Public Librarians Talk About the Profession
Des Plaines Public Library
Des Plaines, Illinois
Missoula Public Library
My mother used to read Shakespeare's sonnets aloud to my brother and me when we were little. She claims she was so hungry to have reading time and we didn't care what she read as long as she was there beside us. My mother was also a sometimes library employee and the best friend of the librarian in the small Colorado town where I grew up. I worked in the library too—shelving and typing catalog cards, and being first on the list for new books.
Literate person that I was, I didn't read the handwriting on the wall and did not set my sights on becoming a librarian. Instead I decided to be the world's best English teacher (certainly better than the one I had in high school!). After working my way through college in the university library, I graduated and couldn't find a job teaching English, so I substitute taught (ruined teaching for me) and made a couple of babies.
When my kids were toddlers I started volunteering at the public library in Pocatello, Idaho. After a discussion with the children's librarian about accession numbers, she discovered my library background, and when a job in her department became available, she recruited me.
Voila! That was what I was supposed to be doing all along. There is absolutely no finer work than putting a book or some vital piece of information into a patron's hands. Every day I do meaningful work and have an opportunity to make a difference in someone's life. And I still do get to read, read, read...a passion as well.
Now I am a library director—what a surprise and delight (most of the time). Now I'm in a position to affect real change and guide my library in a positive direction. Because I'm a former children's and young adult librarian, I'm probably one of the few library directors in the world who has a basket full of puppets on her desk, a Homer Simpson mask in her office, and kazoos ready for any opportunity. Proudly I claim the title of the Kazoola from Missoula!
So I guess I must be one of the luckiest people in the universe. I get to come to work every day doing a job I love, working with people I enjoy, and providing important services to a grateful community. Sigh.
East Providence Public Library
East Providence, Rhode Island
I began to take the necessary coursework to become a librarian very soon after I started at the East Providence Public Library as a Library Aid. I work with a great group of dynamic librarians who love their job, and the "love" was contagious! I was a retail store manager for a Fortune 500 company prior to coming to work at EPPL, and have always had a love for people and service. I am an ALA Spectrum Scholar from the 1998 class, and am currently pursuing a Master in Public Administration degree at the University of Rhode Island. I anticipate graduation in May 2002.
I think the best reason that I can summarize why I became a librarian is that I have the ability to impact my community through information services and programs to help people of all ages. And as a librarian of color it is important to me to have cultural programs that reflect the community being served.
As a branch librarian I provide programs such as "Toddler Time Tuesdays" that meets weekly; a monthly book discussion for children in grades 3–6 entitled "Book Nook Wednesdays;" and for teens, "Teen Talk Thursdays." In addition, I provide after school biweekly programs for children of all ages that may include a craft, movie, or "special event." Lastly, I do a monthly program for seniors entitled "Classic Movie Mornings" in which a classic movie is shown. I think the best part of my job is doing outreach! I am able to do homebound visits to elderly people who cannot come to the library. In addition, the Fuller Library is part of the Talking Books Plus program that sends books state-wide to patrons with physical disabilities. In addition, I go to schools to promote the library and do special events in the community!
I think that librarianship is a great profession because it helps one of the greatest natural resources that we have...PEOPLE. I enjoy interaction with people of all ages. I also enjoy introducing books, cultural programs, and multimedia to patrons!
Edwin S. Clay, III
Director, Fairfax County Public Library
I have been a librarian and library administrator for more than 34 years, ever since graduating from the School of Library Science at the University of North Carolina in 1967. The bulk of that time I have spent in the public library environment, first as director of the Virginia Beach Public Library, and since 1982 as Director of Virginia's largest public library, the 21-branch Fairfax County Public Library in northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C.
I didn't always plan to be a librarian. Like many drawn to the profession, I liked to read as a kid, but it wasn't until I enrolled at Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, that I had an opportunity to work in the college library. I staffed the circulation desk and felt I was at the center of things, enjoying the high visibility of working in the library on a small college campus. That sense that a library can make an impact on a community, whether it is a community of students or local residents, continues to impress me. Still, my first career goal was to become a lawyer. Needing to earn a living, I accepted a fellowship to the library school at the University of North Carolina, thinking it was a way to keep food on the table when I later trained for the law. My first semester at UNC I roomed with a law student, and seeing the profession up close, I realized it was not the career my youthful idealism had imagined. My fate was sealed.
My first job out of library school was as director of the library at Virginia Wesleyan College. I was actually hired to create a library so that the college could become accredited. I earned $6,700 a year, and I was probably hired because I was willing to accept such a salary. I soon learned that I loved conceptualizing and implementing the systems required to organize a library. I have never actually worked in the library profession as anything but a director. I don't necessarily recommend it, but it has been a unique and rewarding experience for me.
After leaving Virginia Wesleyan, I became director of the Virginia Beach Public Library. It was there that I developed my belief that public libraries can be ubiquitous and impact society well beyond their conventional purpose of organizing and disseminating pre-packaged information. I only half-jokingly prod my staff to greater feats in "world dominion" in the public library profession. I try to bring a global view of librarianship and libraries to my work and make sure libraries are included in as many government initiatives as possible. Both in Virginia Beach and here, I have established a reference service exclusively for local government agencies. I believe there is nothing public libraries can't do - from establishing a foundation to seek funding when public budgets are tight, to actually creating products in the Information Age. I pride myself in being a bit of a futurist - trying to anticipate where public libraries can go next.
For several years, I worked outside of the profession in city government as assistant to the City Manager of Virginia Beach. That experience helped me develop an appreciation and enjoyment of the politics (in its most generic sense) that come with serving as a director and dealing with a Library Board and other government, community, and business entities. I enjoy dealing with people and brokering decisions and policies both externally and internally.
I teach a class in Public Libraries at Catholic University's School of Library and Information Sciences and I remind my students constantly that they can do anything - in the Information Age, librarians have taken on the world!
Danbury Public Library
The magic of the written word captivated me from the first time I held a book as a young child. Lewis Carroll's, "Alice in Wonderland" still evokes memories of my first experiences at a public library-the scent of the books (yes, I'm dating myself-back then libraries loaned primarily print materials), the stacks and stacks of stories, fiction, and non-fiction all available to me with a public library card. Since then I've been through the looking glass and back innumerable times and still feel a sense of wonder each time I enter a public library.
It occurred to me one day, after I'd been 'downsized' from the company where I worked, that this was a good opportunity to follow my heart-become a full fledged librarian in a public setting. For many years I'd been a FRIEND of the library, the editor of their newsletter, on the Board of Trustees, and worked in several capacities from a page to a clerk to technical services-loving every minute of the challenges of public librarianship and service to our customers. I pondered the time I'd spent at libraries - researching and writing papers and, after college graduation, checking out a book on touch typing when I realized that a real skill was needed to survive.
While pursuing my MLS it became evident to me that public librarianship was the road my career journey would take. At my interview, the last question asked of me was, "Do you have anything to add?" I hadn't anticipated this question but blurted out a response from the heart, a genuine expression of my gratitude for the many gifts received from my local public libraries. "For most of my life I've been a regular library patron, participating in the joy of checking out books, videos, even artwork; doing research; writing papers; and even learning to type using a book from the library. Now I want to be a part of that world-to give back to the library and community."
After six years as a full-time public librarian, I still feel a sense of anticipation each time I cross the threshold. The unique challenges and day-to-day operations of a public library are mentally stimulating and emotionally gratifying. People from all walks of life come to public libraries for information: looking for jobs, researching health, or learning about computers. The vast array of resources and scope of age ranges in patrons makes each day unpredictable-a veritable flurry of questions, answers, programs and services. A couple of strange incidents come to mind: the day a mother and daughter approached me with an insect in a jar to identify as a homework project; the man who asked me how to remove a tick from his arm; and, more recently, a patron who rushed breathlessly to the Information Services desk to inquire if we had batteries-and seemed perplexed when we couldn't comply with his request. Public libraries have everything-or so it seems. But batteries are not included, at least not here, not yet.
I hope this brief essay gives an aspiring librarian a glimpse into the complex, extraordinary world of public librarianship. The rewards are many; a "thank you" from a patron speaks volumes in the frenetic, electronic pace of the 21st century librarian. Perhaps this quotation will sum up how many of my colleagues and I feel when we reflect about our jobs: "I can't believe I'm getting paid to have this much fun!" Maybe this is the best-kept secret in the library world. Pass it on.
Sally Decker Smith
Head of Adult Services/Raconteur
Indian Trails Public Library District
I became a public librarian by accident. I took a very part time job at Circulation in my friendly neighborhood public library (I should mention that when buying our first house, the only absolute requirement I had was that it be within walking distance of the library-I'm that sort of user), because the hours were such (one night a week, alternate Saturdays) that I never needed a sitter for my daughters. My plan all along was to go back to teaching when my younger daughter was in school all day. That daughter got her master's degree in December 2000, and I'm still here-except now I'm an MLS and Head of Adult Services. I loved working with the public. I met people here who loved being reference librarians, and I realized I would love that, too. During the five years it took me to get through library school (I took one course at a time), I had cheerleaders, homework helpers, and even cookie bakers surrounding me and keeping me going.
I was a child of the sixties. I have been a primary source on the events in Grant Park during the legendary Democratic Convention, and the nationwide student strike after Kent State. I strongly believe that community service-connecting with and benefiting in any way I can the community in which I live-is the most important thing I can do, and luckily for me, my talents lend themselves to library service. Community service is what this job is all about. We empower people, whether it be helping them learn how to read, getting them the information they need to be well-informed voters, or helping them learn their way around the Internet.
It's the most satisfying work I can imagine. Every single day I am privileged to touch someone's life. And I know this because they tell me so. One patron needed information on liver transplants because her daughter was having one. Even finding a recipe can bring tears to a patron's eye, if it's the meatloaf her mother used to make and the recipe was lost in a house fire. Few days are that dramatic, but every day is different, and every day brings people who need something to which I can be the conduit. In my current position, even when I'm not directly interacting with patrons, I'm helping them-by hiring the best people I can find to be there every time they call or come in, and by making the best possible use of the tax dollars they've entrusted to me without even realizing it.
Even on the slowest or most hectic day, at least one person thanks me, and I can tell they mean it. I don't think that happens in many jobs. I thrive on immediate gratification, and the opportunity to perpetually be on a treasure hunt-and they pay me to do it!
One of my mentors once said that the people who make good public library reference librarians are the ones whose hands shot up when questions were asked in class; those squirmy 4th graders who were so excited about being able to answer questions that they couldn't sit still! I still feel that way every day-what a rush!