Public libraries. Discuss.

chicken picYou might be asking yourself if this is just an excuse to post a funny chicken picture. Hmmm.  Read on, my friend, and the truth will be revealed.

Even before I began working in one as an adult, I’d had a history with libraries. Some of my earliest memories are of the Saturday mornings I spent in the children’s room at my local library, trying to quickly find ten books – my weekly limit – so that I’d be ready when Mom said it was time to head home. Later on, I worked in the high school library as an aide, putting things away, checking things in, moving books here and there, appreciating the break from multiple choice tests and pages of math problems.

In college, I passed many hours in the college library reading rooms, sometimes working at the big tables under the murals from the 1930s, sometimes collapsed in an arm chair. During my 2+ years as a full-time volunteer, I helped shepherd groups of kids to story times at the old library. Grad school meant more hours in study carrels and reading rooms, as well as hunting down references in the government documents for a professor writing a book on banking. Once in a while, I’d go to the public library there for a change. And then, when I worked with kids again, we went to programs and did summer reading challenges in between trips to the pool and park and other things. After my son was born, I added on regular trips of my own again, checking out stacks of books, both for him and for me.

And then, a friend who worked at the library suggested I think about it for myself, either as a volunteer or to work there. I did volunteer, making story time kits, sorting summer reading prizes, and wearing a mascot costume. I eventually began working as a substitute, later a library assistant.

Libraries look much different from this side of the desk. To some of our patrons, it’s still a place to go for quiet or to find books, magazines, DVDs or CDs. To others, it’s a place to find information – family obituaries, high school yearbooks, the phone number to that company you want to contact. We still have story times for little ones and author programs for adults, and many other things for everyone in-between.

It’s a strange place to be some days, however. You get the person who’s angry we don’t have free paper copies of the tax forms they need – even the IRS office here doesn’t do that. You see the people who say they haven’t been in a library for twenty years and seem surprised we even exist anymore – often they don’t have any idea you can download magazines, audiobooks and ebooks and do all kinds of research through the website. There are the retired folks who are still reading – we still have westerns and inspirational books in addition to the latest steamy romances, literary fiction, and mysteries. Teens come in after school to hang out or use the computers or find the latest in the series they’re into now. There are little ones playing with the puppets or at the train table, stay-at-home moms and dads looking for a tv series on DVD, the newcomer to the U.S. who’s trying to learn English or get citizenship or study for the ACT.

Because it’s a place for everyone, you get everyone. We see people from the shelter up the street, the kids in treatment, the guy who doesn’t use computers but needs to apply for a job online, the mentally ill who are on their own, the disabled who come in with helpers, the lonely people who are looking for a social connection. We also see businesspeople, workers, truck drivers, artists, writers, parents, and people studying for firefighter and nursing tests or the Armed Forces entrance exam. Many wonderful people come in our doors and thank us for finding that book with the red cover they read when they were a kid which they’d like to share with their grandchild. Others download pay stubs with our help or find a friend from long ago. It’s mostly good most of the time.

But inevitably, there are also the people who get mad about fines from ten years ago, because they never would have checked out that book, even though the birthdate, address and ID number match. There are the people who smell so strongly of alcohol, urine, cats or whatever that you can track them from forty feet away. There is the one who smears feces on the wall of the public bathroom. And the teens who swear and yell and then are surprised when we ask them to leave, because they’ve somehow always understood they can do absolutely whatever they want, anytime, anywhere, and it’s a public place, right?

We see people who say obnoxious things to us, or tell us it must be nice to have such an easy job where no one expects you to do anything, or think we’re part of the conspiracy against them. Once in a while, they might leave a trail of poop on the floor and still head straight over to the computers and log onto the internet, as if nothing untoward has happened. Or they might return a book which their dog has chewed up, their coffee has spilled on, they’ve dropped in the tub, or maybe their kid marked up with a Sharpie without mentioning anything about it, later denying they had anything to do with it. (We once had a person claim that the water damage to a book must have been done by the person before them and the book was still wet when we got it back.) There is that guy who takes all of his cellphone calls and talks so loudly that everyone in the library can hear him, instead of using the lobby like we ask. There are the parents who don’t supervise their kids and then get mad at us when we explain to their kids (and them) that it is not a safe place to play chase or hang off the stairwell or throw trains at each other. Like everywhere else, there is a lot of bad behavior going on. People just don’t usually think it happens at a library.

Still, I try to come back to the people who come to my writing group and share their poems or novels or life stories about their trained chickens.  (The chickens did not actually wear sweaters as far as I know, but the picture above somehow fit.) There are great teen volunteers who help out during summer reading, and others in the community who do their part in other ways. I regularly have patrons who come in to tell me about a book they’ve read which they think I would love – or a movie, or a CD or a graphic novel. Sometimes they’re only 6, but already have strong opinions about their books already. Sometimes they’re in their 90s and are just happy to have found another great read.

It’s hard to remember the kindness and laughter when someone is almost yelling at you or accusing you of being a CIA operative, but at the library, it’s all just part of the whole.

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2 thoughts on “Public libraries. Discuss.

  1. Wonderful post. I enjoyed reading about your library experiences, so similar to my own. I work at a somewhat quiet (though our staff certainly can get rowdy 🙂 ) medium-sized library. Your patrons sound spot-on to our patrons. Often it’s how generous and kind people can be that surprises me more than the rare disruptive scenes. ❤ my job!


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