Voices from the field

We interviewed two public librarians from the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library in Corvallis, OR to get a look at life as a public librarian. These two women have over 35 years of public library experience between them and offered valuable insights on the current trends in public librarianship.

1. When did you start working as a public librarian and what has changed the most since then? What has stayed the same?

(Libr1): I started in January 2008. The biggest change has been the decline in ready reference questions. I used to answer a lot of more basic questions (such as finding the address to the unemployment website, the name of a capital, the attribution of a quote, etc.), but now questions are much more complex. Additionally, we get a lot more questions on how to use mobile devices and e-readers. What hasn’t really changed is that there is still a digital divide and libraries are definitely looked at as places for people who have little to no technology experience to go to seek access and assistance. More people are wanting assistance and advice regarding mobile devices and e-readers than ever before. Collection development is also changing and the demand for library budget money is being sucked away by high ticket items libraries didn’t have to pay for in the past. E-books are expensive, but in high demand.

(Libr2): I began working in public libraries in 1981. Technology has changed the most – revolutionarily! From typewriters and correcting fluid to smart phones. The reference interview has stayed the same. People need information, and they don’t know how to find it and need help formulating their initial question as well as formulating their search.

2. How has the advent of information innovations such as e-books and web 2.0 changed your relationship with the public that you serve?

(Libr1): See above. I’ll add that I also find that the public expects me to be knowledgeable about such things. We also use social media a lot more extensively than when I first started. Libraries have been early adopters of social media tools, so we’ve been using Facebook and Twitter as long as I’ve been in the profession, but I think the way we use it continues to evolve. For example, we have various Twitter searches set up so we can communicate with folks in our local area when they mention things that are potentially relevant to us (e.g. what they are reading, where to find free wi-fi). At conferences I am always impressed by the social media presentations/sessions – libraries are doing some pretty cool stuff (see Darien Library’s FB and Tumblr , Seattle Public Library’s FB, and Multnomah PL’s Twitter for some good examples).

(Libr2): We work one on one with folks to help them master all the technology available to them. And the levels of comfort with technology vary greatly. Some people still don’t know how to operate a mouse or how to acquire an email address. For example, they’ve heard they need to post an ad on Craigslist, but they have zero understanding of how it works, and how to proceed, and need to have someone sit with them through the entire process including establishing an email address, and that someone is the librarian.

3. What aspects of your job (if any) did you feel unprepared for when you first started?

(Libr1): Answering reference questions! The diversity of the questions and learning the best sources (online and in print) took time, practice, collaboration, and patience. I also needed practice putting those reference interview skills to work. I was also unprepared for the number of homeless, mentally ill, low SES [socio-economic status], former convicts, and just otherwise hard luck folks we see at public libraries. I have had to learn how to be direct, assertive, and (mostly) unafraid of confrontation. I have had to learn how to be calm and safe in the face of volatile situations. Anyone can come into our building and that means that anything can happen. It’s exciting and every once in a while a bit scary, but it has taught me more about communication than anything else ever has or could. In other words, I don’t think being a public librarian is for the faint of heart, but I hear from my colleagues that public universities and community colleges can have similarities.

(Libr2): I was unprepared for the sad situations people face. This has not changed since the early 1980s. There are people who lack education or food or safety or sanity, and they all find their way to the library. We are the Statue of Liberty for the huddled masses, and I wasn’t prepared for that. It is humbling and I love knowing that I’m doing my part for making the world a better place, and sowing seeds of kindness. And I also have to make the library welcoming for everybody, which means making sure the less fortunate users of the library don’t make it difficult for children or seniors or just ordinary folks to use their library too.

4. What are your typical daily duties?

(Libr1): Reference, readers’ advisory, collection development, programming/event coordinating, outreach, communication, website editing.

(Libr2): I spend half of my day in direct public service on a reference desk or on the phone or chat. I spend the other half buying materials for the Library’s collection. I buy in many subject areas, and many formats. I also have other duties as assigned such as giving tours or working on desk schedules.

5. Advice for an aspiring public librarian?

(Libr1): This advice is for anyone wanting to go into the public services side of things: Learn to be an effective communicator and, if you’re an introvert, you should work on being comfortable talking to a wide range of people. Know that a small (but important!) part of what you will do involves enforcing the library’s code of conduct so everyone can have a safe, pleasant library experience. Being tech-savvy is important, but it is okay to hone in on some of the skills you feel most important and/or you most enjoy. I felt at first that I needed to know everything about technology from programming to graphic design to be a good librarian, but what you actually need to be good at is collaborating with your team and professional network. You should also be flexible, customer service oriented, and enjoy variety in your work day. I waited tables for 8 years before starting graduate school and it was seriously some of the best possible prep for becoming a reference librarian.

(Libr2): Be prepared to embrace diversity, and welcome technological challenges and translate that technology to patrons. Be prepared for the panoply of questions that people have. One minute it’s about a book they heard about on NPR, and the next it’s a question about how much coffee Russia imports and the next it’s a question about resources for living with bipolar disorder. Many of our questions are about choosing what to read, or what to buy so being resourceful in finding answers that may not be so obvious is important.

6. What would you say are the most popular services that your library offers?

(Libr1): E-books! The public internet computers, youth programs (storytimes, summer reading, etc), and our semi-regular E-book Clinic are all big hits too.

(Libr2): Children’s books, all manner of DVDs, the internet, literacy activities, audiobooks, and bestsellers.

7. What technical skills are most important for a public librarian? Soft skills?

(Libr1): Tech: some HTML and CSS, MS Office, some graphic design (enough to make an attractive, professional flier/poster), experience using social media, knowledge of conducting effective general internet research (e.g. how to use Google effectively, what makes an authoritative online source, etc), knowledge of how the internet and computers work, and familiarity with a wide range of websites and internet services. Soft skills: Spanish language skills, strong communication skills, instruction skills, emotional resilience, kindness, friendliness, a strong desire to help people, a love of reading, a sense of humor, a natural curiosity.

(Libr2): Tech skills include how to operate scanners, microfilm readers, and whatever the latest OS is, how to troubleshoot downloadables. Soft skills include: a profound belief in the public library as a cornerstone of democracy where all viewpoints are accepted and honored, and all levels of intellectual and technological abilities are respected.