November 7, 2017

Books and the relationships they help us build

When I was having a particularly bad day a few years ago, a friend of mine told me that some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you. On the days when the bear gets you, it’s easy to forget why we do the work we do and what calling we were responding to when we chose librarianship as a career.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of the bears in my life, why I chose to become a public librarian, and why I continue to advocate for the role of public libraries in the lives of our communities. I was exploring the question of a calling with 10 public library colleagues in the Pacific Northwest. The librarians are part of a readers’ advisory class I am piloting. Together, we’re working on improving all our skills when asked book-related questions like, “What’s a good book to read?”

As an ice-breaker, I asked everyone to think of an interaction with a reader that affirmed for them that they were doing the work they were called to do. Several key themes emerged from those stories. They resonated with me and I’m sure they will resonate with you.

1. Books are a way we connect with each other.

One librarian talked about working in a law firm’s library where she had become the go to person for many of the partners. A new partner joined the firm and when she went to meet with him -- he basically told her that all he needed from her was his passwords. He could do his own research. Over the next several months, she tried several times to support this new partner and each time go a “thanks but no thanks” message. Then one day, this partner ran into her in the break room where she was reading World War Z. The partner walked over and told her he “LOVED” that book. The next day, questions and requests started coming her way.

Another student talked about giving school groups tours of her public library and the wide eyes and smiles that greeted her every time she pointed out the books in the library. For many of the kids, it was the first time they understand that the books in the library belonged to them, too.

2. It’s not just the books but the relationships they build and the impact they have.

One information services librarian talked about a particularly challenging interaction with a Goth girl who had to write a paper. After several attempts at the reference interview, he finally asked her what she was interested in -- punk rock. She was shocked to find that he was interested in it too. The librarian got a history of punk rock he had just read on inter-library loan for the student. A few weeks went by and our music loving librarian was greeted by a woman who wanted to know if he was the man who had given her daughter this book -- as she held up the punk rock history with the racy cover. When he, somewhat worriedly, admitted that he was, the mother said she would never be able to thank him enough. It was the first time her daughter had cared about a school assignment.

Another librarian was also approached by a reader and asked her if she was “Linda.” She was. The woman just wanted to meet the person who had been sending her all those wonderful reading suggestions via email. The library patron wanted to put a face to all of that expertise and this reader-librarian relationship moved from a digital only relationship to a face-to-face one.

3. Libraries aren’t just about place but about what we do.

Our ability to help someone achieve their goals and meet their needs can happen anywhere. One workshop participant talked about helping a person on the subway/light-rail platform find the location of his first rehab session. For me, it was helping a mom who wanted to be a better parent to her gay son connect to a non-judgmental telephone counseling service outside the library’s walls.

4. It is about sharing our enthusiasm.

Librarians are a unique bunch because our enthusiasm is not only for our own interests but for those of others. One class member had a great example of this. She was riding down the street on a bike in her new bright orange jacket. Like many of us wearing new clothes, she was feeling good about herself on her way to work and, from that sense of confidence in herself, she took the time to compliment the great car next to her at the stoplight. This short compliment was the starting point of a quick conversation about cars, jackets, interests, and excitement.

Some days, it seems that everyone thinks the library’s days are numbered. Yet when I go to my local branch library the parking lot is always full and the building is abuzz with activity. If we only listen to the media, we might miss the true nature of our calling and the reason we became librarians to begin with.

At NoveList, we know the value of stories. We also know our profession does not spend much time telling our own. If you have a story to share about an interaction that affirms why you are a librarian or work in a library -- send it our way.

Duncan is co-founder and general manager of NoveList. He helps transform the lives of readers by leading a team that creates the tools library staff use to provide their most important service -- connecting readers with the books that will make a difference in their lives.

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