To me, the best thing about working in a public library is that the work matters. It changes lives. It sparks interests that will lead both children and adults in new and wonderful directions. It makes it possible for people who aren’t as wealthy as others to work with a 3D printer or use the Internet or check out an e-book. It helps parents lay down the foundations for their child’s future in school and life with programs like 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten (1KBK). It helps seniors stay connected. The work matters.
So, when your library is going through a hard time, or you are going through a hard time in your library, the mission is what keeps you going. I have always said that no one is a children’s librarian for money, because they couldn’t pay you enough to do it. They do it for love. What I have discovered in Administration, working with other people in the library, is that they do it for love, too. I have found that the people in Technical Services who work on acquiring, cataloging and processing materials are very much in tune with the person who paid for the book (the taxpayer) and will be using it. The people working in IT know that keeping the computer network and patron computers running makes a very real difference in people’s lives. Although the adult services librarians don’t have to deal with screaming toddlers or riled-up middle schoolers, they have their own quirky patron personalities to deal with, and they do not get paid enough for that. They do it for love, too.
Sometimes people try hard to equate library work with retail work, especially when they talk about customer service. It’s true that you can get good ideas from retail training, because sometimes stores and businesses have done a better job than we do at explaining the finer points of good service to their staff. There are some things that are comparable, but there’s a really big difference between being nice to people for a paycheck, and being nice to people because you believe that the public library should be a warm and welcoming place even for people who are being annoying. I see kindness on display every hour of every day at my library.
Library boards can sometimes get so caught up in protecting the taxpayers’ tax dollars that they begin to see the staff as takers instead of people who are dedicating their lives to serving their communities. It’s unfortunate, and I’m not sure what the solution to that is, except for the taxpayers themselves who love the library to remind the board that they value the library and the people it takes to run it.
In the meantime, as my colleague sometimes reminds me, Breathe. Eat your vegetables. Get some sleep. And I will remind you and myself, focus on the mission. Your work changes lives.