My 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
- 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.