How Working In A Public Library Changed My Perspective On What Librarians Actually Do

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Throughout my ever-morphing career as a Books Person, I have been lucky enough to work in many different professional roles. I've been a design assistant at a university press, an editorial intern at an indie publisher, a publicist at one of the Big Five publishing houses, a reviewer for trade publications, a writer for book-loving sites (like this one!), but it has always been a dream of mine to work at a library. So when I was offered a position in the circulation department of my local library this past December, I jumped at the opportunity. Only the reality was nothing like I expected. Not even my years as a patron, library-lover, and advocate could have prepared me to face the things they don't tell you about working in a modern public library.

Like a lot of people, I pieced together my idea of what a library worker does with the help of books, movies, and television. From what I read in Matilda and watched on The Pagemaster, I was under the impression that working at a library meant recommending books, making people be quiet, and reading all day. Boy, was I wrong. Luckily, I was wrong in the best possible way, because working at a modern library is far more challenging, far more engaging, and far more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

If, like me, you've always dreamed of becoming a real-life Miss Phelps, then prepare yourself by learning these things they don't tell you about working in a modern public library.

You do not get to read on the job.

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There are a lot of misconceptions about what librarians and library workers do, but this has to be the biggest one. Despite being surrounded by books, people who work in libraries rarely have time to read on the job — except, of course, on break or during story time.

Libraries are bustling places of business where there is always something that needs attending to: Reshelving books, helping patrons checkout books, organizing community events, the list goes on. Unfortunately, it doesn't go on to include reading for fun. Like most people, library workers have to wait until off-work hours to get to their TBR piles.

Your customer service goes beyond reading recommendations — way beyond.

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One of the things I was most excited to do at the library was recommend books to patrons looking for their next great read. Luckily, this is something I get to do all the time, but it barely scratches the surface of what kind of customer service work is required when you work behind the circulation desk.

Yes, helping library patrons means telling them all about the new books they might enjoy, but it also means showing them how to use the photocopier or fax machine. (Yes, these do still exist.) It means explaining the difference between MP3s and DVDs. It means explaining what Twitter is and showing them how to sign up for an account. As a library worker, you aren't just there to help members of the community find and check out books, movies, and music. You're there to help make their lives a little bit easier, whether that means teaching them how to take pictures on their phones or informing them of the town's recycling schedule.

The job is less about books and more about computers.

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Believe it or not, as a library worker, you are more likely to work with computers than you are with books on any given day. Sure, you're handling reading material all day long as you check books in and out, but like a lot of other office jobs, most of that work requires a computer. Registering new patrons, ordering books from other libraries, searching the catalog, placing items on hold, checking books in or out — none of this can be done in a modern library without the help of a computer or the internet. And to think, people call libraries old fashioned when they are often ahead of the digital curve.

The library is rarely quiet.

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Every time I tell someone I work at a library, they ask, "Do you get to shush people?" And every time that, despite what pop culture has taught you, libraries are actually pretty loud places.

As a library worker, people think it is my job to quiet patrons down and maintain a silent environment. That couldn't be further from the truth. Libraries are loud and vibrant places where people meet up to study, talk about books, or just shoot the breeze. They're the place where playgroups meet up, where sing-along storytime takes place, where special presenters bring in live animals of all shapes, sizes, and noises. They are also the place where at least one person is talking, loudly and without regard to anyone around them on the phone. But, believe it or not, that is how a library is supposed to be: noisy and full of life.

The library phone is like a community helpline.

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"I am working on a home improvement project, and the wallpaper I want to order is sold by the meter. If my bedroom is 220 square feet, how much wallpaper should I order?"

This is a question I was asked during a very real phone call I received at the circulation desk just a few weeks ago. The truth is, when you answer the phone at the library, you never know what kind of question you're going to get. There are the usual inquiries — library hours, book availability, internet access questions. But there are also a lot of callers who just need a question answered, and figured who better to ask than a library worker?

On my watch, people have called in to fact check trivia questions or settle a bet, to get the phone number of local government offices or email addresses to elected town officials, to find out why their DVD player isn't working or when taxes are due. When you work at a library, you have to be ready to answer (or at least try to answer) any question, book-related or not.

The library sometimes doubles as a recycling center.

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If you thought used books were the only thing patrons try to leave at the library, you are sorely mistaken. In my few months on the job, I have had people try and donate — or, in some cases, straight up abandon — paper and plastic bags, old electronics, children's toy blocks, musical instruments, and so much more. Libraries aren't technically recycling spots, but library workers can generally help you figure out the next steps.

The library isn't a house for books; it's a home for the community.

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Anyone who says libraries are dying hasn't been inside one recently. If they had, they would see — on any given day — a bustling playgroup in the children's room, an adult book group talking literature in the study room, a knitting circle crafting and laughing in the community room, or an organization hosting a blood drive in the lobby.

For so many members of the community, the library is a second home. It is where parents who homeschool their children come to find the resources they need, and where public school teachers come for supplemental educational materials. It's where retirees meet up in the morning to discuss local news and share a cup of coffee. It's where special needs groups congregate for group lessons and educational outings. It's where babysitters take kids to do homework or to hangout with friends. It's where nonprofits host their meetings and offer community programing.

Libraries house so much more than books and computers. They offer a home for the entire community.