Posted by: bluesyemre | May 28, 2019

Things I have learned from working in a #Library


Yesterday, as I waited for the kettle to boil I recalled a conversation I’d had at work. We’d discussed the things we’d learned about that particular subset of the general public: those who come to the library. I don’t know if they’re representative of society generally but, having been a product design engineer in a past life, I love to watch the way people interact with the world. It used to be my job, after all.

With that in mind, I rattled off a few short tweets about some of the things I’d observed in my time at the library. Initially I was writing with my anthropology hat on. I still have a lot of friends who follow me from my product design days and I know that this kind of observation is what can lead to new products, or redesigns of old ones.

As I went on, I began to make more general observations about the library itself and what it means to its users and staff. After a while, I found myself rehashing some of the frustrations and joys my colleagues and I share on a daily basis. What I didn’t expect was for that sprawling, typo-laden thread to go viral overnight.

I’ve had a few people ask for clarification on some points and others have suggested that they’d like to hear some more, so, without further ado, here are some of the things I’ve learned in my time as a library assistant (or keeper of the tomes, as I like to call it). Some of these will have been featured in my thread but I’ve also made some additions that have come up since I posted it.

1. Libraries aren’t silent any more

If you’re over the age of, say, sixteen and have used libraries at any point in your life, you’ve probably witnessed someone being “shushed” by a librarian. (Let’s be honest, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a librarian glare.) So it may come as a surprise to those of you who haven’t visited a library in a while to know that libraries can actually be rather noisy places! The thing to remember is that most libraries are now performing several functions at once. Yes, they are places to read, study and work, but they’re also community hubs. They’re a shelter from a commercialised high street. They’re a public service, an extension of the Job Centre, an IT hub, a children’s facility and so many other things.

Ultimately, a compromise has to be made between the many, many activities that now take place in libraries and the need for a quiet, working space. Many libraries are open-plan, meaning that sound carries easily – which was fine in the good old days of books and nothing above a quiet murmur, but tends to create a less-than-ideal study environment nowadays.

What causes the noise?

Events! Classes! Bookbug sessions! Children’s sing-alongs! Play sessions! Mindfulness sessions! Dementia-friendly nostalgia groups! Knitting clubs! Lego clubs! Book parties! Sing-alongs for the elderly! Noisy office equipment! You get the idea.

What if I want a quiet place to study?

Most libraries have designated quiet times. Bigger ones will have separate study and work areas. Large branches often have multiple floors, some of which will be quieter than others.

2. The Technology Race Leaves Many People Behind

Remember the good old days when you’d phone up a librarian with a query, they’d write it down, look it up in a great big book and then phone you back with the answer? Well, if you’re of a certain age, you might remember that.

That’s not how we do things any more.

The fact is, sites like Google have made that part of the job all the easier. Of course, you can’t trust everything you read online but if you’re looking for directions or a telephone number or even the answer to a simple question like “what time does the post office close today” or “what was the Czech Republic called in the 80s” then we can answer in a matter of seconds. If you’re tech-savvy, of course, you can do this yourself but the fact is that many people have never used a computer, never mind filtered through the results of a search engine to find the reliable ones. I’ve had some library users become upset when I answer their query by looking it up online because they’re wary of computers or because they still expect me to look out a great big dusty tome, polish my reading-glasses and start poring through it like a prospector panning for information. I’ve even had some users in who have never used a telephone! It’s rare, but some of our more elderly users – especially older women – may have left all of the organisation of the household to their husband and when that husband passes away, they come to us for help. After all, we’re librarians! We are the organisers!

3. Young People Continually Fascinate and Fill Me With Joy

Look, I’m not supposed to be biased but the best library users are the children. Sorry, grown ups. You’ve got tough competition. Having no children of my own, I’ve learned a lot about parenting from chatting with the mums, dads and other guardians our Bookbug groups.

I’ve also met some wonderful autistic children with special interests and where is the best place to find more information on special interests? The library, of course! I will do everything within my power to find a book for your child’s special interest. I will order it in from other branches, I will put in purchase requests, I’ll even use my advanced Google-fu and library contacts to ask around to see if you can at least find a book to purchase on it. Most importantly: I want your child to tell me about their interest if they feel up to it, because I know that it’s important to them and honestly? I have learned so much about so many random and sometimes very specific things!

Technology has Changed the way Young Adults View the World

A huge number of young adults can’t read a face clock! At first, I was bowled over by this discovery but after giving it a bit of thought, I realised that these young people have just never really been exposed to analogue clocks after their early school years. Everything is digital and really, does it matter? If digital is easier and analogue is old-fashioned then so be it! We must move with the times!

4. Libraries Catch Anyone Who Falls Through Society’s Cracks

The unemployed, the homeless, people without an internet connection or even access to central heating. The library is a godsend for them. From the blind man in fuel poverty who comes to the library for a chat and a warm place to sit, to the job-seeker who has been sanctioned and needs a bit of help understanding the (sometimes utterly nonsensical) communications from the DWP, we will try to help. I’ve had people come in, desperate, out of money and luck who haven’t eaten in days. I’ve helped them locate their nearest foodbank and talked them through how to apply for food parcels, all over a cup of tea and a pack of biscuits that, let’s be honest, the library won’t really miss anyway.

I’ve had refugee families who’ve just moved into the area and just want a bit of peace and normalcy, or maybe some children’s books to improve their kids’ English. Public libraries can also be a gateway to some council services. We can help people apply for a blue disabled parking badge, or request repairs in council housing, or arrange a rubbish uplift. Many people come to us first.

5. Libraries are in Danger

Libraries live and die based on the staff behind the counter. Without passionate, hard-working staff, a library just won’t succeed. Unfortunately, all of the hard work in the world can’t overcome budget problems. Libraries are budgeted based on footfall. Most will have some kind of sensor on the door, measuring how many people come in and out each day. The higher the footfall, the better the budget. Likewise, the numbers of issues (logging someone onto a computer also counts as an issue) also affect the budget.

Ultimately, whether or not a library stays open is down to you, the public. We need you to come through the door. We need you to keep coming in, even if it’s just for a moment to pick up a book as you wait for the bus or to ask for directions. Libraries do so many great things. Staff continually brainstorm new projects and events for the public but sadly, many local councils are not up-to-date with social media promotion and there’s no real budget for any other kind of advertising. We rely on readers coming in and asking about our events, or picking up the phone and giving us a call. At the very least, have a nosy at the posters outside!

Libraries are an essential public service. You might be nodding along but also aware that you haven’t set foot in one in years. That’s okay! You’re not alone! In fact, if you don’t feel like doing so again, why not look into the digital options that your local library offers? My own branch offers digital downloads of ebooks, audiobooks, magazines and newspapers from all over the world, all for free. Just pop in once to sign up, download the app and you’ll never have to come back again if you don’t want to. Those all count as issues for us too!

If you love libraries, come and let us know!



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