I’ve worked many years in different areas of customer service, from pizza delivery driver, to music store clerk, to telemarketer. At some point in my life, I ventured over to the world of libraries. I had a romantic version of working in a library that involved a dusty building filled with silence and books, where I could make decent money while working on my fantasy or romance novel. I assumed a library would give me ample time to do this, and that I’d make more money than working in a low-paying newspaper job, which is what I had been doing years ago.
“People don’t actually really use the library,” I thought to myself way back then. I envisioned that I’d help an elderly man find a periodical, help a toddler find a picture book, and would write with all that extra sweet time. But the thing is, if you don’t work or frequent a public library, then you don’t really understand a public library. The following are some truths I learned while working in a public library:
1. The first jarring realization I learned is that I am not the only one that wants to work in a library. Believe it or not, I am not the only person who sought to work in a library while pursuing their other hobbies or passions. I wasn’t underqualified with my two degrees, but I realized I wasn’t exactly overqualified after seeing how many people apply for the same library position. I guess since we all want to be writers (or at least enjoy reading books) then we all probably have degrees declaring our message to advocate the printed word. So that cushiony job where you rarely have to help people and write all day? If did exist, then it’d be incredibly competitive; you’d be behind 20 or more other people that have probably worked in the library longer and, actually made it through a master’s program for library science.
2. That cushiony job where you have to barely help people while you read or write all day does not exist. It’s busy, and there is no filter process to keep the crazies out. We welcome all types. (Until they are banned because they got caught watching porn.)
3. Actually, it is more accurate to say that all library staff is busy. The first library I worked in was one of the busiest libraries in the south. For eight hours a day I checked out patrons one after the other while I stood at the front desk, surrounded by four or five co-workers doing the exact same thing. I worked at Barnes and Noble and a few other retail stores, and there was no comparison. Summer reading days at the library were busier and more stressful than any black friday I’ve worked. When I moved to a smaller branch, I was hoping it would be less busy. (And it was, significantly.) However, less staff makes busier days essentially just as hectic.
3. Circulation is the butthole of the library. I say this honestly, after working in the circulation department for seven years. If the library were to enjoy fine dining, then our department would be the ones that were only given the leftovers when everyone else returned to work. It’s the first desk you see, and the last desk you use when you are checking out. However, since everyone gets funneled through the building to check out their books with us, we stay busy. And not the fun busy, like preparing for a kid’s program or hosting an adult program. Being circulation department is relatively comparable to being a cashier at a retail store, or a clerk at the DMV — part of the reality is you can never look too happy. Our type of busy usually consists of the steady lines of moms checking out 100 picture books, and stingy patrons that can’t keep their accounts in order. Sometimes all you can do when an old snotty lady is harassing you is look dreamily into the distant children’s department, and visualize a day of sing-a-longs and crafts.
4. Speaking of the children’s department, the library is not quiet. There are some areas that the reference librarians have taped off and blocked from children — much like security guards or people who wrap their bodies around trees to stop bulldozers.
“Save our study section,” they quietly chant.
Don’t be too surprised when you collide head-first into 400 screaming children leaving the library as you walk in with your graduate-level textbooks and coffee. You will hear an infant screech cries of terror, once a day and always around lunch time.
5. Working in the library can be rough simply because everyone’s human — some days your mood isn’t entirely here, and you’d be better off far removed from the public as opposed to being somewhere that necessitates being bright, chipper, and intrigued by humanity. The days in which you have to fake your way through every pointless and superficial conversation that you’ve heard for the last seven years (and will hear that day at least 20 more times) can be rough indeed. .
6. You will meet the strangest, quirkiest, and most interesting people, and they will all be your co-workers. Fantasizing about working in a public library was a far cry to working in one that actually existed. However, I have met artists, cartoonist, fellow musicians, poets and of course the always tortured, aspiring writer. More than once they will save you from getting fired with their understanding, humor and support. If anything, they will help you develope a huge tolerance for assholes. Because the majority of the public, once you get away from your friends and most of you family, are assholes.
Along with the screeching babies, chatty moms, stingy patrons and overly entitled public, you will meet some amazing patrons. You will also meet some amazingly insane people. There have been some patrons that I will never forget no matter where my career path will go. I thought I would conclude with a short list of my most memorable patrons:
– The old man who shat himself while saying, “oh shit. I shat myself.” This happened because I told him he had $23 in fines.
– The beautiful greek man that brought us baklava. One day he said, “if the last thing I saw before I died was her face then I would die a happy man.” I blushed and became as awkward and modest as I could. But that man left the library, drove home, and died in his driveway.
– An elderly lady that always said she needed a “hot toddy for her body.” She wore winter gloves usually until the end of march.
– All the women who asked me if I was pregnant during that weird post-breakup and post-quitting cigarettes period. They just looked so happy for me right until I told them no. “No, I’m not pregnant.”
– The kid that took me out of my grumpy day haze by saying, “my lady, I love you and I would like to take you on a plane to France.”
– The older man that gave me a bag of used teddy bears in case I could use them.