Today I recommended new teenage books to an avid reader who wrote them all down faithfully and promised to read them. I ordered books on grief for a 4 year old, I referred a couple learning Punjabi to our dual languages section and gave advice on new authors to a 70 year old man with strict criteria (No American Authors, no historical stories and preferably written by a woman. Crime only.)
None of this was new. This is the kind of thing that I get asked every day. These are the kinds of things that you expect librarians or library assistants to be able to do.
What you don’t expect?
I helped a man who couldn’t read or write to apply for a passport. I practically wrote a CV for a woman applying to be a nurse, she had never used a computer before and was almost in tears at the thought of having to go online to send a CV.
I greeted at least twenty regular patrons by name, including one man who I am keeping an eye on due to his alcoholism and depression. No one would know if he died at home alone. I’ve asked him to drop by every day so I can see if he is ok. If I don’t see him, I call his house to make sure he’s still alive.
I’ve sat with an old lady for ten minutes just to chat because she hasn’t spoken to a single person in over a week.
I’ve helped a blind man get to our reading group and chosen stories that can be read out loud so he can be included and I’ve moved furniture so several people with wheelchairs can join the group despite there being ‘limited space’.
I’ve printed pages on mental health disorders, scanned birth and death records, helped someone with faxes and signed at least five families up to the library and, my highlight of the day, I managed to get a reluctant teenager to laugh and agree to take out a book even though “reading books is lame”.
All of this in one shift.
What made this even more noteworthy is that this is on top of my other duties and jobs and with only one other person to help.
At the moment our libraries are going through a crisis. Due to governmental savings your library service is being hacked at relentlessly with regards to funding. The book fund has been more than halved and ‘savings must be made’ in the rest of the department.
Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. —Walter Cronkite
Staff hours are being cut and some libraries are being taken over by community groups or parishes or volunteers. Some libraries are closing. And some, like the ones in my area, are being converted to SMART libraries.
SMART libraries are a bit like the self-service checkouts in supermarkets. The idea is that you can scan your library card to get into the building and check out and return books by yourself at the self-service kiosks. You can use the computers and the rest of the facilities but there are no staff members around. Or there are only staff members in for a very small portion of the day- around three hours.
Sounds great. Libraries are open more and you’ve managed to save money by cutting hours.
Except the majority of my job isn’t as a librarian.
I spend more time helping people with things that have no bearing on my job description.
It isn’t my job to console a lonely lady whose husband recently died.
It isn’t my job to try to sort out heating for a deaf man who doesn’t understand the council’s letters.
It isn’t my job to show a 55 year old who has just been made redundant how to use a computer.
It isn’t my job to set up a smart phone or tablet or laptop for a man whose grandkids have just moved to Australia and can’t help him anymore.
It isn’t my job to help a crying woman fill in forms regarding court cases
Or show people how to apply for jobs online
Or tell you what your doctor didn’t have time to tell you
Or bid for houses
Or apply for benefits
Or submit for custody of their kids
But where else can you go? Where would you go if you had no one to help you? Libraries are the first point of call for many people who have no idea where to go.
When someone asks me “Can you help me?” My response is always “I’ll try and if I can’t then I’ll find someone who will.”
It physically pains me if I can’t get an answer or at least a referral for someone because there are so few avenues out there who offer help and even fewer who offer it for free and without regards for age/ gender/ social class etc.
I don’t care if you are homeless or if you own a yacht, if you need help then we try.
When I was young, we couldn’t afford much. But, my library card was my key to the world. —John Goodman
As librarians and library assistants we are trained, whether by experience or courses, to know our stock, know our customers and always find a way to find an answer.
Did you know that there used to be a 24 hr help line called Enquire run by librarians that you could call or email anytime to find the answer to any question?
“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” Neil Gaiman
Volunteers are great. Volunteers give what they can but most volunteers are elderly and most hang on to the- extremely erroneous- view that a library job is a quiet, easy job where you get to sit down and read books all day.
How many volunteers can point you to the right review board to check out standards of care homes?
How many volunteers can un-jam a laminator or reboot a malfunctioning photocopier?
How comfortable would a teenager feel in asking a 65 year old for recommendation of LGBTQ books?
Also how many elderly people do you know can navigate the internet effectively, who can synchronise your smart phone or even know how to download a PDF? These are the skills that are required now.
Skills that, with the greatest of respect, a lot of people do not have.
It was really brought home to me today because of the shortage of staff and the realisation that, when we go over to SMART library mode and our hours are cut by 50%, we will only have half the time to do what currently takes us all day.
The visitor counter showed that we had over 400 people in today.
I’d estimate that around half of those had enquiries that couldn’t be handled by a google search, some had issues with the computer or their books, some needed fines paying that they didn’t understand the origin for and some didn’t know how to use new self-service kiosks.
One even had trouble opening the door despite the four CLEAR signs telling him to push the damn button.
During SMART mode we will no longer have 7 hours to help but 3.
3 hours to personally help those people and still fulfil all of our other duties. Say shelving and adding books, back room work, spreadsheets, editing and deliveries take only one hour (it doesn’t but for examples sake) that leaves 2 hours or 120 minutes and If even only half of today’s customers wanted personal help, that’s 200 people in 120 minutes. Almost two per minute.
Sorry Mrs. A, I can’t sit with you for more than 30 seconds, I’m sorry you’re lonely and you don’t know how to fill in forms to get government help.
Sorry Mr. B I can show you where the books on prostate cancer are but I haven’t got time to listen to your history. Oh your wife recently died too? Here are some books on wills and probate and funerals. I don’t have time to help.
Sorry Ms. C I don’t have time to show you how to get job seekers allowance. I’m sorry you’ve been made redundant but it’s not my problem. Your 30 seconds are up.
When we are no longer there who will they turn to for help?
“The Most important asset of any library goes home at night- the library staff.” Timothy Healey.
What kind of society is that? What kind of society requires cuts over caring?
When libraries are not just spines and shelves but social centres, playgroups, medical advice centres, unemployment agencies, therapist offices, care homes and so much more, we need to start thinking of ways to preserve more than just the buildings and the books.
Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down. —Toby Forward
You’ll hear many people say that we don’t need libraries anymore; that we can get all our information from the internet. Those tend to be people who haven’t been to a library in quite some time. Some even say that no one goes to libraries.
400 people today prove them wrong.
Over 100 new joiners to our branch so far this year prove them wrong.
We need libraries now more than ever.
So please support your local library.
The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries. —Carl Sagan