The Lifeguards at your Library

Today, I’ve tamed a jammed printer, united a toddler with his hysterical mother, located the nearest clambake, and explained why it’s not appropriate to watch pornography in public places – and it’s not quite noon. Sometimes, staffing the reference desk makes me feel like a lifeguard; I’m either scanning the water or teaching people how to paddle in it. The floundering I see takes different forms: customers seeking fiction recommendations, struggling with digital downloads, wilting under the weight of the Dewey Decimal system. I’m able to hoist visitors out of this metaphorical whitewater most of the time, but yes, it’s sometimes just as exhausting as it sounds; after all, there’s a lot to look out for in our library.

Our building keeps a fantastic collection of books, and for many people, a trip down means perusing until something catches their eye. Using the library solely for this purpose is marvelous in and of itself, but our services are more than what we offer in our stacks. Three times a week, one of our classrooms hosts a social services program that helps community members find housing, employment, and more fundamental resources like food and clothing. Every Wednesday, a lawyer makes use of that same classroom to provide free legal consultation to those that might not otherwise be able to afford it. Our librarians use the space to lead computer classes, eBook tutorials, and even hold one-on-one sessions with patrons to help them with business, legal, or other information-related needs.

And this is just a single room in our library; other wonders take place all over the building. If patrons are homebound, we offer services that get books in their hands. If we don’t have the book someone’s looking for, we can find it from another library in the country, sometimes shipping materials all the way from the Library of Congress. If anyone, inside or outside of the district, is seeking an obituary from the local paper, we can run through our microfilm archives to find it. All this, not to mention our story times, book clubs, and computer labs, are happening all the time. This kind of access to information is incredible, and, wonderfully, it’s open to anybody who walks through our doors.

This kind of inclusivity is incredibly uncommon across any community. Many institutions, whether they mean to or not, exclude individuals based on wealth, age, or skill level. But the library? Our doors act as an equalizer. No matter who walks in, they’ll have access to the same information, services, and space as anyone else – a principle that rarely exists elsewhere in town.

It may be surprising, then, that when I tell people I work at a library, the most common response seems to be, “What do you do, sit around and read all day?” In reality, I’m working tirelessly to ensure that anyone and everyone who walks through our doors can, in fact, sit around and read – and more. The reference desk attracts problems both small and seemingly insurmountable, both the light and the heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s the little things – I’ve brainstormed essays, solved crossword clues, and recommended recipes – but there are heavier tasks, and interactions that take longer but have a larger effect: printing resumes, locating legal paperwork, mapping out the nearest shelter for those in need.

It’s true: sometimes, I feel like a lifeguard. There’s a lot of drowning out there, and as a library worker, I’m right in the middle of it. But regardless of whatever challenges I face at the desk, I never walk into work and think, “What will I have to deal with today?” Instead, not a day passes without my own excitement toward the interactions I am about to have with my friends and neighbors, and the bright, gratifying pride that comes from observing the ripple effect each transaction has. Working at the desk means I’m connecting a thru-hiker with Internet access, or a new kindergarten teacher with our school tools, or a struggling individual with a warm place to sleep for the night. So no matter how exhausted I am at the end of the day, it will have all been to ensure that the library continues to be the extraordinary institution it is, an institution open to everybody – and I don’t mind playing lifeguard to keep it that way.