Little did I realize, going into it, that not only would I be making money on which to live and with which to pay for graduate school, but that I'd also be learning to be a better librarian. Don't believe me? Look at the skills I gained by waitressing:
- Juggle multiple simultaneous projects. At different points in my career as a waitress, I was responsible for anywhere between three and fourteen tables at the same time. I quickly learned to write EVERYTHING down so I could truly keep track, to make quick decisions about priorities ("Table 413 probably needs a coffee refill, but 412's food is up now, so..."), and to be able to shift between different modes at a moment's notice. Sounds a lot like what a librarian at a small college library does, doesn't it?
- Tailor my approach to the needs of the customer. With a customer who had never been to my restaurant, but who was obviously there for a special occasion, I acted one way. With a family of regulars who had been coming to that restaurant longer than I'd been alive, I acted another. And so on. Similarly, with a first generation college student in his/her first semester of college, I act one way. With a graduate student who just needs help refining a search strategy, I act another. And so on.
- Leave it at the door. Any stress from outside of the restaurant needed to stay out of the restaurant, otherwise it would interfere with how much money I made from tips. Likewise, a bad day at the restaurant needed to stay at the restaurant if I was going to get homework done. The same philosophy applies with libraries, since patrons, students especially, don't care if my commute was stressful - they just care about finding that errant source that eludes them.
- Ask for help when I need it. Anybody who's ever worked in a restaurant has been "in the weeds" at one point or another, so overwhelmed and lost and behind that you can barely breathe let alone keep track of what you're supposed to be doing. The only way to dig out from under all of that is to ask your fellow servers and/or your managers for help. I've had the same thing happen in libraries whenever I have too many projects going at once, and my colleagues came to my rescue.
- Focus on the customer. I've talked before about what customer service really means, but whether you call them patrons or customers or members of your community, they are still the reason we all have jobs. I don't work in a book mausoleum; I work in a library. The people who come into my building need to be the underlying reason for everything I do.
- Appear calm, even when I'm not. I think of this as "waitress face," because that's where I learned to keep internal turmoil off of my face and out of my body language. This is probably the most important thing I learned while working in restaurants, and it has served me well while facing angry administrators, trustees, faculty, and students. I might feel like scratching someone's eyes out, but it doesn't show. Besides, it serves no purpose to get angry back when someone is screaming at you. (Full disclosure: I can't always manage this, but I'm up to 95% of the time. Practice makes perfect.)
I explained all of the above when I was interviewing for what turned out to be my first professional librarian position, and I know that it was part of what got me that job. Looking back now, I know why it worked that way.
How about you? Have you ever waited tables? What other pre-library jobs, that might not seem to fit, did you have that you know helped you do your library job better? (Or, for the library science students reading this, what jobs do you think will help you once you join the profession?)