Great news to report! Back in January I began volunteering at my hometown library while I looked for work, for four hours a week helping in the reference department’ computer lab. In one wing of our library is an area with two dozen computers, and my job was to sign people into and out of the lab, and assist them as needed. At the end of March, one of the library’s staff members was offered an opportunity in another city, and the director of my own library invited me to take her place. I thus donned the blue and khaki of the library in which I grew up, my new boss a woman who — ages ago — took me by the hand and led me and a group of other children on a town of Selma’s historic downtown. Since then I’ve been working steadily and happily as a reference assistant, although the last two weeks were especially hectic as I have been covering other people’s hours while they were on vacation, hence my diminished activity online. The work is fulfilling, however, and the experience so far leads me to believe I would be quite happy as a librarian.
My main duty is to monitor the computer lab, which is used steadily throughout the day for people. Most patrons are merely stepping in to check their email or browse the internet, but these days people reply on the library as a place to help them with their job searches. They not only use the computers to fill out applications, but employ library resources — books and staff — to help them write resumes. (That is what I assume I am doing in the picture above.) Another mainstay is that of word processing, most of which seems to be done for school projects. Patrons keep us constantly busy, as we must help them navigate the software and work through websites to find the information they need. Given my other duties (faxing, assisting patrons in running the copier) as part of the reference staff, most of what we do can be summarized as helping people use technology. The number of adults who still regard the computer and internet with confusion and anxiety still surprises me, though there are many who take the right attitude. A gentlemen I have been assisting the last couple of weeks had never used computers before, but he decided to enroll in an online university. Since then he’s been coming in and getting practice; the two of us work together side by side, and he is gaining confidence in his ability to use the machine to his own advantage.
After almost a month of regular work, I’m already starting to recognize most of the usual patrons and my brain is busy creating little storage files on them, remembering their favorite computers and the the kind of interaction I’m liable to have with them. I know that this fellow always comes in early and always requests headphones; and that another woman comes in several times a week to work on her school assignments. Of course, there are the problem patrons. There are certain computers the reference staff likes to use for handling certain patrons: troublemakers get computers that allow us to monitor what they’re doing, and those who often need help will be seated near us so we can work with them and at the same time watch the desk and printer. One of my duties is to occasionally patrol the lab straightening desks; this is to make sure no one is doing anything inappropriate and to see if anyone needs help. Most of those who need help are aggressive about asking for it, some more politely than others. I’ve never been snapped or whistled at, thankfully.
Although I’ve worked in a similar position before, as a secretarial assistant in which I spent a great deal of time answering questions from students and fetching information they needed, that job was much more predictable. The information students asked me for tended to be the same: class times, class cancellations, and course requirements. In the library, there’s really no boundary to the kind of information we might be asked to procure. Since we recently passed the deadline for tax filing in the United States, we’ve been getting a lot of patrons looking for the appropriate forms, and so help me if I haven’t become conversant in the language of taxes. “Capital gains? Oh, she needs Schedule D!”. In addition to tax forms, we also have huge binders full of commonly-used legal forms used by people and businesses, and people often don’t know the exact form they need so I have to ask probing questions and then figure out what would be best for them.
Although as a volunteer most of my time was spent “babysitting the computers”, since becoming a staff member I’ve had many more opportunities to work with what I wanted to work with in the first place — people looking for books. Because I’m such an avid nonfiction reader, anyone looking for nonfiction books is directed to me, and — unless they’re reading something on flower arrangement or deer hunting, or one of the other few areas outside of my wide interests — I can generally help them find the book they need. Last week, for instance, a teenage girl came in wanting a book on tidal waves. We don’t have any books on tidal waves themselves, but I’d read The Oceans recently and knew it had a substantial section on the matter. Typically I spend all of the morning and some of the afternoon behind the desks: in the late afternoon, student assistants and volunteers are available for the desk-babysitting, and I have time to tend to my official duties: maintaining the special displays, reshelving, and the never-finished task of Sorting Shelves. In our reference department there are three areas in which we display a dozen or so books (in each area) linked by a theme. Part of my job is to update these displays every two weeks. This is somewhat demanding, as I have to come up with an idea that (1) we have enough books to create a full display on and (2) that the patrons will find attractive. I don’t think I have a particularly firm grasp on what ordinary people find interesting in a book, so that that latter demand is especially onerous. At the moment I am displaying books on spring cleaning and home maintenance, the American Civil War (there is a reenactment scheduled this month), and Women. I chose Women because March was Women’s History month, and so I have books on women’s issues, biographies of famous women, and notable books by female authors out. Finding books that meets my standards for promotion and that patrons would find interesting is a balancing act. Although I snobbily think girls should be reading about Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and other women who have become leaders, I know patrons are apt to find books on Oprah more interesting. So, I mix them up: I use biographies like Whoopie Goldberg’s to lure patrons to the shelves, but right next to the eye-catching bios are more “meatier” books. So far the women’s theme has been a big success, but this is because one of the area schools assigned a project for their class in which every student must do an essay on a black woman. The timing of that has made me look positively brilliant: the books on Michelle Obama, Billie Holiday, Barbara Jordan, and so on flew off the shelves. I’ve taken advantage of it by finding all of our biographies of famous black women, and whenever one is checked out I put another one on display.
The job is not without its down periods. When I have nothing else to do, my standard “keep busy” assignment is to Straighten Shelves, in which I labor to see that the stacks are neat — that every row of books is even. This, like sweeping, must be done…but is never finished. Patrons are constantly browsing, pushing books into the back of the shelf where they threaten to fall in between the stacks and vanish into some nether region. Less often patrons leave me gifts, pulling books out and then leaving them anywhere. Sometimes they even take the books to another section of the stacks and leave them there. Or, they might decide to just stick the books into the stacks somewhere, which is how I find books on horse grooming in the religious section. Religion is probably the busiest area: whenever I have time to do some shelf-sorting I start there. Of course, when I find a patron I offer my assistance in helping them find a book. Shelf-sorting has the virtue of being inexhaustible, but I see a great deal of books I’d like to sit down and read. Of course, I can’t do that when I’m supposed to be tidying shelves…
On certain days I help close the library. We are open until six pm most days, and I’m still surprised by the fact that people will come up minutes before closing, even though there’s not enough time for them to do anything before we must ask them to leave. The closing routine is as you might expect: straightening up the staff area, cleaning the desks and surfaces, replenishing supplies, that sort of thing.
So, after a few weeks on the job I’m increasingly comfortable at it and quite happy.