You know you’re a hopeless library nerd when you willingly spend a Friday evening talking to library school students about what it’s like to work in a public library. It’s a good kind of hopeless, though, the kind that reaffirms what you’re doing and why.
Because it was a library instruction class, I spent a goodish chunk of time talking about instruction in a public library — much of which is impromptu, on-the-fly, and tailored to individual needs, requiring great flexibility and versatility on the staff’s part. I expressed this, of course, as “making it up as you go along,” because that’s what you do. Being able to do this, though, requires excellent public speaking skills and a broad knowledge base. Training as an improv comic, if you can get it, certainly doesn’t hurt either.
But I talked about a lot of other things, too, under the broad heading of “a day in the life of a public librarian.” I took the radical step of nixing PowerPoint, handouts, and canned remarks. Instead, I spent most of this week quietly seeking inner guidance about what the right things to say might be, and spoke off the cuff, trusting that the words I would need would show up when I needed them.
[If that sounded scary to you, keep in mind that I've been performing in public since I was five years old. With experience, you get more comfortable winging stuff.]
The most important thing I’ve learned about any kind of speaking, formal or otherwise, is that to have maximum impact, it should be done with love. It can be tough love, but the love’s got to be there. Otherwise you’re just a noisy gong, a tinkling cymbal. That is, I’ve heard. I’ve had plenty of opportunities this week to think about loving and non-loving speech, to practice one and to apologize for the other. All of this, I think, contributed to the presentation going well tonight.
Because I’m not a complete maverick, I did scribble down a short list of things I wanted to make sure I said, under the umbrella of “Positive aspects of public library work.” I wanted to make sure that they knew it was worth it: the jobhunting, and the subpar salaries, and the budget crises, and the “paying your dues” phase. Here’s what I came up with:
You learn something new every day. I’m sure that’s true in other kinds of libraries as well. However, the serendipity quotient goes up in a public libraries because you never know what the lesson will be, or what guise it will come in. Sometimes it’s a book title or random fact; sometimes it’s a lesson in patience or kindness.
The dress code is made of awesome. I can, and do, look “nice” most of the time. However, I’m deeply grateful that “nice” for me can run the gamut from business casual to capris/t-shirt/cardigan to Victorian goth. It’s also nice to have that flexibility when, say, water starts pouring down from the ceiling, and you have to help move a whole lot of reference books very fast.
Performance feedback is frequent and somewhat more relaxed. I don’t live in dread of my performance appraisal because I get continuous feedback and when I feel I want more, I’m comfortable asking for it. Also, given that so much of my work is visible, I usually get immediate results. If something is working or not working, you’ve got empirical evidence to keep going or, conversely, stop. See also, no tenure file. If I pursue certain kinds of projects and opportunities, it’s because I think they’re interesting, not because they will make or break my chances of success.
Every day you get a chance to prove that not everything’s on the internet. The digital divide is real. The need for, and love of, print materials are real. The shortcomings of e-books and databases are real, especially when it comes to pre-1990s journal articles (to say nothing of the architecture journals from 1919 sitting in phase boxes down on first stack). Preservation and conservation concerns are real. Microfilm still has a viable role to play. Every day in public libraries, we write that book. Would that the conventional wisdom-mongers were listening.
There are more opportunities to be flexible and implement new ideas. This is more of a theory based on heresay, but when I listen to some of the complaints my academic peers have, I thank my lucky stars I work somewhere where nobody’s ever going to disrespect me because I don’t have a longer string of letters after my name. There are fewer boundaries between kinds of workers, and people are less attached to titles and more attached to what you can actually produce. That makes for a lot less emphasis on things like “personal branding” and a lot more emphasis on authentic personality (which is good, because brands are for cattle, et c’est tout.).
And last, but certainly not least:
When you screw up on the job in a public library, gallons of oil don’t go gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. This is, of course, my flippant way of pointing out that public library work contributes, on the whole, positive things to the world. We don’t crank out useless products or generate pollution; instead, we are repositories of learning, wisdom, values, hope and, sometimes, good old-fashioned fun. That is, quite frankly, the best thing ever, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the little gold statuettes in the world, Oscar fantasies notwithstanding.
So, yeah, I’m a public library nerd, card-carrying, cardigan-wearing, shall-not-be-shushed, world without end, amen. But it’s me and my kind who will carry the day, in the long run. For three things last always: library faith, library hope, and library love. And that last one’s the greatest.
Or so I’ve heard. Do you feel the public library love? Have I gone past denial now, straight on to delusion? Or am I just coming down from “speaker’s high”?
Reading Today: The Thyroid Solution, Ridha Arem, M.D. One in ten women have thyroid disorders and don’t realize it; could you be one of them? A comprehensive primer overview of the mental and physical aspects of thyroid disease and its various treatment options.