In ancient times, libraries were created to archive collections of writing, such as clay tablets or papyrus scrolls. Over time, libraries shifted to collecting and sometimes making copies of important manuscripts. As the printing press took off and Europe discovered an appreciation for scholarship, private and university libraries were established. Eventually, the public library emerged and libraries as we know them today became pillars of local communities. Libraries have changed a lot since 3000 B.C., and they’ve changed a lot in the past seven years I’ve worked in both university and public libraries. Although they are continually changing, there are a few things that still surprise people when they come into the library. As a dutiful library worker, I want to share this knowledge with you.
Here are a few things you should know before you enter a library:
Libraries are more than just books.
Libraries are known across the world as places to borrow books, DVDs, and CDs, but most libraries have a wide variety of other materials available to borrow as well: anything from audiobooks and wifi hotspots to board games and video games. There are libraries that rent bicycles, sports equipment, kitchenware, and artwork. But libraries aren’t just there for the public to check out items and return them at a later date. Libraries provide information and resources.
Most libraries have computers and internet access along with free wifi. They have printers and copy machines, fax machines and scanners. Some libraries have 3D printers and other makerspace machines or sensory learning rooms for children who need a different environment to learn and play. They offer databases for research and homework assistance, digital items such as ebooks and audiobooks, and free streaming services that include movies, TV shows, and music. During tax season, libraries often have tax forms for the public to take or even provide free tax assistance. For the spring and summer months, some libraries have free seed packets available for patrons to grow their own vegetables and flowers. And libraries offer a wide range of programs for all ages on all sorts of topics: anything from craft programs and author visits to cooking competitions and after-hours Nerf wars.
Most resources are provided to the public free of charge. To find out what your local library offers, all you have to do is ask.
If you need assistance while at the library, do not hesitate to ask for help. Library workers can do many extraordinary things, but they are not mind readers. They won’t be able to help if they are unaware there is a problem. If a library worker is positioned at the desk, they are waiting for people to ask them for help. It’s their job. While they may look like they are working on other projects to stay busy, a desk worker’s priority is to help the public find the answers they are searching for, whether that’s the next book in a popular book series, directions to the closest McDonald’s, or the names of the politicians currently in office.
It’s okay to interrupt a library worker when they are at the desk, even if it looks like they are working on something else, and you don’t need to apologize for asking for help. The only time it is not okay to interrupt is if they are on the phone or helping another patron. At that point, it comes across rude to interrupt, no matter how impatient you may feel.
A library worker’s goal is to help people, but to do that, they need to know what you are looking for.
Explain what you need.
Library workers like to answer questions with more questions—for good reason. They aren’t doing it to be funny or because they didn’t hear you the first time. When a patron approaches the desk with a question, the library worker is prepared for the call of a new quest: to find the answer. To do that, library workers need to know what someone is searching for. Sometimes that takes answering a few additional questions. What’s the last book you read that you enjoyed? What kind of movies do you like to watch? What do you want a book on birds for? When library workers ask these questions, they are not doing so to be nosy or impersonal. They aren’t asking why you want a book on birds, they want to know what you’re going to do with it. Someone needing a book for a research paper on birds is a lot different than someone who wants a mystery novel centered around a bird. In order to find the best material for a patron in the shortest amount of time possible, a library worker needs to know exactly what a patron is asking for.
There are no stupid questions in libraries, and library workers will not judge you for anything you need help with. If you’re not computer savvy, we understand; if you are looking for a book on a controversial topic, that’s okay. Library workers are told again and again to temper any bias. Even if we might not agree with what a book is teaching, we would never stop you from checking that book out.
Library workers don’t care why you want to read a particular book. We’re just glad you’re reading a book or borrowing a movie.
Be willing to try something new.
Because libraries expand as technology expands, we have more resources than ever to help you find your answer, but sometimes that answer may not be what you are used to doing. It’s possible the specific book you’re looking for is checked out, but we might have a digital copy available to download. We may also have a way to borrow materials from another library. If you’ve never downloaded an ebook, ask a library worker to show you how. If you aren’t used to creating and submitting résumés online, library workers can assist you. If you need to borrow a college textbook from a library three hours away, we might be able to request it to be sent to you at no extra cost. Ultimately, if the option you are comfortable with isn’t available, it’s up to you to make the effort to try something new.
Library workers are human, too.
Although it may seem like library workers are omniscient and can find the most obscure science-fiction movie titles from the 1970s, at the end of the day, we’re still human. We make mistakes. We recommend the wrong book or movie, we forget how to work something on the computer, we accidentally say or do the wrong thing. We can’t always find the answer to everything, and sometimes even Google fails us in our search. But the important thing to remember is: we’re trying. We like seeing a smile on a kid’s face when they find the perfect book, and we want to make everybody who comes into the library feel as if they’ve left with what they were searching for, even if it’s just the wifi password.
Remember as you interact with your local library workers that they have good days and bad days, too, and that no matter what is happening at home or at work, they are trying their best to find you the answers to your questions.
Just make sure you ask them.