I never meant for this to become a book review blog. Don’t get me wrong, I love sharing my thoughts on some of the books that I’ve enjoyed. But I just realized that the last several posts I’ve shared have little to do with my time in libraries, and that’s really why I started this blog in the first place. Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my book reviews. I’m just going to try to return to reflecting on librarianship a little more. So without further ado, let’s talk a little but about what makes librarians so valuable, even in the age of search engines.
According to Libraries for Real Life, “There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the US – a total of 16,541 including branches.” Could this be true? It amazes me that there are this many library buildings in the United States alone and people still don’t really know what we do. Part of that is because every library is different, despite having the same general purpose. The building is different, the collection is different, and, more important to every other aspect, the patrons are different. Indeed, decisions about the look of the building and what books to purchase are often based on the type of patrons and the conclusions we can draw about their needs. Within a 30 minute drive (barring the traffic that makes everyone crazy) I can visit 12 different library systems which include 61 different branches that are designed to cater to the specific needs of their individual communities.
Having worked in three of those systems gives me the unique ability to recognize and understand the differences. It also helps me become a better librarian to understand why one branch in one city will purchase multiple copies of urban or street lit authors and no James S.A. Corey, for example, while a branch on the other end of the same city has all of the Expanse series on its shelves and few copies by those same street lit authors. Events that I wish I could do likely would get no attendance in one of the systems at which I’ve worked, but I know they will be a hit where I am now. There are even reference questions I can expect will never come up here, but I got all the time working at my previous locations. For example, I am much more likely here to be faced with a 12-year-old looking for the name of the latest title in a specific young adult series than the 45-year-olds hunting for a sample real estate lease I helped at my previous location. And when or if I ever transition to an academic library, I may never answer questions like this again.I’ve had to think a lot recently about what sort of library would be my dream job. There is a lot of discussion out there saying that public librarians have a lot of trouble transitioning to academic or special libraries. I’ve mainly worked in public libraries, so it’s a little worrisome to hear others saying that I’m losing my choices about where I want to go. But working in a library, any library, will give you that same basic skills you need to work at any other library. Being a librarian is not about knowing everything (I may pride myself in knowing that Odin was also called the All-Father and that the Westlaw database has free word documents of a variety of legal forms that can be downloaded and edited, but that’s not what’s important). Being a librarian is about knowing how to find that right answer. It’s learning the answer alongside our patrons, and learning to anticipate what that patron might need. It’s about asking as many questions as we our expected to answer, so that we know we are getting that patron to the right resource. So when a 14-year-old asked for information about Norse mythology, I made sure to ask why he wanted it. That’s why I also sent him home with books on how to write fantasy novels, how to get published and two novels that retold original Norse mythology. I even suggested he might read about Christopher Paolini, who started writing a fantasy series inspired by Beowulf at the age of 15. This is just one example of how librarians – the ones who know how to ask the right questions and build personal relationships with our patrons – beat out Google every time. A librarian who understands this can work anywhere, not just in a public library.