Friday, July 15, 2011

Give ‘Em What They Want: How to be a Great Public Librarian by Cari Dubiel

Cari Dubiel, author of my inaugural guest post, is the Assistant Manager, Adult Public Services, at Twinsburg Public Library in Twinsburg, Ohio. She has two blogs of her own: a personal blog, Walking Identity Crisis, and an official Twinsburg Public Library one, The ABC Book Reviews: A Beth and Cari Production.

I asked her to write about what she wishes she'd known in library school and/or as a new librarian. Here's what she wrote:

So you’re a new public librarian on the reference desk.  Congratulations--you work for the public!  Their tax dollars pay you; you have a responsibility to them.  They want the best programs and services you can offer.  They want a collection that provides the information they need and the thrills they crave.  You exist to give it to them.  If you have a problem with that, you should find another line of work.

Does that sound harsh?  It’s okay, because once you’ve come to terms with this concept, you can have a long and rewarding career ahead of you.  I’m assuming that you’ve started on the front lines, but even if you’re a cataloger, bookmobile driver, programming coordinator, or children’s librarian, you’re all part of the same mission.  I do not claim to have all the answers, and I still have a lot to learn. All the same, I hope you’ll value these tips.

Recognize that you don’t know everything.  I still have a hard time with this one.  When you have a patron staring you down, insisting that you must know all because you’re the librarian, it’s hard to admit.  Before you get to that point, you must acknowledge that you’re not an omniscient being.  I thought I knew all before I even had my library degree – I thought my eight years of paraprofessional experience had given me all I needed, and my degree was just a piece of paper that would be the gateway to more money.  Six years later, I am still finding gaps in my knowledge.  Do what you have to do to get help.  Ask your co-workers or manager, or call outside institutions for referrals.  It’s worse to give someone the wrong answer than to pretend you are all-knowing, and you can even be held liable if you give out legal, medical or tax advice.  Swallow your pride.

Never stop reading.  This may sound like a given – and this may be the easiest advice for you to follow.  It certainly is what I do the most naturally.  Maybe you’re tired of hearing that old myth that all librarians ever do is read.  It’s a myth that we sit idly and read for pleasure, but if you want to be a good librarian, you will have to read, even if you squeeze it in between your many other tasks or at home.  Read blogs, listservs, and e-mail from your colleagues.  Read Entertainment Weekly, the best source of trends in all the media you’ll add to your collection.  Even if you’re not a collection development librarian, knowing what patrons want will help you find items to pair them with.  Read widely – on business, computers, pets, cooking, and all types of fiction.  Try an audiobook.  If your library adds a new format of media, use it.  All these experiences will add depth to your service on the front line.

Get to know your community.  The nature of our job is service, and you will serve your community best if you get to know them.  No one knows what your patrons want except your patrons, so you must ask them.  Sometimes you will get tools such as holds reports, or your administrators will conduct surveys to collect data and create strategic plans, but you can help out on a daily basis at the reference desk.  Learn about your customers when they ask for help.  What services are they using?  What do they want more of?  Is the library open when they need it?  Learn their names.  Forge friendships and relationships.  Someone you meet at the desk may be able to do a great free program for you, or put you in touch with someone who can.  Or you could build a partnership with a local business that could benefit from the advertising you provide for them.  The more you learn, the easier it will be to get creative.
Get to know yourself and your emotional reactions.  This is a lot more important than you might think.  When you work with the public, you’re in customer service.  This means emotions will be involved.  You may not think you’ll fly off the handle, but the first time a customer starts screaming, you will be challenged.  You can’t take anything personally, not even when a patron calls you names and threatens to have you fired.  You have to think about how you can best serve someone even when his face is red and he’s raving.  Sometimes you have to hand the transaction off to another librarian who can handle the situation better; if not, you have to think of ways to help them quickly and coolly.  The best way to prepare for such things before they happen is to examine yourself and your own limits.  If you are quick to anger, as I am, practice calm and ways to keep cool in a crisis.  This skill will help you in other arenas as well. 

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