Lessons from Library Work

When I was a child, I thought that working in a library would be the best thing in the world. I’d be surrounded by books that I can read whenever I wanted to, and best of all, there wouldn’t be that much contact with people because hey, I’m dealing with books. Friends who are book lovers or know my love for books and reading would agree and express their delight that I am actually now working in a library.

It couldn’t be more further from the truth.

Fact 1: Not all the books in the library are materials you want to read
I work in an academic library, one that caters specifically to engineering students and faculty. Almost all of the books we have in the collection are technical books. I haven’t seen a single fiction or leisure reading book, unless you consider handbooks and technical materials leisure reading.

However, the library also has some special interest books, like website design, game design, management and the like, that I wouldn’t mind reading during my spare time. But that makes up just perhaps 10% of the whole collection. There are also some books that are useful for my masters, but again, not really leisure reading.

The magazines are another matter though. While we have a lot of specialized magazines, journals and periodicals dealing with engineering subjects, there are also general interest titles like Time, Reader’s Digest and National Geographic. Those are the ones I definitely want to read.

Fact 2: You will handle books and people
My first designation when I started the job was with the circulation section, where we handle the borrowing and returning of books, among other things. I handled books, but I am always in contact with the people using the library. Sure, I could probably just not talk to them as I go about my tasks, but since the library is a service oriented institution, you have to talk to them.

My designation this semester includes working in the reference section. In library-speak, this is where people go to for help. If they have questions with the materials, if they have a question with the services or the library in general, the reference librarian is the person they need to go to. Queries come in not just when people approach the desk, but also through email, chat, SMS, phone calls, and the social media (Facebook and Twitter are the ones most commonly used). In our library, reference also handles public relations. Programs and advocacies are promoted, and as my boss puts it, “you are the face of the library.” Reference also handles library tours and orientation programs for both the college’s students or visitors.

As it’s the first semester, we handled all the ID countersigning of the freshmen students, and gave them a bit of an orientation as well. The last time I had work that had me talking to people was during my call center days. This is a challenge for me, as I am not much of a people person. I can hold my own with handling people, but I would prefer to be behind the scenes. I don’t mind making PR materials or doing grunt work, but talking to people is something that I have to work on. So if you think that working in a library is great for introverts, well, not in this library.

Fact 3: You barely have time to read
Maybe even none at all. Sure you found something interesting in the shelves, but between dealing with all the queries, making publicity materials, handling the freshman students, running orientations and library tours… plus doing the regular, everyday library tasks, you literally do not have time to read.

Except possibly during your break, but by then, you’d be so tired you’d much rather take a nap than try to read anything.

Fact 4: Library work can be physically demanding
This one varies per library, particularly depending on the size of the library and the tasks that its staff needs to fulfill. However, for this library, I have probably done more legwork than I have ever done in any job that I have done before. I’ve hauled books and shelves and other things when we did a massive renovation in the last few months. My stint at the circulation section had me lifting books every day, while my tasks these days had me moving from one section to another. When I get home, I just flop to bed and sleep.

Do I still want to work in the library? Yes, I do. But my notion of it has changed, particularly from the behind the scenes aspect of it. It’s more than just handling books.