers work. A lot of kids can work their phones but struggle with desktop computers. Over the years I’ve helped so many people figure out how to print I essentially have a script I recite each time. Some folks are so technology illiterate that even relatively simple tasks take an inordinate amount of time. You can read about my struggles with patron email here.
  • Even a not-well attended program benefits those who do come. They get more personalized attention, and information and/or experience they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Sometimes my adult patrons just appreciate the excuse to leave the house. But I’ve had patrons who came and got one piece of useful information and that alone makes the whole experience worth it. And sometimes you plan a program you aren’t sure will go well, and suddenly you’re pulling out more chairs and running to hook up a microphone for the presenter and making more copies of the handout and these are the kinds of problems you look forward to having.
  • Once you get the hang of learning what kinds of books and other materials your community wants, more patrons will recognize how useful their library is. I still don’t get to talk books with many patrons, but when you get to watch someone walk up to one of your book displays and immediately grab a book or two, or see a teenager clutch a book to their chest as they head to checkout, you know you’re on the right track.
  • I learned in my retail days that sometimes the interaction with the cashier or bookseller could be the nicest anyone has treated a customer that day or week or a long while. You greeting a patron, or going to the other side of the building to grab the book they were looking for, or pleasantly guiding them through how the copier works may be the kindness they needed that day. Some patrons have nowhere else to go or be, but the library can be a refuge, at least for a few hours. That’s why I appreciate when libraries don’t mind noise, or allow food — your patrons may really need to be there all day.
  • I cannot stress to you how much of a superhero you feel like when you solve what you see as a simple technology problem but your patron was struggling to fix on their own. Or when you spend a half-hour with a patron guiding them through a government assistance website so they can have heat this winter. Or just when a patron wants to start checking out ebooks and you set up their device because you do it all the time and it’s unfamiliar for them and they check out a digital audiobook every week from then on and whole new avenue of entertainment and information is opened to them.

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