When I look back at the most influential people of my childhood, there’s my family (of course), the parents of my best friends, a handful of fabulous teachers, and a group you might not expect: Librarians.
I don’t think librarians get enough credit in the lives of kids and adults, so I want to take a minute to say thank you. Of course, not everyone has fond memories of librarians. Kids who weren’t interested in reading and adults who don’t read probably wonder why on earth I’m giving a shout out to a profession they consider unnecessary.
For a kid who was an avid reader, though, the librarian was (and remains) a positive influence. Not all librarians are great. As with any job, there are the duds who don’t care, who are simply marking time until retirement. Fortunately, these are few and far between. Most librarians are awesome, passionate people, eager to help you find the joy of reading.
They are not paid enough for all that they do. In fact, many find themselves on the unemployment line these days as more places cut funding in favor of electronic resources (or having no libraries at all). As if a computer can ever replace the knowledge of a great librarian! In a culture that treats books and reading as disposable luxuries instead of necessities, librarians are in danger of extinction. And that’s simply wrong. They deserve our respect, not contempt.
As a reader, I met many librarians over the years. There were the ones who worked in the public library branches I frequented, and the ones who worked in the school libraries. Since I also hung out in obscure places at a young age, I met librarians at universities, in churches, and in museums. I was fortunate in that most of the workers I encountered were friendly and helpful. Very few duds in the bunch!
What I remember most is the effort they put forth on my behalf. It didn’t matter if my question was small or large, they were there to help. Most of them went way beyond the basics and dug up extra resources for me. I’d be sitting at the table, working on some report, and the books and journals would keep piling up next to me, page flagged to the useful bits. The librarian would silently find stuff and drop it on the pile like some kind of book ninja.
I know now that it was because they were passionate about their jobs and loved finding obscure stuff just as much as I did. They genuinely wanted to help. At the time I was simply amazed by that willingness to help. (When you’re a kid, you get brushed off a lot of the time so when someone takes the time to dig deep, it makes an impression.)
While my parents were the first to instill a love of books and reading in me, librarians run a close second. When I think of the people who made me into a reader (and writer), they are high on the list. They taught me how to search for books. Back in the day, we had to use the cumbersome card catalog. It required an actual class to master. Beyond that, the best librarians taught me how to search farther afield in journals and databases. If they knew where to find something, they shared that knowledge. They gave me the tools to uncover knowledge.
I also remember their encouragement. Librarians are great recommenders of books. If you like something, they can tell you ten things off the top of their head that are sort of like that thing. Give them five minutes and they can come up with ten more. At least. They also encouraged me to try different things. “Well, it’s great that you like Book X, but Book Y is good, too. A little different from your normal fare, but I think you’ll like it.” They gave me a gentle push into other genres and subjects and helped me find new loves.
And yet, they never took it personally if I didn’t like their recommendations. Librarians are resilient. You don’t like that book, that’s okay because they’ve got fifty more for you to try! They never got huffy if I said I’d rather not read something, and they never criticized me if I picked something they didn’t care for. Most simply smiled and said, “Hey, it’s great that you’re reading!” To a kid, that kind of freedom and wide open encouragement is liberating. While most teachers are forcing you to read certain things, librarians let you go free range. Some even enjoy subverting the school system a bit, sending you off on a fun tangent designed to mitigate the pain of forced reading.
Finally, there is the huge amount of time librarians invest in their jobs. They endlessly host story hours, summer reading programs, and book clubs. They teach classes. Even long after you’ve left school, you’ll still find librarians devoted to helping you become a bigger, better reader. They’ll teach you to use the latest apps and ereaders, show you how to use all the newest databases, and hook you up with book clubs, writing groups, and other people who will become your tribe. And they don’t get paid extra for any of this. They do it because they love books, reading, and readers.
Librarians may have helped make me a reader when I was a kid, but they still help me even now. I know that if I have a research question for one of my books, they’ll help me. Sure, there’s Google, but librarians can often direct you to the more personal sources. They know people and they know their stuff. It’s silly not to tap into that knowledge. Plus, most of them are just good, friendly people. It’s nice to walk into the library and be greeted by name. Even if I’m in a “foreign” library I’ve never visited before, I know that I’m most likely among friends. All I have to to is introduce myself and ask for help. I don’t think you can get that anywhere else in the world, outside of your own family. (And sometimes not even then.)
(Photo courtesy of Skitterphoto)