Not so long after I started working at HPL, I was talking to a potential vendor about some work I wanted done and how it fit into some of my long-term goals for the library, and he said, “You’re really ambitious.”

I said, “I think we’re understanding each other.”

I didn’t wind up hiring that guy for that job, but being understood every once in a while balances out the times I have to convince salesmen that I really am the person in charge even though I don’t fit their stereotype of librarian or person in charge. Sometimes I attempt to reassure these lost souls that I find our conversation as disappointing as they seem to, but they never know how to respond to my honesty.

Last month, I started working the closing shift on Wednesday nights to fill in for a colleague who’s out on maternity leave. I work reference at HPL here and there, but my schedule as a whole is irregular. I’m learning a lot working these Wednesday nights, though, and my job is entirely about learning. I am, for instance, at long last memorizing our closing procedure, which involves, among other oddities, a mystifying opening and closing of doors that follows no logical line I can discern. One slow night, I spent some time cleaning the shelf under the reference desk and learned about some things we no longer use. Another night, a man called and asked me to read him two Bible verses.

“My eyes are bad,” he said.

This is old-fashioned reference, the kind of question that used to come in all the time when I was a new librarian that doesn’t happen as often anymore. Sometimes when people tell you their eyes are bad, it’s because their eyes are bad, and sometimes it’s because they never learned how to read. I suspect this man was the second case because I read each verse to him once, and he repeated them back to me without writing them down. Most people who know how to read and write don’t have that kind of immediate recall because the successful navigation of their lives doesn’t depend on it. (Jama recently shared a lovely post about working with an adult new reader that talks about this.)

After I read this man the second verse and he repeated it back to me, he said, “I don’t understand that one.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me either. It’s kind of a doozy.”

He laughed and said, “Thank you kindly for your time. God bless you.”

“Thanks for calling,” I said, “and God bless you, too.”

That’s one of those things I shouldn’t have said for any number of reasons–my conflicted agnosticism, our religiously neutral institutional stance–but I was caught up in the moment, the rarity of strangers confessing to each other: I don’t understand.

It didn’t matter that I run the library just then, or maybe it did. My job involves writing policies and supervising and creating a strategic plan, but, really, I’m there for that guy.

Maybe he’ll call again.

10 thoughts on “Directing

  1. Yes, you ARE there for that guy and all the others like him. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the regular patrons who need libraries badly for one reason or another when, as a director, you are caught up in strategic plans and such. I was talking to a librarian at Central about this exact thing this morning, how the most important thing we do every day is open our doors to the people who need what we have. The best strategic plans are those that empower staff to provide exactly what people need at the exact time they need it. Google does that for many people, but there are more out there who need a little help. One of my favorite patron interactions is one that happened at Ogden to me and to Anne Strang where an elderly man needed Shania Twain’s address. He shared a letter he was sending her about how her music helped him come to terms with the death of his wife of 50 years. He was so sincere in his admiration of Shania and his heartbreak so evident, that talking to him became a powerful memory.

  2. Tanita, I haven’t ever seen Desk Set. I have really, really got to watch it.

    Patty, Oh, I might have cried helping that guy. I had a guy in last week wanting information on St. Andrew because there is a statue of him near where his wife is buried, and he sees it so often that he got to wondering about the saint’s life. The man wasn’t projecting any sadness–he was curious and energetic, in fact–but it touched me anyway, the whole thing.

    If I don’t get time helping patrons, I start to get depressed. That’s something I’m going to need to keep in my life no matter what else I’m doing.

  3. “Old-fashioned reference” is a nice way to connect with people, isn’t it? It reminds me of why I wanted to do this job. And I think helping people that way leaves a lasting impression on both parties. More than just finding a DVD for someone.

    We are talking about this kind of thing a lot lately at WPL.

  4. Adrienne, Tanita and Patty I agree wholeheartedly. For myself, I sometimes feel overwhelmed about cutting-edge this and maker space that and Marketing with a Big M. Even though these things are compelling and exciting, if it was all I did I would feel bereft.

    We all know libraries are here to serve the people, but without those one-on-one connections “the people” becomes a cipher.

    Thank you for sharing this post.

  5. I came to librarianship (as many do) because I love helping people…even when something else is not working in my life, I always have a positive patron story…or at least something to laugh about over an adult beverage.

  6. Olivia, Yes. :)

    Maya, Thanks for reading it. :) I’ve been making a conscious effort this last year to stop thinking of the patrons as “the patrons” and more as individual people. Thinking that way has helped me a lot with a lot of things.

    Xandi, And you are the best at customer service. I always love watching you work with your teens when I visit RPL.

  7. That exchange with the guy makes me a little teary, too. That’s important to remember, that sometimes “my eyes are bad” is a dignified way of conveying literacy levels.

    In my mind, I translate “God bless you” to “May you find kindness in the universe.” Maybe it’s the Babel Fish.

  8. Adrienne,
    I love this post; it says so much about what librarians do and what drives you to be one. My mom worked her way through high school and college as an assistant in a library; being mentored by librarians the whole way. There is a certain mindset: a love of literature and information, the goal of getting it into the right hands at the right time, that is linked with a generous understanding of the human condition. So yes, as Tiny Tim would say, “God, bless us, everyone.”

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