In the wake of the NPR story about reference questions before the internet, I’ve had a lot of people asking more specifically what I do as a librarian and if I still get these kinds of questions. And this was right around Christmas where many of the gifts I gave where things I made (or are in the process of making… my family has a long history of giving half completed presents) with skills/resources from my job, so I was bombarded with a host of “when did you learn all this stuff?” queries. To which I replied “umm… it’s pretty much what I do at work.”
This led me to remember how little people know about what librarians actually do.
So… let’s start the new year getting to know each other better, shall we?
I spend usually 2 hours a day on the adult reference desk, or on weekends sometimes I’m in the computer commons instead. In the computer commons I help people make charts in Word, navigate websites and compose emails. I’ll be honest that working the adult reference desk is not my favorite thing. I don’t really like adults. For one thing, when they come up and bark “computer” or “Sun Times” at me without making eye contact, I can’t respond with a snarky, “I’m sorry, was that a question? Are you identifying this piece of equipment? I just don’t speak mumble, can you speak up a bit?” like I would with my teens. Adults get really pissed when you point out they’re being rude. Apparently. The other thing is that since I work that desk so infrequently there are so many questions that I still don’t know the answer to and that bothers me. Because I’m a know it all.
That said. On the adult reference desk I do a lot of things. More than anything else I find books for patrons. Sometimes they know the title or author. Sometimes they just want “books on grant writing” or “books on nutrition.” I refer a lot of people to our urban fiction section. I tell a lot of people that all the copies of 50 Shades of Gray are checked out and the waiting list is 357 names long. I put books on hold, and do shelf checks for other branches and send books out to other branches. I direct people to websites and track down online resources for them to use.
And I answer the phone. Sometimes I look up phone numbers or addresses of businesses for people without internet or smartphones. I talk to people about upcoming programs. There is one lady who regularly calls with the most random questions. One day I spent 45 minutes on the phone with her explaining the difference between Intelligent Design and Evolutionary Theism. Seriously. I was just happy that was a subject on which I could speak with authority because it’s so much harder when I have to self educate while also explaining. One day I had someone ask me to look up the distance between Toronto and Vancouver and then Vancouver and Prince Edward Island and a bunch of other Canadian locations. Once a patron asked me to track down a Canadian Christian radio program to see if there was any way to listen to it in Chicago.
I also have helped women download papers in order to file for divorce, directed them where to get a restraining order and told them how to apply for food stamps. I’m asked where the computers and the bathrooms are about 150 times a day.
But then, sometimes I am pulled over to a table to help someone create a Youtube account and upload their first video, so I guess it all balances out.
Then I usually get some off desk time in varying amounts. Not usually more than an hour or two, but on Mondays I get a few more. This is when I do paperwork and planning and reading. No I don’t get to just sit around reading novels all day, (though when I’m leading discussions or book clubs I will sometimes sneak an hour or two of reading in) I read reviews of books and keep track of upcoming releases and generally what’s going on in the library world. I’m a big supporter of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and I have a couple blogs I read regularly that tackle issues and have ideas for programming. There are always lots of emails and I’m on a few committees so there are meetings and planning of events. This is also the time when I teach myself Adobe Creative Suite, how to use the fancy DSLR camera that just arrived in my office, and how to work the 3D printer and make stickers with the vinyl cutter. I plan my workshops during this time and have a sample for most things we make. And eat lunch somewhere in there. Usually.
My Teen Space is part of the YOUmedia Chicago network which is is the raddest thing ever:
YOUmedia operates as a drop-in, out-of-school learning environment for teens to develop skills in digital media, STEM and making. YOUmedia applies the practice of connected learning to our programming model. We encourage participants to create rather than consume, and teens are encouraged to learn based on self-interest through intergenerational and peer collaborations. We see the library as a node on a teen’s pathway to lifelong learning, and we connect teens to other learning opportunities that will lead to skill-building as well as college and career development.
During YOUmedia hours I check out laptops and controllers for the Playstation 4 (I know you’re jealous) to the teens and register new teens for the program. Often the teens want to talk about what’s going on at home or school and I try to be a sympathetic shoulder and a source of useful advice. I remind them that getting into college is good and getting in trouble for fighting is bad. But if they do get in trouble, they can always come to me. I’m a safe space in all senses of the word.
I run workshops almost every day on lots of different things. I teach Garage Band to teens who want to be able to produce/create their own music. I help teens make stickers or stuff with the 3D printer. I help with homework whenever I’m able, and point them toward online help sites when I can’t (see also: geometry is dumb). I do workshops in computer coding and duct tape crafts. We have free art time for teens to just bring their creativity. And I have so much I want to do: open mic night, book clubs, FAFSA workshops, writing groups. There is never enough time and never enough duct tape.
While actively teaching and managing logistics I’m also the one doing the wrangling. Mediating arguments, keeping the noise level reasonable (I’m not a shushing librarian, but screaming across the room is a little much), making sure our fancy tech doesn’t get stolen. I’m the one who knows that [redacted’s] short fuse is about something at home and not about the kid who just looked at him ‘wrong.’ I’m the one who listens and doesn’t judge, who always gives them the benefit of the doubt and talks to them like they’re human.
You’d be amazed at how rarely teens encounter this.
I talk to teens about books: what they’re reading, what they’re forced to read, what they like to read for fun. I have no problem telling them that I hated Great Expectations or thought The Life of Pi was a piece of pretentious, masturbatory garbage. Most often I’m asked to help them find “a book that isn’t boring,” for them to take to school. We talk about what they changed in the latest Hunger Games movie (aka critical analysis) and why banning books is dumb.
Amidst all of this, I try to teach small lessons. Like when two boys come to sign in and one turns to the other and says “Ladies first” and the other kids giggle, I ask – with my serious face on – why that is funny? Not in a mean or defensive way, just pretend to be confused and get them to explain it to me, because that process makes them realize that the foundation of the quip is the belief that being a girl is bad, and since we all know that being a girl is awesome, that doesn’t really make sense, huh?
We call these “teachable moments” and they’re perhaps the most important part of what I do.
And then I go home and I read YA books and I take online classes to teach myself photography skills so I can do workshops with the teens on that. I meet with other teen librarians and we talk about books, what we liked and didn’t like, and I’m reminded that even among us there can be widely different views.
And I think the best part of my job is that when friends or acquaintances contact me on facebook and ask for recommendations for themselves, for their parents, for their nieces and nephews and kids, I am happy to oblige!
And then some days, not many, but once in a while, I get to spend the day at a comic conference or a book awards discussion or play the new video games that just arrived. (You know, so I can talk about them with the teens that come to play.)
The days of the shushing, pre-internet librarian are done, but we are what we’ve always been – there to help you. And as a Teen librarian, I am here to help teens start to become the people they want to be.
And the rest of the time? I’m like this.