Keep Reading: A Bibliophile’s Guide to Becoming a Librarian
Even though I’ve worked at a public library since 2011, I’ve always considered myself a writer first and a librarian second. Still, a library is probably the best day job that a writer could have, so I’m quite fortunate. But my route to la biblioteca has been a tad unorthodox.
I was lucky to be raised in a house filled with books. Both of my parents like to read, but my Dad is especially voracious. He read me fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and co-signed for my first library card. We went to our local library at least once a week, but had an impressive (and growing) collection at home. The first three books I remember trying to read myself was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Space & Planets (part of Time-Life’s Understanding Science & Nature series), and an Animals of the World book (whose real title, alas, escapes me). I remain interested in those topics to this day.
My dad was my primary homeschool teacher, so reading and writing were highly emphasized. I disliked the latter, but loved the former. It never felt like a chore… unless I was told to read something I didn’t want to. (Personally, I think required reading in school is probably the biggest turn-off to potential readers.) Our local library was my second home and I started my own collections, comprised primarily of horse books and Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Little Sister series. I don’t recall ever asking a librarian for help; grown-ups outside my own family were intimidating and I avoided them as much as possible. I would rather wander through the stacks looking than ask for help. Personal computers were only just starting to take hold and the internet was in its infancy, so the only computers I saw were the electronic card catalogs (which made searching so much easier.)
I also never volunteered at a public library, aside from helping set up at a book sale or two. In middle school, my best friend and I helped our school librarian, Ms. Laura, simple stuff like shelving and organizing the card catalog. Unlike the public library, the school still used physical cards, date due slips, and stamps.
Becoming a librarian was never my main career choice growing up. My ideal profession underwent several changes, from becoming a dragon to an astronaut to a cowgirl to a Country singer. Somewhere between 6th and 7th grade, I finally figured out that I wanted to be a writer of fantasy novels. But writing is a long game. I knew it would take years before I finished any of my stories and published them… if I was published at all. In the meantime, I needed something to put food on the table and help me become financially independent. I entered college as a Communications major, hoping to break into writing magazine articles, but the emphasis was on reporting and asking people personal questions was never my forte. I switched to the more generic English degree in an effort to widen my job options and save my sanity.
Opportunity knocked rather unexpectedly in 2006 as my second year of college drew to a close. My mom saw an ad in the newspaper about a job opening at the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) Learning Resource Center (LRC), otherwise known as “the Fire Academy Library.” (FEMA sure loves their acronyms.) Fire fighters and emergency medical service (EMS) students come from all over the country to take classes and write papers at the NETC. The position at the LRC was for a page or “aide,” an entry-level position that requires shelving more than anything else. College degrees were preferred, but not required. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by applying.
I didn’t get the position. At first. However, I was told that I had impressed them and if another position opened, I would be the next person they called. I smiled, shrugged, and moved on. At least I’d tried and got a little interview experience, so it wasn’t a total loss. But within a few weeks, or perhaps a month or two, I got a call: the position was open again and would I consider accepting? And so, I got my first job.
Working at the LRC was interesting. Since it was technically a government facility, I had to have a background check, finger printing, and a badge to get me past the guardhouse. The LRC itself is a gorgeous old building with two floors and balconies overlooking the main central room. It was, in many ways, a very traditional library. Everyone was very quiet and they still used physical cards to check items out to the students. There were some computers, but those were primarily for searching catalogs or for the staff. Ironically, I don’t think I read a single book while I worked there; everything was related to fire, EMS, and disasters. But perhaps that was for the best. I might have spent my time reading instead of shelving.
And boy, was there a lot of shelving! It seemed like very few people came into the library, yet there was always a lot of stuff to put away. In addition to shelving, I photocopied articles from various publications, which were then mailed to students across the country, per their request to the staff. I also learned how to accession and process items. Accessioning is essentially recording filing information about the item to add it to the system. (We had a big book where we wrote down the information and gave the new item a unique number.) Processing involves putting the labels, label covers, and clear protective covers on the books. I also typed up abstracts, which I soon learned were very dry and formal summaries of the topic of the special papers the students were expected to write as part of their training. We also bound copies of these papers and shelved them in one of the upstairs rooms. Those were my primary duties, along with running errands for the librarians and occasionally doing inventory on supplies.
Even though I worked in a library, I was not a librarian. Pages and aides are the paid grunts of the library world; our work is invaluable, but we’re not on par with official librarians in either prestige or pay-scale. To be a “real” librarian, you need a Masters of Library Science, or MLS. I quickly learned that certified librarians can be very jealous of their positions and strict about who does what according to their certification level. Whenever someone asked me what my job was, I was always careful to say that I was a page or library aide, not a librarian.
I worked at the LRC for three years. Then the economy really tanked and the cutbacks began. I was the last person hired, the lowest on the totem pole, so I was the first to go. The news was devastating. By now, I knew that without a degree, my chances of continuing to work at a library, any library, were slim despite having three years of experience. The thought of being forced to work in retail or fast food terrified me. Luckily, a friend of mine came to the rescue and offered me a position in her mother’s cleaning business. I took it, as it required no degree and, in my case, no interview. And the pay was decent. The bigger the job, the more you were paid. If you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. There were no such things as vacation days and any illness could be a major blow to one’s income.
I worked as a cleaning lady for three more years as I finished up my Bachelor of Arts in English. I thought about going to a two-year program to earn my MLS, but college had left me financially and emotionally crippled. I couldn’t contemplate returning to academia, so I kept cleaning. But I didn’t want to stay a cleaning lady for the rest of my life. Dissatisfied, I started combing the “Help Wanted” ads for possible library jobs.
I reapplied at the LRC when a spot reopened there, but my application was declined. It didn’t bother me too much; I didn’t really want to deal with the gossip and petty politics. Then, a similar position opened up at the main branch of the Frederick County Library System, the C. Burr Artz Public Library (affectionately known as “Artz.”) I applied and went for the interview, but found that my competition comprised at least a dozen other librarians, each with far more degrees and experience than I did. The interview process was also rather harrowing and extremely formal, and I’m sure my nervousness was apparent. Needless to say, I did not get the position.
Then a curious thing happened. I went to the Adams County Library System to check out some books. While I was there, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign. The position of “branch assistant” was open at one of their branches, and the deadline to apply was in two days. The ad hadn’t been posted in the paper or online. If I hadn’t gone to the library that day, I might have missed it entirely. I ran home, updated my resume, and sent it in as fast as I could. Soon after, I had an interview, a much more informal and relaxed one. My English degree didn’t really hurt my application, but it didn’t help it the way an MLS would. But, for some reason, they decided to hire me. (I guess it was my sparkling personality…?)
A branch assistant is in an odd kind of position. We have enough autonomy to operate on our own, but are under the supervision of the branch manager, who calls the shots for programming and other overall branch operations. In large libraries, tasks are often highly segregated, each department jealously guarding its turf. Not so in a branch. Since there are usually only two or three employees, everyone does a little bit of everything. Managers and assistants share the duties of checking items in and out, pulling hold requests, pulling and transferring rotations, helping patrons with their questions in person or on the phone, handling interlibrary loans (ILLs), organizing special programs, supervising or covering those programs, doing story time, making announcement posters, supervising volunteers, and keeping up with our social media. Yeah. We do all of that. Sometimes we also shelve items or shelf read (which is basically making sure the shelves are in order), but we try to have volunteers cover those tasks instead so we can focus on the patrons.
Working at a public library is very different from an academic one. The LRC and most college libraries I’ve been in are quiet, specialized, and have low foot traffic. My branch is noisy, generalized, and has high traffic. I enjoy working at a small branch rather than a library headquarters because there’s more variety in my duties, fewer admins, and a bit of distance from the politics and infighting that seems to accompany any job. Also, libraries are currently evolving from repositories of information to community and technological centers. While we still have quiet rooms and ask people to be courteous to others, the stereotypical silent library is becoming a thing of the past. While this change is inevitable, I’m not sure if I care for it.
I originally got into libraries because I’m an introvert. Being around people and socializing drains me, and working at a public library requires far more socializing than I’d originally bargained for! On one hand, that’s good because I’m exposed to all kinds of people, most of whom are quite pleasant, and I had to learn social skills fast. I’ve learned how to talk on the phone, how to keep smiling and be pleasant to patrons, no matter how tired or irritable I may be, how to read stories to preschoolers and prepare a craft each week, and how to make eye-catching posters. (If I’d realized how many posters I’d be making, I’d have majored in graphic design! Or at least learned how to use Photoshop…)
Helping someone find what they are looking for, especially if the patron is a child, is very rewarding. On the other hand, you can also see some strange, ignorant, or inconsiderate things, which can be frustrating and discouraging. It’s definitely a high-octane job. No lounging around reading for hours. At least, not at a branch. If you ever come in and see me reading a book, chances are that’s the first quiet moment I’ve had to rest my eyes and look at paper rather than a computer screen.
The moral of the story is: be kind to your librarians. Serving the public isn’t easy.
So, what can you take away from all of this? How can you become a librarian? Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m still not technically a librarian. I will never officially have the title until I get an MLS. Which, frankly, I don’t see happening for a variety reasons. But if you want to rise through the library ranks or get a job with prestigious academic institutions, then you’ll need to get an MLS.
But despite the emphasis on degrees, nothing beats hands-on experience. Every library is a little different. Spend time in your local library and learn how they do things. Go to several library systems, if you can, and note the similarities and differences. Familiarize yourself with the available online resources and databases. Volunteer at a library you would like to work for and treat it like a job: be punctual, thorough, and willing to put up with some tedious or repetitive tasks. When libraries have an open position, loyal and competent volunteers are often high on the list of prospective employees. Be cheerful, courteous, and treat others how you would like to be treated.
And, of course, keep reading.
By Hikari Katana