Check out my stickers

During my second week at my new library job, I found myself sitting at the reference desk applying stickers to my prosthetic arm. When I was finished, I had a trail of assorted insects (and a few spiders) zigzagging around my arm. It didn’t take long for someone to comment on my bugs. That, of course, was the point.

It had been so long since I’d worked with the general public that I had almost forgotten why I used to keep my arm decorated with stickers. It wasn’t the love of stickers or the desire to show off my favorite bands or opinions. It was an opening. It was for all those people who would never ask me directly about my prosthetic arm, but would say something about my stickers. It was my way of saying that I’m not taking this too seriously. I’m not pretending that you don’t notice my difference. I’m saying it’s okay to notice.

I started the sticker thing when I was working as a server. I was a college student looking to make a decent amount of money with a flexible schedule. What better job than waiting tables, right? I was fortunate enough to find someone willing to give me a chance despite the obvious question: can a person with one arm do this job?? It turned out that yes, I could do the job. I did it for the next several years. It didn’t take long for me to learn the particulars of the job. It probably took me even less time to learn that unaddressed curiosity is THE WORST.

Maybe you don’t know this, but I can tell when you’re curious about me. I can feel it. You might think you are keeping your questions quiet, but you wear them in your body language. Most people do, anyway. And when I have to interact with you repeatedly, like when I am serving you a meal at a restaurant, it’s uncomfortable for both of us to ignore the questions you are trying so hard to hold in.

You know what’s bad for tips: awkwardness. It just is. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a bigger tip because the customer feels guilty about the awkwardness. But most of the time, awkward = bad tip. That wasn’t good for my pocketbook, and it made my job way less fun. So I stuck a few stickers to my arm.

It’s funny what a few stickers can do. They’re an icebreaker. They’re a signal. They cut the awkwardness down to almost nothing. They give people an out if they are caught staring.

When I started working in a public library, the stickers became even more important. I wanted to be approachable to my library patrons (and successful in my career) even more than I had wanted good tips in my serving job, and I really didn’t want the many, many kids I saw at the library to feel uncomfortable around me or afraid of me. No one wants to be an object of fear.  Librarians especially so. I wanted kids to know that they could ask me anything, and I wouldn’t judge them for it. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t value curiosity, and I wouldn’t have chosen to work with young people, if I wasn’t comfortable answering these kinds of questions.  I’ve found it helps to dive into the questions, get them answered, and move on from there. Watching people hold questions in makes my job way less fun.

I was reminded of that as I started my new job—back in public service at a library after several years in the not-public side of the library world. This week I changed the bugs to something more summery just as I had told a young library visitor I would. “Come back in a couple of weeks,” I’d said. “I already have my summer stickers picked out. Wait’ll you see ‘em!”

Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it wouldn’t be what you would do if you were me. Maybe a lot of things. For now: wait’ll you see my new stickers. ;)

Are you really a librarian?

Yes and no. The answer to the question “What do you do?” should not really be this complicated, but it is for me.  Yes, I am a librarian. No, I do not work in a library. This is usually when I get a blank look from whoever I am speaking to, and I start trying to explain: I’m a staff librarian at a book company. I’m one of the people, there are several of us, who help the real (more straightforward) librarians decide what books to buy.

A colleague of mine wrote about this very situation. He said,

“Here’s the thing. I don’t work at a library. Or maybe put in another way . . . I work at thousands of libraries. I work for a vendor that sells materials and services to school libraries across the country. My exact title is collection development specialist, and my primary task is to assist schools in finding the newest and best resources for their classrooms and media centers. In essence, I shop for books all day with other people’s money. Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet gig.”

Unlike my colleague, though, who says “But in my heart of hearts I know I’m not really a librarian,“ I argue that I am a librarian, and that the work that I do isn’t that far removed from what I did when I was in a public library.  It’s just a lot more specific.

In a library, I worked at a reference desk where I answered questions from library patrons about books or about whatever else they wanted to know.  There’s no reference desk at a book company, but the librarians in my department are to go-to people for anything book or library related.  I still spend a good portion of my work days answering questions, helping people, and finding information.  Just like a librarian.

The biggest part of my job is book promotion and collection development, just like it was when I was in a public library. I review and evaluate books.  I look for ways to connect them to readers or classrooms.  I might not be making displays or bulletin boards like I used to, but I am making book lists of all sorts for the librarians I speak with to use in their libraries.  As in the quote above, my primary task is helping librarian shop for books.  He’s right about one thing: it is a pretty sweet gig.

That all said, there’s a lot I miss about working in a library.  I definitely miss working with kids directly. One day I’d like to get back to that, and meanwhile I still look for opportunities to connect with young people whenever I can.  But the biggest thing I miss is the ease with which I could answer the question “What do you do?”

I do, however, answer the question “Are you really a librarian?” with a yes. Even if it does require a bit of explanation. ;)

Why I am a Librarian

For School Library Month, librarians all over the Internet are sharing their stories of why they became librarians with the hashtag #whylib.  For me, becoming a librarian was more of a why not? than a why.  I didn’t really know what to do with my English degree other than write, and I knew I needed something to pay the bills while I wrote my novel.  I’d always loved libraries, so it seemed like a natural fit for me to be a librarian.  I started library school with my only expectation being he hope that I could support a writing career by the end.

Along the way–between classes in reference and instruction and other library staples–I discovered Young Adult Literature.  I knew very quickly that this was it for me.  Teen fiction and library services to teens was my professional heart.  My first job out of library school was focused on teen services at a public library, and it was a tremendous learning experience for which I am incredibly grateful.

From there, I went to work in the book industry–first for one book distributor/library vendor and now another–where my focus has widened from teens to the whole range of K-12 education.  This was a new perspective for me, and I didn’t really know if I would take to it.

After almost ten years on this side of the library world, I can say that I have gained a strong appreciation for the power of libraries–and librarians–along with a knowledge of children’s literature from picture books and easy readers to the teen fiction I still love.

I may have begun my career with a why not?, but every new experience has given me more of a why than ever.  The twenty-year-old me who started library school would never have guessed that I would end up being as passionate about picture books, storytimes, and children’s programming as I ever was about teen fiction.

I have learned a lot.  Mostly about connection, community, and the power of stories.  That’s what libraries are all about, and that’s why I am a librarian.

Related Links:

  • 6 Things I Wish I’d Known – I wrote this post after listening to an MPR segment with a similar theme.
  • Reflections of a Book Reviewer – My post after eight years of reviewing books for Library Journal.
  • Remember Your Why – From the Letters to a Young Librarian blog.
  • #whylib – Follow the hashtag on Twitter.

 

The Post Script is that I have not yet written a novel, but I still dream of doing so one day.  In the meantime, I had an article in last month’s VOYA Magazine. ;)

Reflections of a Book Reviewer

I recently turned in my last review for Library Journal. After eight years and over fifty reviews, I have decided to call it quits so I can focus on other aspects of my career. I have to admit: I will miss it.

Everybody is a reviewer these days. Thanks to sites like Amazon and Goodreads or social media, we can share all sorts of personal reactions to whatever media we consume when we feel compelled to do so, but there was something different about a review assignment.

newmomsIt was always something of an adventure to open a package from the LJ offices to see what my editor has assigned to me. Sometimes I was excited to dig into the book—sometimes not. Just once, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. I had recently returned to work from my maternity leave, and I had remarked on how few books there were for new moms that were about the moms (not the baby). The next book I received to review was The New Mom’s Survival Guide by Jennifer Wider. This assignment was also an example of having to separate the personal and the professional. My personal reaction to The New Mom’s Survival Guide: OMG! I am completely overwhelmed by all the things that might have gone wrong with my body. The professional version: “Sections are made for dipping into as needed rather than reading straight through.” It wasn’t about me. It was about the book.

glutenfreegirlAs a former English major, I know very well how being assigned a book can ruin it. But my LJ experience was different. More often than not, I ended up really liking books that I didn’t expect to enjoy at all. I never would have read Gluten-free Girl by Shauna James Ahearn if it hadn’t been assigned reading, and it turned out to be much more than a guide to eating for the gluten intolerant as I assumed. Instead, it was a beautifully written food memoir that would appeal to a much wider audience than you might think. It was a lovely surprise, and I’ve written before about how it inspired me to eat differently.

Not that I liked every book I reviewed. More than a few times, I trudged through a book reluctantly and breathed a sigh of relief when the review was finally turned in. But it was always a lesson in what it means to be a librarian. I had to ask myself about the book’s audience and accuracy (to the best of my ability to determine such). It wasn’t always easy to answer these questions—I am far from an expert in some of the topics I was assigned—but I took the job seriously. I tried hard to take the time and do the research to write a helpful review for the librarians who used them as they considered books for purchase.

I’ll miss the serendipity, the challenge, and the free books. ;) Maybe I’ll return to professional reviewing in the future, but for now I look forward to reading more for myself.

A few of my favorite review assignments from LJ:

6 Things I Wish I’d Known

Last year Minneapolis spoken word artist Guante posted his list of Six Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started as an Artist, and Minnesota Public Radio has taken the theme to several other career choices, like teachers, doctors, and journalism.  Now that I am over ten years into my career, I have a few ideas of things that I wish I’d known when I was a new librarian.  Here goes:

  1. Most people have no idea what librarians do or why they matter.  You will just have to get used to people saying different versions of “You need a Master’s degree to check out books?!”  Be ready to advocate for yourself politely.
  2. The library field draws book people, but it is a people job.  Learn to connect.
  3. It’s all about change.  The Internet didn’t kill libraries.  Ebooks aren’t going to do it either.  They just change things.  Be an early adopter when you can.
  4. Education matters, but experience is crucial.  Most people pursuing library science degrees have years of experience working as paraprofessionals in libraries behind them already.  Volunteer, if you have to, but get experience in a library before you graduate.
  5. The field is hugely varied.  People bring different backgrounds, skills, and interests to librarianship.  Get to know your colleagues, and learn from them when you can.
  6. Accept help when you need it, even if it’s from a vendor.  This is perhaps a somewhat self-serving comment since I currently work as a staff librarian at a library vendor, but when I was a public librarian I really didn’t know what kind of tools and support were available from book companies.  These services are often free, so take advantage of them.   We want to help. :)

Are you a librarian?  What would you add?

What Novels Eat for Breakfast

“The great thing about the novel is that it eats categories for breakfast.”

–Lev Grossman (author of The Magician King) on what is and isn’t fantasy

As a librarian, I often find myself trying to put books into neat categories.  In my office, there are three of us that cover teen fiction, and we split it into genres.  I have realistic fiction, another librarian has paranormal and science fiction, and the other has fantasy.  But what exactly is the difference between any of these genres anyway?  Where are the lines?  Is The Future of Us realistic or science fiction?  How about magical realism? What level of magic tips it to paranormal or fantasy vs. realistic fiction?  Does The Book Thief fall into historical or does Death being the narrator push it into some form of fantasy?

These are the questions that I wonder about on an almost daily basis at my job, and this morning MPR re-broadcast an interview with Grossman about his new novel and the larger world of fantasy literature that made me stop and pay attention despite the fact that I rarely read anything approaching the fantastic.  He made the statement quoted above in a larger point that the idea of what is or isn’t fantastic is almost certainly going to change–just as science fiction from decades ago doesn’t seem so futuristic now that we live in an era of pocket computers.

I must admit, it does seem like some of the best books are the ones we don’t quite know what to do with.