They talk to you

This is the thing they don’t teach you in library school: if you’re foolish enough to go into public service, you’ll be expected to talk to your customers.

Oh, I’m not referring to reference interviews, book lookups, and the like. No. You basically have a very expensive degree to be a combination bartender/priest/therapist.

It’s amazing how complete strangers will spill the darkest secrets of their souls to you, once they see that you’re a permanent fixture in the library. And, if you get to know them on a more permanent level—as I have, as I’m that kind of person—you’re suddenly giving medical and financial advice.

One of my regular patrons is a Vietnam veteran. A few years ago he told me he hadn’t been to the doctor in 20 years. At the time he was having all sorts of health issues. I looked at him and asked: “Don’t you have VA benefits?” He had never applied for them. At which point I read him the riot act. I went into how I paid taxes so that veterans like him could be taken care of, and that I expected him to contact the VA as soon as he got home. He didn’t tear up, but I think he was very grateful that someone who was basically someone he just passed on his daily routine cared enough to call him out. (He still has health problems, but at least now he’s taken care of.)

The thing about being a librarian, at least a public librarian, is that you become part of your community. If you’re going to do a half-decent job, you have to. I’ve met a couple of librarians who have worked at the same library for decades, and couldn’t tell you the names of any of the regulars. And their work shows it.

Of course, there are some people who see librarians as just scurrilous government workers who deserve no respect. Those people, however, see anyone in service to them as beneath them, so they’re beyond reach. But so many of the people we serve would have no other resources if libraries didn’t exist. They’d have nowhere to access wi-fi, look for jobs, spend the day when they have no homes to spend them in.

It’s not surprising, then, that many library patrons come to see librarians as people to whom they can talk, from whom they can seek advice, whose opinions they value as much as their doctor’s. In school, I just figured I’d give out information and that was that. I wasn’t prepared for how embedded you become in the community you serve, that you see them as “your” people, even the ones who annoy you, and care about what happens to them.

Yes, they talk to you. And if you’re doing your job correctly, they should.

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