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Libraries & Librarians, a Personal History

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I did not know this week was National Library Week until this morning. Synchronicity! I wrote the first draft of this post last week, when it was not library week, but when I was physically in the library. I didn’t have time to edit and post it right away, but I’m leaving the language as-is because writing about a library in a library is perfect. More perfect is releasing said writing during National Library Week!

Oh, and please see this previous post, where I explain why this one is so very very late in coming. And yes, this is a patron-inspired post. Many many thanks to patron Brandee, who requested I write about libraries/librarians!

Today seems like a good day to tackle this topic. I’m sitting at the Edmonton Public Library right now. It’s not the first time I’ve been here by any means, but it’s the first time I’ve done more than grab a book and go. I brought my laptop and vowed to be more productive than I sometimes am at home, where I have the temptations of the TV and the couch.

Libraries

I love libraries. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom taking me to the Waukesha Public Library back in the 80s. The children’s section had some toys I could play with while Mom looked for grown-up books. My clearest memory is of a farm play-set with realistic animals. The image of that dark bay horse is burned into my mind forever. I was always very put out when some other kid had gotten there first and was playing with my horse. (It’s odd that a  horse toy is what stuck. I’ve never been into horses. Only that one particular figurine at the library.)

When I got a bit older (when I could read competently enough to pick out my own books) I remember discovering all the different subsections within the children’s section. I had visited a planetarium with the Brownies, and did that kid-thing where I was instantly obsessed with astronomy and stars. When I discovered a section of kids’ books about science, which had multiple books about the stars…my little mind was blown. I remember checking out a book with maps of the night sky all drawn out on oversized pages. I can still picture the short bookshelf where I found it, can still feel the overwhelming sense of wonder and awe I got holding that book in my hand. It was nothing short of glorious. (Well, it was glorious for a few weeks until I lost interest in astronomy. Ahh, the fleeting whims of childhood.)

They remodeled the Waukesha Public Library in a big way when I was in school, so my later memories are totally divorced from those earlier ones in a way that makes the early memories feel a bit magical.

We visited the library often when I was growing up–monthly at the very least. My mom would check out something like 20 books at a time and read them all before they were due. It was inspiring. My little stacks of five or so paled in comparison, but they felt huge to me. In fact, Mom read the science fiction section of the library so quickly and thoroughly we had to switch libraries every so often.

The Big Bend Village Library was the one closest to our house, but it was also the smallest in the area, so we rarely went there. It wasn’t worth Mom’s time because what were the chances they’d have 15 new sci-fi or fantasy books she hadn’t already read? Answer: Slim with a chance of None.

The other library I have vivid memories of is the Muskego Public Library. By the time we started going there regularly, I was splitting my time between two sections: children’s and adult science fiction. I was still really into spooky mid-grade/YA books, but I was also diving into classic sci-fi authors like Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey. I still remember taking my first book off the shelf in the grown-up section and taking it home with me. I felt like I’d leveled up (though I didn’t know that phrase at the time).

My later, high school, library memories are less precious to me, as they mostly involve forced visits. Research papers were my least favorite thing about high school. The only good part was when several friends and I all went together to do the research. Unsurprisingly, those trips resulted in more chatting, flirting, and giggling, with only a small side of actual research. However, as delightful as the soccial aspect was, it was always overshadowed by a fear of being scolded for talking too loud in the library.

Librarians

I guess that brings me to the librarian section of the post. I’m sorry to say, I have almost nothing in the way of librarian reminiscences. I think our elementary school librarian’s name was Mrs. Danielson, and I have vague memories of her being mostly nice, but that’s about it. I was so very very introverted as a child. I focused on remaining unnoticed and became very good at it.

I was an advanced reader, and I learned my way around the library at a young age so I never needed to ask for help. In fact, the few times I did need help, I simply wandered around and figured things out on my own because I was too scared to talk to people. This was true in our school library, when we visited the library a few times a week with the specific intention of having a librarian to help us. It was doubly true in public libraries, where I felt I didn’t have as good a reason for being there.

Honestly, as a kid, librarians scared me. I loved the library like nothing else, but librarians were authority figures, and I was scared of getting in trouble. It was like visiting a beautiful, magical castle that was guarded by strong and intimidating knights. I’m not sure why I was so scared of getting yelled at, I never got in trouble as a kid. Maybe that was the problem. I had no context for what it felt like to get be in trouble, so it terrified me. I do remember getting shushed in the children’s section at the Muskego Library and feeling so bad about it I didn’t want to go back for a long time. (And when I finally did, I avoided that librarian for the rest of the years I went there.) I was such a sensitive kid.

As a result, I never interacted with librarians. This makes me sad. As an adult, many of the best people I know are librarians. And I don’t know any librarians who are poor examples of human beings in any way. (I’m sure there must be some out there, but I suspect they’re in the minority.)

Full disclosure, my sister is a librarian (and a coworker of Brandee’s), so I may be a bit biased in that regard. She knew she wanted to be a librarian from the time she was teeny. I always loved books, a lot, but I never had the calling Amber did. She went through school with a purpose, got her MLS and never looked back. She’s now a public reference librarian and is in charge of the local history room at her library.

I was always intensesly jealous of her certainty. She tried to convince me to go to library school for many years. Maybe I should have listened to her. She insisted I’d be good at most of the things she learned, and she’s probably right. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend thousands of additional education dollars on something I wasn’t certain of. I guess I did feel a pull toward library science, but I never got “the call” Amber did. (So I ended up floating from one interesting-but-not-career-furthering job to another all these years. Mostly, I’ve been happy with my decision, though my current jobless state makes me second-guess myself more each day.)

All the librarians I know share some characteristics. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re universal, but I’ve identified a few things that seem to carry through.

Librarians want to help. That’s probably the biggest. Whether it’s in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way (making it easier for others to find what they need) or in a step-right-up way (willingness to answer any and all questions). Their very existence is a boon to society, and on an individual level, they’re in the trenches, helping people day-to-day with far more than just finding books. That brings me to the second thing…

Librarians do more than you think. I think the stereotype is that librarians put away books and point people to them. There is So Much More, it’s mind-boggling. Whether it’s the fact there are many types of librarian or the fact that even the most “stereotypical” librarians do everything from teaching to public outreach to answering questions you would not believe, what most people think of as a librarian’s job is the mere tip of a fascinating, and often really weird iceberg.

Librarians see the big picture. I find people in some professions develop tunnel vision and see the world through the lens of their own job and their own life. The librarians I know have a much broader understanding of the world, its inhabitants, and how those things work together. If you want some perspective on a problem, ask a librarian.

Librarians wear cardigans. I thought this was one of those old stereotypes, like wearing hair in buns and glasses with chains around them, but in my experience, it’s true! And I’m fully behind this sartorial trend. Cardigans are great! Libraries tend to be older buildings that don’t hold heat well. Cardigans=warmth. Dressing professionally is important in a public-facing job, and cardigans perfectly fit the bill. So I guess that’s a stereotype rooted in truth and practicality.

As I sit here typing this, there’s a librarian helping a school kid on a computer. She’s friendly and professional and very helpful. I know as a youngster, I’d’ve shied away from asking for her help because I was too scared. I’d like to think if I needed something today, I’d remember what I’ve learned from my own librarian-friends and feel no fear in asking for assistance.

And yes. She’s wearing a cardigan.

About the Patron:

Brandee is one of my favorite librarians! (Both in real life and in the fascinating world of True Blood Twitter RP.) And yes, saying “favorite” and “librarian” is almost redundant. Saying she’s one of my favorite people is less redundant, and every bit as true. You can find her on twitter at @branflakez, being lovely and positive!

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