A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Telling Our Story

by Pam Smith on November 8, 2018

Pam Smith is Director of Anythink Libraries in Thornton (CO). Contact Pam at psmith@anythink libraries.org. Pam is currently reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

One of my responsibilities as PLA president is to represent public libraries when we receive inquiries from the press. To be the voice for 25,000 libraries can be a bit daunting. However, as the year has progressed, it has turned out to be one of my favorite responsibilities. It is a privilege and a joy to represent this beloved, essential institution.

Recently, I spoke to a reporter who asked about the changing demands on librarians. I thanked the reporter for his curiosity and insightful question. It gave me an opportunity to talk about the evolution of libraries and the role of the librarian. Librarians have always had a remarkable set of skills, and now the expectations are even more diverse and compelling.

For starters, public librarians are adaptable. Each day is a new journey, which may involve helping someone set up their new smart phone or connecting a customer with a dying family member via Skype.

A library is the first place expectant parents visit for information on childbirth and child-rearing and the place that both children and parents find a network of friends during story hours. We are never sure who might walk into our library or what their needs might be, but we do know that we are on their side. This is how libraries have become one of the most trusted of all institutions.

We are in the people business, and that means creatively finding ways to support people in their individual endeavors. We are connectors and catalysts. We connect people with information in an array of formats, including books, digital materials and human experts. We invent programs that create civic engagement. We provide opportunities for people to learn critical-thinking skills that help them analyze the accuracy of news and media. Libraries are a platform for building community, and a place to learn. Whether you are curious about a topic or mastering a new skill, the public library is your place.

Developing partnerships with community experts to provide classes and programs on videography, marketing, and entrepreneurship is becoming the norm. The skill of developing partnerships is as essential as curating a collection of books.

Librarians are relationship builders and collaborators. We know how to make people feel comfortable and welcome. Empathy and generosity guide our decisions.

Libraries are also trusted places for people in distress. Sometimes this involves a medical, legal, or social service issue. All too frequently, we are becoming first responders in life-and-death situations.

I believe that the best librarians are private detectives at heart, masters of sleuthing just the perfect nugget of information or a pathway to a destination. This requires honing the skill of intuition, recognizing patterns, and sometimes taking educated guesses. We are adept at just-in-time learning.

Librarians are some of the smartest people I know. We may not be subject experts in all fields, but we know a little about many things, and we know how to find just about anything.

We all know that the library brand consistently connects with books. From my view of our world, books are just one of our products—our real brand is connecting people with possibility. As we talk about our work, now more than ever, the conversation needs to shift from lists of databases, or numbers of books or computers. We need to talk about the benefits and results of our work. It is a responsibility and a joy to share success stories from our community. This is one way we can shift the conversation from books to people.

The library narrative includes the young man who became a musician after exploring music at the library; he started with listening to music, then experimenting in the recording studio, then learning music theory. Or the successful businessperson, who wrote their business plan at the library, learned how to create a budget and attended a marketing seminar. Or the child who learned to read with the support of a service dog. More seriously, it’s about the teen overdosing in the library whose life was saved by a librarian. Every librarian and every library has a story.

Librarians are unsung heroes. And although the demands on librarians are changing as the world changes around us, we still have some of the best jobs in the world.