In 2002, my career in public libraries began part-time on evenings and weekends behind the front desk of the Hays Public Library, as I started working toward my master’s degree at FHSU. Honestly, I was not entirely sure what I was going to do with a master’s degree in English, but with all the confidence needed by anyone approaching an education in liberal arts, I was positive I would find something interesting and engaging. Until then, it was going to be part-time on evenings and weekends.
I cannot remember exactly how the posting for the job read, I doubt it used the words “interesting” or “engaging. However, my interest was piqued, and, just like everyone else in the entire world who does not actually work in a library, I thought, “I like books, I like reading…” I do remember that the interview questions focused more on how I would work with the public than what I knew about The Leaves of Grass or Moby Dick. It should have been my first clue that librarianship isn’t what I initially thought it was.
Beyond all the misconceptions and stereotypes, the “shushing” and the cardigans; beyond all the stories from library veterans about how gross people can really be; beyond the collection and the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System; in my opinion, the very heart of librarianship is public service. A public library is an institution built around the concept of being of service to its community.
Being in public service is not an easy job. Part of the job is straightforward: to be of service means, essentially, to be available to assist, to be ready and focused on helping other people. The other part, the “public,” is a little more cumbersome and convoluted, in both concept and reality, and for a library, the public is its community. What the needs are of the entire community often may not be apparent or held as equally important by each individual. We all know that just because people happen to live in the same geographic area does not mean that they are all going to think the same way and agree all the time. Individuals each have their own ideas and egos, and a wide variance of differing principles, temperaments, tolerances, and values. A community is a group of all those individuals, each with their own right to service.
Being in public service, to work toward making the community a better place for everyone living in it (also enviable and enjoyable to those who visit) is complicated, sometimes difficult work. People are not always agreeable, or gracious, or even pleasant. Sometimes they fight you every step of the way, and often for no discernible reason. For these reasons, public service requires a selflessness that can border super-human at times. What’s that old saying – No good deed shall go unpunished?
However, after the moments of heartburn and headache have passed, and those moments are minor, public librarianship is one of the most rewarding jobs I can imagine. As a public librarian, you have the opportunity to curate the community you want to live in, to help shape and support the social infrastructure that truly makes or creates a community. After all, community means a sense of belonging and fellowship every bit as much as it means a place. Helping to shape that sense of belonging across the community is what happens in a public library and what serving that community means to a public librarian.
Oh, and just for the record: I often do wear a cardigan...
-- Eric Norris