Before I began working in a public library, I spent a lot of years working in social services with youth and families. Sure, the work can be very different. I haven’t ever walked into a patron’s home to talk about their child to find them passed out on the couch with music and the TV blaring. That happened more than once when I was in social services, but not ever at the library, thank goodness. (One of my homebound patrons is sometimes dozing in her chair when I arrive to drop off books, but that’s it.) Still, there are a few things you can transfer from one to the other – whichever direction you might be going.
- Are you a problem solver? Both professions help people navigate through the gigantic mass of information out there to find what’s useful to them. Library workers help patrons who are looking for housing, food, jobs, educational resources, tax help – the same kinds of things of things I did when I was in outreach. Even if library staff don’t know everything about the community resources, they’re good at finding it with only a little information. And they share literature, music, and more, too.
- Do you need people to be able to clearly explain what they want? A lot of people don’t really know what they need, whether they’re talking to their child’s case worker or to the person at the library’s information desk, so both professions ask a lot of questions. Sometimes an inquiry about “that book with the blue cover and the squiggly thing” will lead a librarian to a whole list of new books or resources. Social services workers often do the same kind of thing, connecting people with organizations, resources and assistance.
- Do you have any experience with very challenging personalities? Social services workers aren’t the only ones who spend their days around people with a limited grasp on reality. Libraries are safe and warm in the winter, and safe and cool in the summer, so people who are homeless, between friends’ couches, or living in their cars can get a break from the elements, check their email, and search for jobs. Sometimes people who are grieving or depressed or struggling with the world in general come into a library, because they believe it’s a place someone will listen to them. They don’t always choose the best ways to interact, unfortunately. They might blow up at a staff member who tells them they have $2 in fines or accuse someone of turning on the CIA monitoring system when something goes wrong on the computer. (Been there, done that.) Most people in social services get training to deal with people who are mentally ill. That’s not always true for library workers.
- Do you want to make a lot of money while you change the world? Don’t choose these professions. Neither is rewarded financially for the good work they do in the community. Sometimes people make a living wage, but it’s not often a salary that anyone would call “generous.” It says something about our values, I think, that these professions usually get paid so poorly, but the people doing them are expected to be educated and always able to find a way to make do with what little they get.
- Can you look at the long-term? I wouldn’t have expected it when I started working at the library, but I’ve found that most people who walk in the door at the library really will come back again and again, and they remember whether or not they felt valued and treated well by the staff. If you can build a positive relationship with them from the beginning – even if they are upset about something or you can’t find the book or CD they want – they will seek you out again. It’s not so different in social services. Sometimes getting the information or action you need from a client involves a long-term plan, not because you want it to take a long time, but because they need a long time to feel ready to do whatever it is. If there’s trust, they can take the steps they need to take just a little quicker.
Having made the transition from social services to library work, I’m grateful almost daily for some past experience that helps me figure out what someone is looking for or not react to their assumptions about whatever they are ranting on about. The jobs might not be financially rewarding, but for someone who likes working with people, solving problems, and doing something different every day, they can both be challenging and emotionally rewarding – at least over that long-term time frame I mentioned above.