So you want to be a librarian…

“The World is Quiet Here”. Lemony Snicket

Recently, I had a high school student follow me around for the day. We had arranged this a few weeks before, but I didn’t remember until I got a scheduling reminder in my email a couple of days prior.

The day that Tom (let’s call him Tom) made first contact was not a good day. Our computers, both staff and public, had been down for a few hours, I had just called an ambulance for a customer who was having a seizure, and two people had called in sick.

I wasn’t feeling that great myself, and I probably wasn’t putting my best foot forward when Tom approached the desk.

When you work on the information desk, you are profiling all the time as someone approaches. It’s just a natural thing. Sometimes you’re dead wrong, but most of the time you know what you’re going to get, especially with the regulars. We know that when Mrs. F approaches, she’s got a list of Danny Kaye movies that she MUST GET on VHS. When Mr. B shuffles over, he’s looking for paperback Westerns. He calls them “Louies” after Louis L’Amour, but he’ll read anything that’s got a horse on it, apparently.

When Tom approached the desk, I saw this geeky looking, pimply faced kid. You know the kind. The kind that wears big snow boots even indoors, and who won’t think twice about picking his nose unashamedly in public and MAY OR MAY NOT eat it in front of you. He had glasses and uncombed hair. I had him pegged as a sci fi paperbacker, but I was wrong, sort of. (I’ll explain later.)

He seemed  shy and kind of stammered but I could get the gist of what he wanted. He wanted to do a six-hour placement here, as part of his requirements for high school graduation.

He told me he wanted to be a librarian.

I asked him why, and he said he liked to read. Damn. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of this job. Contrary to popular belief, we DO NOT get any work time to read. I know, it sucks. Every other profession in the world has professional development components (and I’m not saying that we don’t have training and webinars and whatnot) but we don’t have regularly scheduled times where we can just kick back and read (aside from our own time at lunch). I can tell you which author has a new book coming out in April, and I have a working knowledge of the covers of 90% of the new books, but do I ever get a chance to crack the covers? Rarely.

I exhaled and said something like, “Okay, do you want to come in for an hour every week for six weeks or something?” but it turns out it would be better to do it all at once.

“Pull the bandaid off fast, eh? Good call.” And we picked a Saturday a few weeks down the line that worked for both of us. He wanted to know if he should wear anything in particular; if we had a dress code. I looked down at what I was wearing: brown cords that were a shade too short in the legs, a plaid L.L. Bean flannel shirt over a Blue Jays tshirt, hiking boots and grey wool socks (of course).

“Does it LOOK like we have a dress code?” was what I wanted to say. Instead, I said, “Just wear something you’ll be comfortable in, but no sweats or tank tops.” Considering this was February in Canada, it went without saying, really. “Oh, and you’ll want to wear lighter footwear. Those boots look pretty warm”.

That Saturday finally came.

A day or so before I put the word out on Twitter to see if there was anything that I could or should say to this boy that would be inspiring and/or helpful. The usually chatty librarian tweeters were disturbingly quiet that day.

I was on my own.

My plan was to have him get a sense of what working in a mid-sized public library was like, with everything from clearing the book chute to answering questions at the info desk, to helping out with a children’s story time. And also answer any questions he might have.

But six hours? Jesus.

Glenn Gould used to say that for every hour he spent around people, he needed two by himself. I don’t think I’m that bad, but I am aware of when I need to be “on” and when I can just relax and be “myself”. This felt like it was going to be a day where I was “on” the whole time. Give this kid a real show.

The day was here.

Tom showed up on time. We gave him the 25 cent tour and had him shadow the circulation desk for the first hour, and then we had him spend some time over at the information/reference desk. It was too bad that he was here on such a slow day: we didn’t have any children’s programs lined up, and traffic was slow. I asked him if he had any questions. He was concerned about how difficult it was to get into library school. I didn’t know what to tell him. I just applied to a school and I got in. I didn’t do a lot of research ahead of time. This coworker of mine did all the legwork, and decided on a school for himself, and I thought it might be fun to “do it” with someone else, since we were both going to be doing it through “distance ed”, so on a lark I applied and got in. I graduated two years later and a month after that I started working as branch head of the 2nd busiest branch in town. Sometimes life works out. And anyway, Tom is in Grade 12. I tried to give him a little Royal Tenenbaum style advice. “Look, Tom. Don’t take this the wrong way, but your life is just starting.  There’s a whole world out there. You need to get out there and experience it before you decide on your “career” or whatever. Travel, meet girls, do silly and stupid stuff that you will never EVER regret. There will always be time for school.” I don’t know if this was the type of advice he was looking for, but it had to be said.

He asked me what I liked best about my job, and I unexpectedly started to gush. I found myself saying stuff like, “Being a librarian is the best job in the WORLD!” and “I wouldn’t want to do anything else!”. Stuff like that. I went really positive,  and why not? It IS the best job in the world, for me anyway. It may not have the glamour and travel associated with other jobs, and Lord knows I’ll never retire wealthy, but for overall workplace satisfaction, stick me in a library any day of the week. Even if I won the lottery, I would probably volunteer in a library, and if I was ever destitute, I’d be one of those homeless guys shuffling off to the study tables. No matter where I end up on the financial spectrum, libraries will always have a special place in my heart. The library motto in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is “The World is Quiet Here”. At my last job, as a going-away present, my coworkers made up a poster with that saying on it. I still have it on my bulletin board in my office, right below my David Sedaris and John Hodgman posters, as a reminder that libraries are special, dare I say sacred places. At least to me they are.

By the end of the day, we had Tom shelving materials, pulling holds, and even doing the end of day clean-up routines. I didn’t see him pick his nose once, and he wore sensible runners, (i.e. not winter boots). Tom kind of grew on me throughout the day, even when I kept losing track of where he was and finding him loitering down the science fiction/fantasy aisle on more than one instance. (I was right! He was a science fiction paperbacker! I totally called it on the first day!) I came clean with him and told him that we don’t ever get “reading” time on the job, but that we get to help connect readers with stuff they want to read, and sometimes that’s enough. I stopped short before I actually starting quoting Ranganathan’s five laws of library science. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of library nerd.

"Every reader his book". Ranganathan

“Every reader his book”. Ranganathan


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