Libraries are Nice Quiet Places

libraries are nice quiet places It is the first day of spring break and I am staffing the reference desk this afternoon.  It is believable, today, that libraries are nice quiet places.  All I see is chairs, desks, and cubicles waiting for students to park their bottoms in order to study alone or study together.  All I hear is the annoying hum of the printing station  and people walking through to their offices.  It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the 21st century academic library is still a nice quiet place with librarians on hand, just waiting to shush help you!

That is far from the case here most days.  There is a tumult of activity for the students, faculty, and community using the library and for the staff.  In our library, we have other campus offices, a very busy and wonderful cafe,  computer labs, multimedia labs and a merged technology help center and library circulation desk.  The first place anyone goes for help on campus is the library — in the ideal — as evidenced by the noise, traffic, and activity.  People come to us angry, lost, fearful, happy, exuberant, and full of trepidation.  They may be studying together or seeking a quiet place.  They may need something or just want to be alone.  We try to provide it all.

The assumption and stereotype remain that libraries are bastions of scholarly quiet and intensity.  They are but libraries are also more.  In particular, public libraries most often experience, first-hand, the charms and ills of a free society.  Libraries with their warmth, openness, and free access to information and computers attract people seeking a place to sit, sleep, and learn.  Often times, people will leave their responsibilities in the library.  From babysitting their children to guardians looking for a place to put a special needs adult, librarians are often surprised (unpleasantly) by the things/people left in the library.  Libraries are not exempt from the ills of our society, though in our imagination we would like to dream of them of a place of soulful retreat.  Academic libraries tend to be more insulated that public libraries but in my experiences we’ve had more than our fair share of dealing with crime, criminals, the mentally ill, the scary, the quirky, and the weird.  Sometimes it’s a fraternity bet (“Go pee in a library trashcan) to a transgendered person denied her right to use the lady’s room.

There is some dissonance, this difference between our romantic dreams and the varying reality of libraries.  As an insider, it is both fun and irritating to encounter the stereotypes and assumptions about my work and my profession.  By the same token, it is a great profession with where change is embraced and the past is preserved.  If you think you are confused, those of us in libraries are also confused.

Where did the picture come from?  I am not sure.  I’ve had it since the 1980s when my job was to go through old magazines and newspapers for the ephemeral file.  It’s the cover of a magazine, I think The Atlantic Monthly.  I couldn’t find a citation or reference to it after a rather cursory google search.  I thought at the time (and still do) it was a perfect picture to convey the difference between expectation and reality of day to day working and living la vida library!

Chasing the Winter Blues Away, Library Style

little-debbieWinter has gone on long enough, but Mother Nature has other ideas.  For those of us who have worked in libraries long enough, we know that we are a community of workers serving a community of users; and sometimes we get on each others nerves.  We also have to work with other agencies and other organizations to make our work functional.

A few years ago, there were some stringent budget cuts from the state and the word came down that we could not pay for catering at our public events.  The Friends of the Library was putting on a program and we know food is an important part of programming.  We decided that the library faculty and staff would provide the food for the event and noted that in our promotional fliers and emails.

This elicited a phone call to the librarian organizing the program from the head of dining services.  He stated that the food must be prepared in a kitchen inspected and approved by the Health Department…. or all food must be wrapped and served with tongs.  In describing this phone call, the librarian said, very frustrated, “We might as well serve Little Debbie cakes!”  Luckily, some organizational powers-that-be intervened and the event had food provided by dining services.

But another idea was born.  The library’s social planning committee puts on an annual “Blahs Party” during Spring break (early March) and we had a Little Debbie party, partly in honor of the librarian in charge of the event.  The event had a variety of Little Debbie’s, a poetry reading, and, of course, tongs.  By coincidence [not], it was the 50th anniversary of Little Debbie.

When that librarian retired last year, part of her gift included boxes of Little Debbies and tongs.  And here in honor of shaking away the blues away …..

Ode to Little Debbie

On the Occasion of her 50th Birthday

And

The Library Little Debbie SnackFest

 By Prunella McShush

Librarian Extraordinaire[1]

 

In the middle of the cold winter blahs

We are cold inside when the wind blows.

Her sweet little cakes transform our woes

Into wonderful smiles and cries of “aahs!”

Little Debbie tells us, “Unwrap a Smile”

And gives us honest pleasure without guile!

Sweet packs of chemical deliciousness

Filled with unnatural ingredients

Distract us from our library busy-ness.

We are in aligned with the Department of Health

A pair of tongs to serve the wrapped little treat

We now have a party that can’t be beat.

We didn’t spend much money

This party sure is a honey.

Huzzah and Hooray for our fun, health, and wealth!!!!

 


[1]  ¯Dah-tah-dah-DAH¯

My Reverse Bucket List

Never want to do againMy career as a librarian and library administrator has been characterized as “mature,” which I think means that it has lasted more than two decades.  It’s really been nearly four decades as a librarian, longer if you count that fact that I worked in a library during high school and all through my undergraduate and graduate years.  When I first graduated from library school, I had a list of things that they never taught me.  I though the library school should give me a rebate each time I had to deal with something for which I had been inadequately trained.  A short list includes:

  • Smelly employees and smelly library users
  • Helping people adapt to change
  • Working with difficult people
  • Building issues such as heat, no heat, air conditioning, no air conditioning, curtains/no curtains, fire inspections, trash, and the like
  • undergraduate and library hijinks of all sorts
  • Getting people out to the building
  • Porn vs. sexual materials and having it in the library
  • Dumpsters
  • Unions, non-unions, and the so-called open door policy
  • Getting people into the building
  • Etc, etc, etc

Yes, the primary “soft” skill set needed to be a librarian is creativity, adaptability and flexibility.  Libraries have always innovated and people have always had a range of reactions to it.  Libraries are a community of workers serving a community of users; and those communities bring their strengths, weaknesses, joys, and ills with them.  They do not get left at the door when people come inside.  They act out, suppress, let loose, and sit down with all their history and future.  Our job is to help them find the resources they need to cope with those histories and help them find ways to walk into their future.  It may be entertainment, health information, legal information, or some information they need to get by.

There’s also a mystique and romance about libraries that most people have and expect to be acted out for them when they enter the library.  People become disappointed when they come to the library and expect whatever they expect and don’t get it.  They may expect a nice, quiet place and find that the library is full of lively students studying and talking together.  That there’s food, and coffee, and the gentle hum of computers, printers, and cell phones.  Or that they expect instant answers to all their questions, only to find that there’s a process and perhaps a waiting period.

And through all that tumult of expectations and reaction, the librarian helps people manage their expectations and their research needs.  It’s a juggling act.

Recently I was at a conference, talking to some peers, and I said that I used to have a list of things they didn’t teach us in library school.  Now I have a list of things that I won’t miss when I retire.  My colleague said, “Oh a Reverse Bucket List.”  And so it is.  A few of the things I won’t miss are:

  • Worrying about safety and security of the people, materials, and building
  • Helping people manage change
  • Parking lot wars
  • Leaking roofs, bug and rodent infestations, and user hijinks of all sorts
  • Dumpsters, trash, bathroom ick, smelly people
  • Budgets, spreadsheets, and making difficult choices
  • Hearing, “I really miss the card catalog”
  • Hearing, “I’d love to work in your library because libraries are nice, quiet places.”
  • Dealing with unions
  • Emergency responses, or lack thereof
  • Hearing, “I wish I could work in a library so I could read all day like you.”

Working in a library often strips away the mystique and romance of a library.  We know so much about the inner workings of a library, the pain and suffering that goes into making things a simple as possible for the user, and our own inability to get out of our own way that we lose sight of why we wanted to be a librarian in the first place.

Most of all, I hope the reverse bucket list will restore and revitalize my vision of the library as one of the things in our society that truly envisions and embodies the democratic ideal of freedom of thought, the pursuit of knowledge, and the right to read and reflect on knowledge without censure, judgment, or comment.  Libraries are the place where your rights as a reader and pursuer of knowledge are passionately defended and your tastes and needs are met regardless of what others might think of the format or the  content.