In my short 26 years of life on this earth, I have had the good fortune of landing myself some really lovely library jobs.
My first semester of college, I chanced into a 1-credit course called LIB 197. “Chanced” because I received a scholarship from my school’s Honors Program with some fairly strict requirements…. some of which I was not fully aware of. In the middle of Learning to Live On My Own, Being Homesick, Meeting New People Anxiety and the like, I realized that I needed an extra Honors course into my already tenderly arranged schedule.
So a one credit library course it was.
The class was fine. Fairly low stress. Taught by one of the school’s Reference librarians, who was cool and had a nifty Canadian accent…. who also gave me my only A-minus of the semester, thus ruining what would be my only chance at a 4.0 semester for the rest of my college career.
But shortly before the end of the semester, that same professor dropped me an email. The Reference department of my school’s library was hiring for the next semester. In order to get the job, you have to have taken LIB 197. If I wanted to apply, she would put my application on the top of the stack.
I hadn’t even thought about getting a job at that point, but, when you put it that way…
I started training a few weeks later, shadowing reference librarians and other student workers, learning how to call in printer jams and develop an inner clock that reminded me to get up and copy down the gate count numbers on the hour, every hour. When classes recommenced in January, I would start spending 15-20 hours at the Charles V. Park library every week, and I didn’t stop until I graduated three and a half years later.
While I was a student worker, I really enjoyed my coworkers and the work I did on the job. We were primarily “desk sitters,” answering questions at both the reference desk as well as the weird information desk at the bottom of four-stories of balconies. We were also Library Drink Nazis; it took me a semester, but after that point I harassed those stealthy patrons, smuggling their Java City cups under their coats, with gusto. Sitting downstairs meant less involved questions – Where’s the bathroom? (behind you) Where’s the Writing Center? (third floor) How do I get your job? (You can’t! I’m never leaving! Ha!) – but relative isolation. No back-up person to handle weird questions (or patrons), sole responsibility for drink Nazi-ing as well as figuring out if people were stealing library books when the alarm went off (most of the time no, but some of the time, yes). And there was a draft. A very drafty draft. But the Reference Desk came with its quirks as well – lots and LOTS of printing problems, which were tedious and sometimes involved enraged patrons or rude maintenance people, or when printing goes down for an entire four story facility with over 400 computers? Complete mayhem. But the questions were more engaging – “Welcome to the Wide and Wonderful World of DATABASES!” - But there were librarians to chat with and when they went home at 9, a coworker would arrive to double-staff the desk.
And we liked each other, let me tell you. One time, I wanted out of a crappy shift during finals week so I could go eat dinner at a friend’s house. I emailed the listserv of my coworkers that very afternoon and asked if anyone wanted to work 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. that night. Within an hour, I had a reply – “You work with So-and-so tonight, right? If you do, I will totally take your shift.” The schedule was designed around our classwork and was fairly flexible, and people were generally willing to step in and help each other out.
This last phenomenon (and the fact that everyone who walked by me wanted my job) was probably due to the fact that we were allowed and encouraged to do our homework while on the desk. I covered shifts all the time with the idea that I could either A) spend three hours at home trying to do my homework but really end up watching TV marathons on my laptop or B) go to the library, trap myself behind a desk with my homework, and get paid.
Now, looking back on my experiences with a few years of library school and other library working experience under my belt, I can see that the reference department really landed on a great system for a number of reasons:
1) If you require students to have taken a specific course in order to apply for the job – and, in turn, promote students who do well in the course to apply – you are more likely to employ (and keep) better (and smarter) workers.
Better workers will work harder on the job, will learn faster, will be more invested in their job performance.
if you tell a bunch of overachieving college kids that they can do their homework at work? They will do anything to keep that job. Even work 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. shifts at the last minute.
I think the hiring librarians caught on to this – halfway through my time at the library, LIB 197H became a required course for all incoming students with my particular Honors scholarship.
Sure, research skills are super important to learn and the class was totally valuable, but the reference department also now had a built in pool of 60 or so of the school’s smartest, hardest working kids to choose from each semester.
I worked with a disproportionate amount of Honors and Centralis students over my 3 and a half years on the job.
2) We were given a lot of responsibility and a lot of respect… for undergraduates.
Now that I am a high-and-mighty graduate student, I tend to look down my nose at the 19-year-olds that work around my campus. They are not very…. helpful, I would say. And when I tell people that I work with at my current library job that I used to sit at the Reference desk and answer questions without a librarian on hand, they drop their jaws.
This could the culture of my particular institution. I did used to be one of those 19-year-old undergraduate underlings, and I essentially did the same job I am doing now, and I did it well.
I think that we all stepped up to the responsibility we were given. We learned on the job, handled the occasional crises without anyone stepping in to help, answered the phones, called in emergencies, chased down the occasional drink-sneaker.
And there was room for advancement in the job, as well: certain students were singled out for a “promotion” to Advanced student worker. As an Advanced student worker, I was then occasionally asked to lead library tours and give short bibliographic instruction to small groups from outside the college.
The librarians we worked with respected us and were very nurturing, both on the job and in encouraging us all to drop our career trajectories and be librarians.
Annie, Maria, Lauren, Emily, Jenny, and me? We did.
3) We were very well trained
Yes, we were undergraduates, but we had two supervisors who made sure we knew what the hell we were doing.
We had that LIB 197 under our belts, which basically covered everything you should know about doing academic research.
Before starting on the desk by ourselves, we had something like 20 or 30 hours of official training, including a 6-hours-on-Saturday training day, shadowing librarians and our coworkers, filling out questionnaires with sample reference and information questions, etc.
Sure, I was scared shitless the first time I showed up to work and had to sit by myself downstairs at the desk, but I did have the knowhow at that point to at least be somewhat useful to our patrons.
We also had monthly staff meetings for all the student workers, and our supervisors always included a little bit of “continuing education,” usually focusing on something that we weren’t doing too well (finding Government Documents for example), or some new database or feature in the catalog.
With a little more experience under my belt, I can say that this whole system was very well executed and led to highly skilled reference workers and happy, enthusiastic employees.
On a personal note, my college library job
- kept me busy
- kept me solvent
- kept me honest (regarding my studies)
- let me watch librarians at work, 20 hours a week
- introduced me to some great people who I enjoy running into at conferences and who supported me in undergrad and support me now with references and other encouragements.
I liked my job a lot. I was sad to leave. Without it, I would probably not be getting my MLS today.
And sometimes, I even miss staring at these elevator doors for 2-6 hours a day.
P.S.! I forgot the best part of this story:
I didn’t draw that picture.
I came into work one day, sat down at the computer,
and this was the desktop wallpaper.
Courtesy of one of my ever-amusing coworkers.
But even in MSPaint, it just brings it alll back.