LITERARY HUB – Growing up, I liked to imagine what it would be like to work in a library. What little I knew about them was what I’d gleaned from movies and TV because my conservative parents never took us to any and only let me read books they purchased from the Bible Book Store. I didn’t know any librarians in real life—outside of the elderly woman who ran our tiny school media center—but I understood librarians were smart and savvy.
Cool and collected. They were everything my rowdy, boundary-busting, literature-hating family was not. I envisioned a sweet future for myself sitting behind an elaborately carved wooden desk, surrounded by towering stacks of leather-bound books. I’d read for hours in total silence, vanilla and almond perfuming the air. Pages wafting in a gentle breeze. Nobody around to bother me. With librarianship, I’d finally have solitude. Peace.
I cling to these happy memories whenever somebody breaks the copy machine for the fourth time that day by jamming a ballpoint pen inside the feed tray. Or spills their kale smoothie down the side of the circulation desk. Or when a person decides to eat an extra large pizza while vaping in the women’s bathroom. I think: remember why you chose this job? The elegance? And I laugh.The reality of being a librarian is that it’s hardly ever about sitting down and it has absolutely nothing to do with peace and quiet. It’s about assisting others. It’s about community service. Librarianship asks you to do 12 things at once and then when you’re in the middle of those projects wonders if you’ve got any tax forms left or an eclipse viewer. It’s endless questions. It’s “my two dollar fine pays your salary.” It’s a grubby little hand at storytime grabbing your leg and smearing glitter glue down the side of pants you’ve already worn twice that week. It’s finding the right answer to a question and reveling in that small joy for a bare moment before another patron comes up to ask you something even weirder. It’s library work, and it’s exhausting.
A certain type of person gravitates toward this field. It’s generally people with a thirst for research, those who love books, and individuals who understand they’ll never pay back their student loans. Every job in a library depends on someone else’s to function. Libraries are buzzing hives filled with extremely busy, frazzled, overworked people. Staff and Librarians work together to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible, which it NEVER, EVER DOES. Lots of different types of library work happens everywhere—new jobs crop up daily, thanks to evolving tech and shifting community needs—but there are some standard positions that remain eternal.“The reality of being a librarian is that it’s hardly ever about sitting down and it has absolutely nothing to do with peace and quiet. It’s about assisting others.”
First of all, there’s the backbone of the library: technical services. These thankless individuals work in stuffy back rooms cataloging your books and movies, maintaining a plethora of exciting, information-rich databases so that students can continue to only use JSTOR for their assignments. They understand systems that have operating manuals that read like misprinted IKEA furniture assembly instructions. Technical services staff are expected to deliver items that aren’t yet available because they haven’t been published, find books that are absolutely out of print, and expected to work a “couple extra hours over the holiday break” because someone in the Art History department wants access to Interlibrary Loan they won’t even pick up until after New Years. Okay, yes, I’m talking about me here.
What I’m saying about library “tropes” is that they apply to anyone who works in a library because you have to know how to do everyone else’s job. Librarianship is the understanding that maintaining a library is a shared responsibility. You’re on call to help catalog a book someone requested for a massive paper and then promptly forgot about.
You’ll need to sit a stint at the circulation desk because someone else got the flu from working a storytime where half the kids showed up with runny noses and rubbed their hands all over the safety scissors. Libraries are community spaces for patrons as well as for library staff. You perform all the roles, all the time. You learn to love it. I understand now that the job I thought I’d have isn’t the one I wound up with, but guess what? I like it better that way. At the end of the day, librarianship is mostly about trying to understand the needs of people. It is still about knowing. And that’s something I like.Another thing I like: getting to tell all of you that my Tales of the Library will be a recurring bimonthly column for Lit Hub! Join me next time where we’ll discuss those burning reference desk questions, like “Can you help me set up an online dating profile?”
I am Martha Leah Nangalama.
I shared this story because some people do not realise the importance of librarians. I hold a Masters degree in Information Science (now Masters of Information) from University of Toronto. Some of my courses were with students taking Library Science and it was amazing to see how much they knew. READING is truly liberating. Mix it with Information Technology and the world will unfold right in front of your eyes.
March 28, 2018 at 01:28PM