Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Could I Show You the Wine List?, Or, How Waitressing Made Me a Better Librarian

Like a lot of people, I was not born with a silver spoon. The relevant ramification of that fact is that I had to work while attending graduate school. Waiting tables was the most profitable job that had a flexible schedule, and since I had prior experience, that's what I did.

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:

I can...
  • 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?)


  1. I inherited a high school library that hasn't been strategically updated or weeded since the 1980s. I used to work as an Adjunct Instructor in English and a PT sales associate doing cold call sales.

    Being an Adjunct has a lot of implications for my job now. I know how to teach kids to do research because I used to teach kids how to do research for their papers. I know how to work on my own, without a lot of oversight, because as an Adjunct I had almost no oversight. I know what standards to push the kids toward because when I was an Adjunct I often wondered what the freshmen had learned in H.S. (since they were so underprepared for college research).

    Cold-call sales may seem less relevant for being a librarian, but it's very relevant. You have to be highly self-motivated and not take rejection. You're the sole librarian in a library that was taken out of 1983 and plopped into 2011? Well, get to work. No, get back to work. Keep working. Faculty don't want to work with you to develop new research curricula to prepare kids for college? Just hound them to death till they say "FINE! OK! I WILL BUY IT!" And then they buy it and they're happier than they thought they'd be (I was selling orchestra tickets btw-- I mean who doesn't want to go see the orchestra?!).

    I was talking to my parents about this recently. Both my parents are entrepreneurs who own their own small businesses. I think seeing them work as I grew up was great preparation for being a librarian. It taught me to be customer service oriented. It taught me how to work hard and leave my personal problems at home (or at least not where the customers can see them). It taught me to be responsible for every aspect of the business-- a great skill when you're responsible for each aspect of librarianship in a small library.

    1. I had to be a bit of a salesperson when I waited tables - wanna make more money on a tip that's a percentage of the bill? Get a higher bill. So I totally agree.

  2. Love this! I have always thought that waiter/bartender skills were an excellent predictor of a good library skills.

    1. I tended bar at one place, as well. Wow did working day bar (with business people my main clientele) teach me patience.

  3. I am a Youth Services Librarian now, but didn't become one until I was 40. I got a lot of experience in the business world before I decided to make a career change. My previous jobs: meeting/event planner, administrative assistant, procedural documents coordinator, and marketing manager. Each job taught me how to deal with all kinds of people, from the company president to the mailroom staff. And since I was an admin. assistant (often the low man on the totem pole), I know how much these people can help you or hinder you, depending on how you treat them. The marketing job helped me to figure out who my target audience was, and creative ways to reach them. That helps now, especially with teen programs!

  4. Cool! I too have transferrable skills from working retail and I've been meaning to do a blog post of my own. This is great!

  5. Totally agree with you, it's what I always used to tell my staff, treat everyone like you're a waitress and you want to get a big tip. And I'd add that, as in restaurants, the customer is always right.

  6. I work primarily in Young Adult Services (but I'm the only non-Children's librarian here), but a good portion of my library skills come from my own undergraduate research and being a shift leader at a wing delivery place. Keept he customers happy without breaking the rules (but know which ones you can bend), and make sure the people you work with are taken care of. Upselling wasn't nearly as important as happiness.