A Year of Library Directing, or The Value of Useful Things

“Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”
-Anne Lamott in “Oh Noraht Noraht” in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

“So–well–I think I grew up questioning the contradictions, as we all do, but finally admiring the way we human beings always manage, however clumsily, to build a footing out of not much, and then dance on it.”
-Natalie Babbitt in “We’re All Mad Here,” Horn Book Magazine (September/October 2004)

Today I am celebrating one year of library directing.

I know, right? That went fast.

I was excited and afraid in equal measure when I took this job. I loved working at WPL and was not sure I could love my new job as much as I loved the old one, and I worried how that might affect me and the quality of my life–a thing I was then trying to improve. I was also unsure how I was supposed to go about all this. My only direction from the board was that I should start on July 10.

I arrived at HPL amid a swarm of flowers, cards, and gifts, which I didn’t expect and found deeply comforting. I spent a little time at the reference desk, since I knew how to do that, and I started to watch what was going on.

That first day, I looked at how very much I was going to have to learn and decided there was no use in pretending I knew it all. I started asking people questions, which they answered, even when I’ve asked the same ones over and over again. One of my favorite memories of my first days at HPL is Kristen teaching me how to issue a library card, something she seemed happy to do if also shocked that I her to teach me. Early on I also decided that I was going to need to focus part of my day every day on what I think of as useful things. I learned this from watching Terri at WPL, who is often to be found shelving new books or DVDs. This isn’t to say she doesn’t also take a lot of time for other activities–she is notably running one of the most successful libraries in the county–but she takes time every day to do things that directly and immediately benefit patrons and that help keep the library running smoothly.

And so I started a daily ritual of sharpening the pencils.

My repertoire of useful things has expanded through the year. I like to refill the scrap paper bins, wipe down tables, and clean the reference desk. I shelve new books, and sometimes I’ll shelve DVDs or shelf read. I spend a lot of time picking up stray books and trash. I help out at the reference and circulation desks. I answer the phones. Sometimes I dust. Lately I’ve gotten into pushing in chairs.

I do a lot of things to take care of the library when I’m working in my office. I believe writing policies, communicating, and planning are all critical to our success, and that’s a lot of what I do in there. I do a lot of training and attend a lot of meetings; those are important, too. But there’s also something vital in the useful things. Patrons often compliment me on my cleaning, and my colleagues seem amused by my activities–both worthy outcomes–but when I’m out and about is when I see, hear, and learn things. I have spontaneous conversations with patrons and staff. I find other opportunities to help. I experience people experiencing the library. As humans, our interest is piqued by things that are unusual and beautiful, but love, be it for places or people, is built by time and experience, countless interactions and small gestures of caring shared and received.

I’ve been growing and learning and changing along with the library. There’s nothing scary about my job most days, and there’s a lot to be excited about. This is the year I sold my house, moved into my new place, and crossed Death Valley on my own. It’s the year I learned how to run. I am slow, but no matter how awkwardly I stumble along or how many times I have to stop, I save some energy so I can run that last minute or two as fast as I can back toward the place where I started.

I think that’s how it’s always going to be.


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.

I Still Don’t Know What One of the Keys on My Work Key Ring Opens

I’m hoping it opens the hidden Door of Power, which, once we find it, will lead to three trials that, if we are able to successfully complete them, will lead to the Magic Money Tree that only blooms under the light of the gibbous moon when you say the exact right words in Elvish, which, thank J.R.R. Tolkien, is completely in my skill set.

I have to remember to add “Quest for hidden Door of Power” to our strategic plan. Just in case.

What I’ve Been Reading

Last week at work, I read the Children’s Internet Protection Act and New York’s open meeting laws. I’ll be starting off this week reading a tax booklet on how tax exempt status works in NYS.

Which all goes to say I deserve a gold star. Maybe even two.

At home, I’m reading A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin and hating Joffrey more than I’ve hated anyone real or fictional, ever. I’ve always felt that violent books do not encourage violence, but in my head, I have assassinated Joffrey several times now. I just feel like he has no redeeming qualities and has to go.

I’m not sure increasing my familiarity with the tax code is going to help this situation, yet I persevere.

I’ve Been Playing with infogr.am

Because isn’t that just the kind of thing you do?

And also:


These infogr.am people have gone all kinds of crazy with their spelling and usage, but, still, it’s WAY more fun making graphs and charts in infogr.am than it is in Excel.

This is more strategic planning, incidentally. We’ve been busy here. More to come.


My life has felt a little out of control the last few weeks, which has led me to cleaning my desk. As is always the case, I have encountered notes on meeting agendas that now make no sense to me. Most of them are like this:

What I Do at Meetings

The pictures aren’t mysterious, because I’m always doodling. It’s the math that baffles me. If I’m doing math, there’s usually a pretty good reason for it, the kind of thing that sticks in my head.

Because my math is almost always about money. Money I might have or money I might not have. Sometimes it’s statistics.

Then there was this:

Because Ghosts Have Rights Just Like the Rest of Us

No idea.

Maybe further excavation of my desk will reveal the answer.