It's National Librarian Day. And I don't know about you, but I've missed my trips to the library this last year. Maybe you're lucky enough to be reading this from somewhere they've been open a while now.
One of my first jobs was being a Library Assistant. And during that time, I learned a few surprising things about the way libraries are run. From bomb scares to angry authors, here are some behind the scenes stories from a local library service.
Libraries have panic buttons. And security guards.
OK, probably not all of them, but more than you’d expect. Even in ‘nice’ areas like a smallish wealthy-ish city in the south of England.
These measures aren’t so an over zealous librarian can tackle you to the floor over unpaid fines. Library staff do experience a certain amount of abuse from the people who visit. Personally, I think you have to be mad to shout at the people who are letting you have access to books and movies and music FOR FREE.
I’ve seen it firsthand. In a busy city centre library, a reader launched into a loud and lengthy rant at the staff, and honestly I can’t remember much of what he said. What I do remember though is what happened next. Another man in the library was on his way out when he passed this tirade. He politely cut in to speak to the librarian on the receiving end of the angry reader's rant.
“Excuse me, so sorry to interrupt. I just want to say that I’ve been coming here for ten years and I think you do a wonderful job. Thank you, and keep up the good work.”
With that, he left. The shouting man was taken aback, and when he resumed his complaints, it was with a little less vigour. The kind words of a stranger had knocked the wind from his sails.
While all this happened, the security guard stood close by, waiting for a signal to escort this man out of the library before things got any more out of hand. Because members of the public don’t always save the day with their compliments.
I don’t think libraries should need panic buttons, but it seems that they do.
Not all the requests make sense
A key part of my job at the library service was to track down books we didn't have in stock, or that readers couldn't find. It was a lot of fun. But sometimes I'd get a request in where, to be honest, it was hard not to laugh.
'I’m looking for a book. I’m not sure who it’s by and can’t quite remember the title. But the cover is red. Do you know the one I mean?' (Regretfully, I had not memorised a list of all the red books.)
'Why doesn't the library have The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Roald Dahl?' (I’m confident that no library on this earth stocks that particular book.)
Then there was the angry email from an author saying she COULD NOT BELIEVE we didn’t stock more copies of her books (her capitals, not mine). Didn’t we KNOW WHO SHE WAS? As a writer, I cringe at this strategy when I imagine trying to use it. I'm not sure I know any writers who would think this was a good idea!
Librarians don't know everything (but they do know where to find the answer to your question)
‘How many toes does a crocodile have?’
I didn’t know the answer either, but a colleague at the library service was asked this.
I never really wanted to destroy this illusion that librarians are omniscient. So when a gentleman with a lovely Swansea accent phoned up to ask about a particular issue of an old journal, I told him that the reason he couldn’t find it was that the publication had changed its name decades ago, but that we did have the issue he was looking for, and here was how to find it. I didn’t tell him that he’d called the wrong number, it wasn’t my job to know these things, and that I’d Googled all the information I’d just provided!
Here are some other questions I fielded during my time there:
What do the Roman Numerals LXVII stand for? (Nice to be able to use that degree in Classics as part of my work)
I’ve lost my wife, can you help me find her? (We did)
There’s a suspicious looking package in the carpark near me, and I think it might be a bomb, what do I do? (Probably not call your library head office, to be honest. Fortunately, I am exactly the sort of person to have read and memorised the official guidelines for what to do in this scenario. That might not be normal.)
So now that we have our libraries back, what are you most looking forward to? For me, it's the chance to browse some new authors and introduce my three year old to some different picture books. And I definitely plan to be nice to the librarians!
Let me know if there's anything else you think the world should know about their local library.