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.

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