The Role of a Contemporary Public Librarian Might Not Be As Simple As You Think

super librarianFor the past year I’ve been surrounded by library school students. Not only were these people who adored libraries, but they were people who were planning to dedicate their lives to making sure libraries continue to thrive, evolve, and meet the needs of their communities. Together we learned the charming philosophy and sociology of libraries, completed scenario based assignments to prepare us for our careers, and studied statistical evidence that showed public libraries are busier than ever.

I came to believe that libraries are more important than they ever have been. The way we revered libraries came close to worship. It was hard to imagine that there were people out there who didn’t whole-heartedly support libraries. What’s not to love, we thought.

Now, as a graduate of the program and a full-fledged public librarian in Cambridge and Kitchener, I get to put my education and my passion to practice. And I have never been happier with my decision to pursue this career. Not only does this job give me the perfect balance between challenging decision-making and ridiculous creativity, but I also get to see immediate results. I get to see kids absolutely engrossed in books I recommended. I help a young adult learn the basics of theology. I watch the computers in use almost 100% of the time, and I know that people need the library. Patrons are so often sharing their “why they love the library” stories with me, and I feel like I’m living a dream. The role of the public librarian is immensely rewarding.

But I’ve come to realize that there are people out there who don’t fully grasp the importance of the library, or the role of a librarian. Someone, who knew I recently got my Master of Library and Information Science,  asked me if I spend my days “shelving books.” It’s easy to explain that no, most libraries hire high school students to shelve, but it’s harder to change the perspective that libraries are dull, static places, where people are shushed and books accumulate dust. My libraries are loud. They are dynamic. My role is dynamic; my role excites me, and my role is important.

When I made a Facebook status listing off a few of my tasks at my new job, I surprised a lot of people. And to be honest, sometimes it surprises me how many amazing things I get to do at work. I think in order for the public library to be fully appreciated, the role of the public librarian must be fully understood. So in hopes of working towards a shift in perspective, I’ve compiled a list of my tasks.

Keep in mind that I have two librarian jobs right now. Some of the tasks overlap, while others do not. The role of a public librarian changes depending on the needs of the community, the size of the library, and the department. Technically I work in the Information/Reference Services department at both libraries. And this is what I do:

  • Provide reference. While sitting at the reference desk, I usually get at least one good reference question per hour. And by “reference question” I don’t mean “Where are the woodworking books” I mean “I’m trying to learn how to make a coffee table that can be converted into a bookshelf by pulling a handle. Can you help?” My job is to know a little bit about everything, and to know a lot about searching for information.
  • Provide reader’s advisory. I also usually get at least one good reader’s advisory question per hour. I love this part. Someone comes to the desk, usually a little hesitant, and says they’re looking for a good book. We have a short (and usually fun) conversation about what they like to read and why. Sometimes I have a few suggestions right away, and sometimes I turn to my beloved database NoveList. Either way, I don’t stop until the patron is excited by the small pile of books in their hands. It’s my job to know what books are out there, and what makes different books appealing to different people.
  • Plan and deliver programs. When I’m not answering questions, I’m working on projects. Often times those projects are programs. Right now I’m working on an MP3 Flash Mob Adventure, Make Your Own Wreck This Journal, Recycle Mania craft hour, and button making. I dream up a unique event, I pitch it, I create a schedule, I prepare promotional materials, I devise a way of assessing the program, I run the program (the best part), and I write up a report afterwards. My job is to predict the interests of the community, and to offer them fun events to get excited about.
  • Write book reviews and create booklists. I do a lot of passive reader’s advisory projects. I put together booklists, like Graphic Novels or Diverse Canadian Literature. I regularly write book reviews that are posted on the library website. I create promotional images for books for our social media sites. My job is to create resources that make discovering new material fun and easy.
  • Weed the collection. I assess the collection and remove materials. This is a surprising concept to a lot of people, but it’s a vital task to the continued operation of any library. Every month the library purchases new materials of every kind. We’re always on the ball with the newest DVDs and books. These materials are in demand. Within a couple days, some have 50+ holds. But these materials take up space on the shelf. To keep the library relevant and feasible, we have to remove approximately the same number of items that we acquire (which can sometimes be over a thousand per month.) I remove items based on low circulation, damage, and outdated or inaccurate information. My job is to make sure we offer the best combination of resources possible.
  • Acquire new materials. I recently purchased hundreds of new items for the Children’s Graphic Novel collection – one of the most exciting projects I’ve done yet. Now when people come in looking for graphic novels I am able to provide them with an in-depth tour of the newest materials, carefully and lovingly selected. My job is to know our collections and the interests of the community.
  • Create displays. Displays can be awesome. They can also be dull and ignored. My job is to make them awesome. I did a Movember display a couple months ago, I’m about to launch a Blind Date With a Book display, and I’m working on a giant flow chart personality test that will lead readers towards envelopes with appropriate booklists.
  • Supervise. Occasionally I am the PIC (person in charge) during a shift. This means that if and when something goes wrong, I am responsible to fix it. This can range from something simple (someone called in sick) to something bad (the internet is down, the power went out, and apparently people are climbing on our roof?) I’ve worked in this role before, but I’m definitely developing my leadership skills further in these positions. The job of a librarian is to know where to find the the emergency flashlight, and to know how to use a spill kit.

The role of a librarian does not include shelving books. My several years as a library page certainly did, and shelvers are vital to the success of a library, but there’s so much else that needs to be done as well. As one of my other friends said: “Wow, sounds like they pay you to be yourself and do what you’d chose to spend your time working on anyway.” It’s true. I feel very much myself as a librarian. I’m excited to see how the role will continue to evolve as time goes on.

What do you love about your job? What librarian misconceptions have you come across?

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