A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

What It Means to be a Librarian for the Community

by on June 4, 2013

While attending graduate school for library science, I have a distinct memory of not wanting to work in a public library.   I had no reason to think this, having never worked in one.  So why, after nearly ten years of academic librarianship, am I doing exactly what I thought I never would?  I blame my two sons.

While I was working in my previous job at an academic library, I was appointed to my public library’s board of trustees.   One of my first votes on the board was to approve the purchase of cake pans.  When I pressed for details, I was told this was very successful in a neighboring town.  I was skeptical that this would work and leery about approving the suggested amount for cake pans.  Several months later, I was looking for a spaceship pan for my son’s birthday party.

Four weeks ago, I started work at a public library.  I haven’t figured out if my current library has cake pans, but they do have a seed exchange program that is wildly popular in the community and has attracted media attention throughout the region.

I see very few similarities between my current public library position and my previous positions in academic libraries.  The needs in academia aren’t the same as the needs of taxpayers and community members.  And that’s the key to reframing my thinking about what it means to be a librarian for the community: What is the need and how do we meet it?  There are needs that are being met in the public library that are as diverse as they are unique.   How do these needs become identified?  How do cake pans and seeds become a part of a library collection?  People (staff and users) ask questions.

A large part of my desire to enter public librarianship was due to my two young boys.  I see in them an incredible imagination, an innate curiosity, and a desire to learn.  (This was not something I saw a lot of with first-year or even older college students.)  They ask why.  They are curious.  They are driven to discover.  They need something they can understand, something selected for them at their individual level.  They need resources that engage their imagination.  They need librarians who can help, inspire, and point them to what they desire to know.  They need parents who allow for self-expression and exploration.  Basically, they need access to the things that encourage them to discover.

My fear is that sometime between the ages of three and eighteen, something will change in them and this desire to discover and to learn will evaporate.  I worry that they will stop asking the questions that so inspired me to embrace my profession and to truly understand the reason librarians are so desperately needed in our communities.   Because of them, I have grown.  My attitude has changed.  I want them to always be curious and to discover.  And, I want this for the community I now serve.

As Miss Frizzle says, “If you keep asking questions, you’ll keep getting answers!”  This is why I became a public librarian.  I want to help you find the answers.  But first, you need the questions.