This summer I decided to help fill in at the public library. They were short an assistant, and I had time to spare. I work 20 hours a week, so 2 1/2 days. The main reason in needing help was for coverage in support of their summer reading program. I thought it would be fun — a chance to mingle with some kids, and actually see what it’s like when there are adults around.
Coming from an elementary school media center, I thought it would be a good experience. I am certified as a public librarian, as well as a school librarian, but had never actually had any experience in a public setting.
Let me begin by saying… It’s entirely different.
I’m sure all libraries are different — they will vary from school to school and branch to branch. I’m working in a very small branch library, not the main. That’s part of the difference. This is a small-town library which is housed in a 2-room building that used to be a bank. I love the drive-thru window and so do the patrons!! A very handy invention, let me tell you…
The first difference between what we have here and what I have at my school is the way the patrons use the library. When my students come on their own, many will use the computers while they’re there. However, they are using them to take an AR test, check their Destiny Quest, or look something up. They then get new books before heading back to their classrooms.
Here at the public library, they are waiting at the doors for us to open so that they can get on the computers. Their time is limited to an hour a day, and many of our patrons are daily visitors. They come in, spend their hour online, and then leave without a book in hand. Many of our patrons here aren’t even able to check out books because they carry fines on their cards. Policy dictates that if you owe more than $5 you cannot check out a book until you pay it down. However, they are still able to use the computers, so they come in just for that.
It’s also a much more restrictive environment. Confidentiality is a top priority. At school if a teacher says, “Please don’t let little Johnny get any more drawing books — he needs something to read during DEAR time and hasn’t been taking his AR tests,” I try to oblige. When little Johnny comes to check out two more drawing books later that day I steer him into the chapter book section with a slick, “How about we get one drawing book for you to work with at home, and one AR book you can read during DEAR time in class and take an AR test on? Ya know, if you get the drawing dogs book and read A Dog’s Life you may even get extra credit if you draw a picture of a dog and write up a little summary. I can even post it here to advertise the book!”
Which leads me to another big difference: the way we interact with the patrons. When my students bring back books, I talk to them and ask how they liked it, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like. If it’s a book I haven’t read, I’ll ask them what it was about. I’ll ask them what kinds of things they’re interested in to help them find other books they might enjoy. If they’re checking out books on lizards, for example, I might ask if they’re doing a project or wanting a new pet.
In the realm of the public library, however, such discussion is frowned upon. Their materials are to be checked out without any regard to what it is. When a patron comes in and tells us excitedly about how much they enjoyed the book, it’s fine to listen and discuss. But to ask a child if he’s doing a project for school? Heaven forbid! I haven’t had to deal with this issue, but was warned by one of my co-workers not to as she’s been reprimanded for such atrocities in the past.
The most pronounced difference, I suppose, is the amount of use. While (to my understanding) life in the main branch is always busy and verging on chaotic, this smaller branch is very slow and laid-back. I remember my first Monday (our busiest day), the branch manager asked me how the “rush” went. Rush? What rush? The 10 people who came in and spent an hour exchanging books? “Oh, it went well. Smooth as silk.” In my library, it’s not at all uncommon for their to be a class in the mini-lab using the computers, while I’m teaching a lesson to another class, random students are up checking out books, staff members are needing materials gathered or are having issues with the copiers, and we have small group instruction going on in the various lofts surrounding the media center.
It’s really a shame people don’t make better use of the public libraries. It was announced yesterday one of our county’s branches will be closing next month. If you don’t use them, you lose them.