in which i enjoy my first day as a librarian, and explain something about library work

Yesterday was my first day as a librarian! And it was great!

I'm only doing orientation and training right now, but I can tell how much I'm going to enjoy this job. I love the environment; I share the same goals and many of the same values. I have concerns, of course - this is not only a career change for me, it's a complete lifestyle change - but I'm not trying to answer every question in advance. I'm trusting that many issues will work themselves out over time. (Patience, the brighter side of aging.)

I'm back at the Central Library, in the Children's department (CNCS), where I started as a page in November 2011. After 14 months there, I worked briefly as a page in a branch library, then as a circulation clerk in a different branch. The branch experience was invaluable, and I'll want to have more of it one day. For now, though, I'm very happy to be back at CNCS.

I'll write more about my job as it develops. One thing I'm excited about: selection! Each librarian in CNCS is responsible for an area of selection for the entire system. One person does picture books, one does easy readers, one does junior fiction (chapter books), and so on.

By perfect happenstance, I've been assigned junior nonfiction. One of my library issues is that nonfiction is too often overlooked in readers' advisory - that library staff focuses solely on fiction, and forgets to offer nonfiction choices. I used to write junior non-fiction and I've always loved to read nonfiction, so this is a natural fit for me.

* * * *

My part-time librarian position is temporary: full-time librarian A went on maternity leave, part-time librarian B took A's position, and now I fill the part-time B's position. Ideally, a full-time librarian position will post in about six months, after I have some experience, and I'll compete successfully for that. If not, I have another job waiting for me, also in Central, as an "LA3B" in the "Reader's Den" department.

A what? What does that mean?

Something I learned in library school: most people you see working at a public library are not librarians. There are pages, of course - the people sorting and shelving books. In between the pages and the librarians, there are several levels of jobs called Library Assistants or Library Technicians (or something else), each level having more responsibility, requiring more experience and skills, and being better compensated.

In the Mississauga Library System, for example, the different levels are referred to by number: a Level 2 is a materials-processing clerk, a Level 3A is a circulation clerk, a Level 3B does reference and programming, a Level 4 does reference and programming and is a supervisor or "in-charge" person, a Level 5 can run a small branch or a department. Further up the hierarchy is the professional level, with a Master's degree in Library and Information Science as the key to admission. Within the professional level, there are librarians, senior librarians, and managers.

These days, there are fewer librarians in any given library, and you can guess why. Librarians are expensive. Increasingly, over the last decade or so, librarians are in managerial positions - involved in planning and decision-making, while the day-to-day implementation is handled by LAs/LTs.

This is not to say that librarians aren't involved in the daily operations of libraries. They definitely are. But, for example, in the branch I just left, in a typical day, there might be nine staff members present: one librarian who is the manager, one librarian at the desk, one "Level 4" at the desk, two "Level 3Bs" doing programs and helping out at the deks, three "Level 3As" on check-out and check-in, and one page.

This is depressing for people who've invested so much time and money in a Master's program. Despite the huge number of baby-boomer-age librarians retiring, few actual librarian positions become available.

But it's good news for general employment. The library (like the legal industry that I recently left) is one of the few remaining work environments where you can be trained on the job and wind up with decent employment, without an advanced degree. But - and it's a big but, a but that excludes many people - you'd have to be able to afford it. You'd start as a page earning minimum wage, then (if you're good and lucky) land an LA/LT position, where the hourly pay rate isn't bad, but you probably won't work full-time. How many people can afford to do that?

* * * *

Ten years ago, if you were in a public library and went to the reference desk with a question, chances are you would have spoken to a librarian. Not anymore. These days, those jobs have been downgraded - in the sense of education and salary level - and are now LAs or LTs. Whether through job cuts, like in the US or UK, or attrition, as is usually the case in Canada, the public face of the library is increasingly non-professional staff.

That LA or LT has, presumably, participated in training workshops conducted by librarians, has observed and assisted, has guidelines to follow, and so on. Is that enough? I go back and forth.

On the one hand, I learned precious little in my Master's program that is of any practical value. There was one reference course, which included a unit on readers' advisory. If you stripped that course of theory and academic bullshit, the librarian-led workshop probably serves the same purpose, or maybe exceeds it. And these jobs are highly competitive. The people who get them are (usually) really good. At a public library, most reference questions are fairly basic, and librarians and specialists should be available for more involved research.

On the other hand, part of me thinks the library itself has been diminished by these changes. There are people working reference desks who don't read, and who have never done research. They're great at customer service and programming, but their reference skills are limited. Bringing someone over to the general section they need should be only the first step. Offering ideas of where to go next, suggesting other avenues of research, teaching a customer how to use a database - does non-librarian staff dig in this way?

And still, on the other hand... public libraries are much more about customer service and programming than about reference. Programming is king: children's storytimes, teen poetry slams, an English conversation circle, a resume workshop, an older-adult social - and dozens more examples - is what makes the public library today. These programs are planned by librarians, but mostly led by non-professional staff, who are really good at their jobs.

It is, after all, public dollars we're spending. The savings isn't being funnelled into shareholders' dividends or lavish bonuses. We do have an obligation to keep costs down.

So I get it... but I have some reservations.


Lorne said...

Great to read that you are settling in, Laura. I look forward to reading your future updates.

James Redekop said...

Great to hear you've landed in such a good environment!

And speaking of the Children's department, I came across a couple of great graphic novels for kids at TCAF: Luke Pearson's Hilda books. Have you seen them?

Hilda and the Midnight Giant
Hilda and the Bird Parade

M@ said...

Sounds like things are looking good! I suspect the worst day at the library will easily beat the best day at the law firm.

James, isn't "Have you seen these books in your library?" kind of similar to saying "hey, you live in Toronto, do you know my cousin?"

allan said...

Actually liking your job ... what a concept!!!

laura k said...

Have you seen them?

We tend to be a bit behind on junior graphic novels, because of the ordering process. But you can check the MLS library catalogue here!

I was pleased to see we have the graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time now.

laura k said...

Actually liking your job ... what a concept!!!

It's been a long, long time!

laura k said...

I suspect the worst day at the library will easily beat the best day at the law firm.

My new quote of the day. Destined for my new desk!

James Redekop said...

Actually, I was asking more "have you seen these books at all", not just "in your library". I think Laura'd really like them, and they'd be great for a Children's department.

I picked up both Hilda books at TCAF and read them on the way home. Great artwork and a fun fantasy-in-the-real-world setting.

Amy said...

So glad to hear that things are off to a good start. Juvenile non-fiction---sounds great! I still remember reading my first real non-fiction book--a one volume history of the world. I was about 10 or 11 and just fascinated. It definitely led to my interest in history. So think of how you might be influencing some future historian or scientist or philosopher or whatever!! ENJOY!

laura k said...

still remember reading my first real non-fiction book--a one volume history of the world.

I wrote those kinds of books for a while, one of my absolute favourite writing gigs. *sigh*

But yeah, it's really cool to be involved with what kids read.

Amy said...

I forgot---my first non-fiction was really when I was in third grade. The library had a set of biographies of the childhoods of many famous people. They had orange covers and black and white silhouette illustrations. I read every single one of them! The one on Abraham Lincoln was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the man and times he lived in.

And it was all because there was a children's librarian! (My aunt had given me the first one I read---of William Penn, and it was the librarian who showed me that there was a whole series after I told her what book I had just read at home.)

(Isn't it bizarre how old memories can be stirred this way? Sorry to be waxing so nostalgic!)

laura k said...

I also read from a series of children's biographies - read them like crazy. Which is kind of funny, because as an adult I normally don't read biographies. Although I am reading one now!

As you might imagine, talking about children's books usually brings out nostalgia in adults. That speaks to one of the reasons I am so passionate about children's lit - books can mean so much to us when we're kids and teens. Even though I am still a voracious reader, will a book ever mean as much to me as an adult as (eg) The Outsiders did when I was in 6th grade? Never.

Amy said...

Yes, I agree---books you read as a child or teen can move you in ways that never leave you. Crying over Charlotte, being amused by the cleverness of The Phantom Tollbooth, marveling at the childhoods of famous people, visiting foreign lands and long ago times---what else can do that as well as a good book? Maybe a movie, but somehow when the world of the book is in your own head, with your own imagined visualization, it seems to stay much longer.

laura k said...

Yes, I think the more active you are in the process - the more imagination you use - the more the images stay with you. At least that is true for heavy readers. It's probably different for people who are struggling readers.

You might enjoy this book about reading that I once blogged about. It's divided up into stand-alone sections, so you can easily read any one part without reading the whole book. The last chapter is about what reading means to people who read.

Reading Matters: What the research reveals about reading, libraries and community

Amy said...

Great---I just added it to my Amazon Wish List for my next set of purchases! Thanks.

laura k said...

You might want to look for it at your local library. For me it wasn't a "must own" book, the library was adequate.

Amy said...

Good idea! But adding it to my Wish List means that I will at least remember to look for it.

laura k said...

Oh, I see, your To Read list.

I keep mine in a file called "books" pinned at the top of my document list. Books I haven't gotten/read in bold, books I own and want to read but haven't read in italics, and when I read anything on the list, it stays on the list in regular type.

It's an imperfect system, though, as I read lots of books that aren't on The List and don't write down the titles. And this bothers me.

Amy said...

That made me smile--you really are a born librarian!

The Amazon Wish List has been a good way for me to keep a list of books, especially since I can easily see what the book is about, rather than relying on my memory. But I also keep a Note on my phone with a list of books, for example, when someone mentions a book to me when I am not at my computer. That way I don't have to wait until I get home to add it to my Wish List. But it also means that I have two lists, and sometimes I forget to check them both when I am adding books to my Kindle or at a bookstore.

One of the things I do like about the Kindle is that any book I read on it stays there where I can easily look it up when someone says, "Have you read any good books lately?"

laura k said...

It sounds like a good system, even though there are two non-coordinated lists.

I purposely don't make or want notes on what the book is about. When I get to it, I'm starting cold, the way I like to read.

I've kept this list since the early 1980s, when (post-university) I would read book reviews, but go into a library or a bookstore without a clue as to what I wanted.

I wish I had also written down every title I read, whether from The List or not. Part of my compulsiveness of wanting to document everything.

Lots of people now use Library Thing to keep track of their whole personal library. But it's too late for me, I'm not scanning in all the books in our house!

James Redekop said...

My current system is, whenever I listen to a podcast interviewing an author about an interesting-sounding book, I hop on the Kobo website and add the book to my previews. Eventually I hope to get through them all!

Latest additions are Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature and Mario Livio's Brilliant Blunders. Recently read were Mary Roach's Gulp, Kate Fox's Watching the English, Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, and Ben Goldacre's Bad Pharma, which I'm about 15 pages short of finishing. All excellent.

laura k said...

Impressive. Some of those are on my list, too!

I could never, and will never, read all the books on my list. My tastes are too eclectic and far-ranging, and my time too limited. *sigh*

impudent strumpet said...

Things They Should Invent: a to-read list attached to the library catalogue. If, for whatever reason, you don't want to put a book on hold but want to keep it in mind, there would be an "Add to my list" button. The Toronto library had this "My List" thing in their old catalogue, but it would clear whenever you logged out. There was talk of making a better one with the new catalogue, but that hasn't happened yet.

laura k said...

It's a very good idea, and it would seem so easy to do. But I guess it's not.

A (clunky) workaround is to put the book on hold, then suspend the hold. Then a list of your suspended holds functions as a to-read list.

laura k said...

Imp Strump, your question in the job-announcement thread inspired this post.