Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Farewell to being a public librarian


Years ago, after attempting other occupations I thought were compatible with a writing life, I decided to become a librarian. That way, I thought, I could be around books and help people find information. It would combine the best parts of my previous two jobs, of bookstore manager (being around books) and newspaper reporter (finding information), leaving out the parts I disliked, like near-poverty bookstore wages, and a reporter's irregular hours and intrusive sleuthing.

Two articles strewn across my dining room table this morning prompted me to write about this. The first, It's Still Cleary's World [paper edition title], a celebration of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, mentions that Cleary became a children's librarian at her mother's prompting because, even though she wanted to be a writer, her mother insisted, "You must have some other way of earning a living."

This is what I envisioned when I went to Chapel Hill to earn a library degree. The vision was grounded in the reality of having worked as a volunteer in the children's department at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library, when I lived next door to it in the early 1980s. After simply walking in and asking if there was anything I could do to help, I was soon reading to children at after-school story hour, and helping organize the Halloween Haunted House. This could be a fun way to earn a living, I supposed, as well as to serve a role in the community.

But working in a public library these days is much more like the second article on my table: Page Turner [print edition title], in which a D.C. Public Library children's librarian must try to use "verbal judo" de-escalation techniques to deal with the belligerent. The article reports that patrons threatening the librarians is not an abnormality, with some of those threats turning violent. Another, related article in that issue describes the main branch of the DCPL as a "de facto drop-in homeless shelter."

When I sought work as a public librarian, I thought I was signing up to read to children, help students with projects, dig up information for inquiring minds. But on my first day at my county's busiest branch, the one closest to a Metro station, I was yelled at by three homeless people in four hours (as a substitute, I hadn't been trained in any de-escalation techniques, so I just stood there while they berated me). In addition, there and at other branches, I endured the glares of impatient adults when I handled long lines at the reference desk by myself while also answering all incoming library calls.

Once upon a time, being a librarian was one of the lovely jobs. There were two or three people on a reference desk, so that if you didn't have the answer, you could confer with your co-workers and so that there would be someone on the desk, to greet people and to answer the phone, if you had to go back to the stacks to find a book or walk into the computer room to reboot someone's computer. There was time on the desk to browse Library Journal and other magazines that helped you recommend new books or find useful web sites. You grew to know the regulars and were greeted in kind. After a not-very stressful shift, you could go home with enough energy to write and do other creative tasks.

Maybe it's still like this somewhere, in other parts of the country. But, though I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., it only occasionally comes close to this, and then only in the smaller branches, during the less busy time slots. When budget cuts were imposed in the last decade, the public library was hit hard. Staff hours were slashed, new books remained unordered. In came additional, cheaper substitute librarians, who move from library to library without gaining much institutional knowledge.

Nevertheless, I probably would have continued working in the public library system, despite these misgivings, if the decision hadn't been made for me. My position was terminated recently due to my taking extended medical leave; thus, my ambition to apply for a part-time position, when I was strong and healthy, was dashed. Appropriately, the news was delivered in a form letter requesting I turn in my badge, no questions asked about my health or well-being.

So, what do I do now, and where do I seek work? I'm not eager to go back to editing, sitting at home by myself for hours in front of the computer, working on other people's words (to then at the computer to write my own stuff is physically stagnating). I need to be out, among people, to walk, talk, be recognized. Are there any lovely (not stressful, fulfilling, happy) jobs left?



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