File Under Miscellaneous, Part 1

About two years ago, I was hired as a part time librarian for the library where I now work full time. Recently I’ve been thinking about how some new librarians have taken stock of their experience of the first couple of years in their blogs. They talk about how they have changed professionally, where they think the library field is going, and what their current goals are. These are true exercises in introspection and a meditation on what it is like to be a modern librarian in this age of internet and mobile technology. The challenges, both old and new, renew our commitment to the profession that we love as well as demand new ideas and innovations.

So, as I’m signing a work order for a plumber who came to the building to fix a toilet, I’m thinking about how there are things in public librarianship that are never addressed in Master’s of Library Science program. There was nothing in the management class that has addressed some of the things I have encountered in my two years of public librarianship.

So, in a different sort of listing, here are a few things that were never mentioned in my graduate program about public librarianship but everyone should know about.

(1) Diplomacy

You will need it. You need to be able to effectively communicate to noisy kids, disruptive teens, oblivious parents, passive aggressive seniors, coworkers of various temperaments & theory of librarianship approaches, political officials of all stripes, and the myriad of pleasant to impatient patrons you will meet. This is not to say that every day is filled with social conflict, but that you need to be prepared for it when it happens. It is a fine balance of customer service, library policy, and your own discretion as to what is just and fair that can make or break the encounter. The one truth is that has to be accepted is, no matter how diplomatic you are, there will be people who will not be satisfied no matter what you do. Expend your energy as best you can to get the best result, but do not dwell on what cannot be done.

On the flip side of the coin, diplomacy can be used to negotiate a better deal or experience for a patron. In gauging the patron’s needs, you can raise their expectations by providing services and/or materials above and beyond their original request. This is a “trade up” in which both sides win; you can market other aspects of the library (such as programs and collections) while the patron learns something that they never knew about from the library. By applying your diplomatic skills, you can make a trip to the library a memorable experience. This also allows you to talk a presenter into accepting a few more people into their program, to solicit different types of donations from the community, and to get better deals with vendors. When it comes to getting goods and services for the library, everything is truly negotiable.

(2) Basic mechanical skills

While I’m in a county library and there are people who handle maintenance exclusively, I am still a "first responder" to most building situations. Burned out or flashing lights, wobbly tables, broken chairs, loose shelving, cracked windows, busted doors, stained carpets, broken toilets, various alarm malfunctions (security, generator, sump pump, and/or fire), electrical failures, computer network crashes, ill tempered vending machines, rebellious printers, jammed copiers, the whole HVAC system, leaks of all types, and invasion attempts by birds, rodents, insects, and the whole Fungi kingdom. This does not include things that go wrong outside the building, such as tangled flagpole lines, slippery sidewalks, parking lot accidents, leaky roofs, clogged gutters, laborious snow & ice removal, regular lawn care, and the occasional book drop vandalism. (You get the idea.) Even if I’m not the one who has to fix them, I still have to know who to contact and be able to describe the problem to them. You can go from helping a patron put a hold on a book to reaching into a fish tank up to your shoulder attempting to scoop out a dead fish (true story).

If it has moving or electronic parts, you will soon become an passing expert in it.

(3) Patience

The most obvious application of this virtue is in service of patrons in general, for the life of a public librarian has a lot of explaining in it. Whether it is policy, procedure, materials, or how to retrieve an email or get a library card, you will have to be able to tell someone how to do it or find it. Over time, I have whittled down the script for the most commonly asked things into a concise series of points. And since you will end up repeating the more popular ones several thousand (or million, in a larger library) times, you might as well get used to it.

When it comes to assisting patrons, unless there is a giant pressing line of overtly unhappy people, take the time to fully cover something with a patron. First, it signals to the rest of the line (if any) that, when it is their turn, you will give them your full attention and not rush them out. This can soothe anxious feelings and make them feel that the wait is worthwhile. Second, it is better to have only one 10 minute thorough session with a patron than five 2 minutes sessions during which they struggle. Those multiple trips to the reference desk can lead to frustration and create an overall bad impression. Third, it’s how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. No one likes feeling at the short end of the stick in a business interaction and the reference desk is no exception. (Mileage of this point at your library will vary.)

The slightly less well known employment of this virtue is shaping policy and implementing changes at the library or system level. The practices and policies of the public library tend to move at a glacial pace, depending on the subject. For any changes that you hope to see through, it will take time and effort to get them to where you want them. Patience and persistence pay off at the end when you affect a major change. And surely as I write these words, you can get it done.

 Photo by the lovely & talented, mlibrarianus/Flickr

When I first started writing this, I had a list of a couple more aspects that I had thought about. They aren’t on the list because they were folded under the aforementioned aspects or I simply couldn’t articulate them in a manner that was satisfactory to me. So, in lieu of being complete, I slapped a “Part 1” in the title and left myself open for future posts. If you can think of things that I perhaps should include in the future (or make your own posts), share your thoughts and links below.

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