Throughout my life, I have faced that dreaded question from a variety of sources on multiple occasions. After the speaker realizes that I have been neglected in the conversation, he or she accosts me and asks what I plan to do with my life. As I aged, my answer varied. For a few years, I refused to answer the question. I replied that I was too young to think that far in the future. By my senior year, I found it necessary to decide some occupation—anything to satiate the interrogators. One day, I had an epiphany that I wanted to become a librarian. I let the idea saturate in my head for a few weeks before announcing it, but I held my doubts. At the age of eighteen, I felt that it was unfair that I had to plan for the half-century before my retirement. For my service learning, I worked at the Mid-Continent Public Library. To ease my uncertainties, experience was necessary. After asking a library representative about volunteering, I started the process and partnered with the Parkville branch. I did not know what to expect, but I assumed that I would perform rote library tasks: checking out books, smiling, and—if necessary—shushing.
While I expected my interview to be more personal, I only had to answer a few questions and complete a form. The head librarian explained to me that the library had a large volume of volunteers, so it was easy to pass the interview. During our first meeting, we decided on hours that would work for me, and then the head librarian told me the library’s expectations of me. If I had any trouble, I was always to ask for help. She told me that I would have trouble locating books and sections for my first few visits, but I would become familiar with the location soon; until I did feel comfortable with the setting, I could refer patrons to the front desk. She also instructed me to be polite—even with disgruntled patrons. While I thought that it was strange to state this obvious rule, I learned that some patrons become predatory when they cannot find a book.
At the conclusion of the paperwork, the head librarian took me on a tour. A few days prior, I visited the library to view the facility. The floor plan allows for many spacious areas with tables and chairs scattered throughout the place. When the tour finished, the librarian showed me my duty. As she explained, I legally could not work at the desk, because the library did not complete background checks, and I would have access to the entire database of patrons. My task was to apply stickers to the covers of the non-fiction books. Initially, I felt antipathetic towards this task—it seemed too mundane, and I did not feel that I would receive any worthwhile experience in the library—but my attitude shifted as my work progressed. In addition, I could shelve books, because this task did not require me to retreat behind the front desk. Those were my two responsibilities, and, while they seemed dull, I learned to appreciate my time in the library.
Because I could not be behind the desk, I sat at one of the scattered tables. At first, I felt ostracized, but I found that I was situated in the middle of the action. Each visit, I tried to assign myself questions to answer via observation. One of my first questions was “How do people use the library?” While the answer seemed obvious, I found a variety of answer. To most, the library was a place to borrow books. However, other patrons generated more uses for it. Some used the computers, others went there for the programs, a few used the facility as a meeting place for tutors and study sessions, and some simply enjoyed the ambiance by reading or working. It surprised me to see how many people brought their personal materials into the library to work without any intention of using the library’s resources. My answer is that the library is conducive to working. The quietude that we expect from the institution provides the perfect environment for focus.
With hundreds of books passing through my hands each visit, I became interested in the types of books borrowed. It surprised me to see that recent books about popular subjects—especially politics—remained on the shelves despite their pertinence. As I applied stickers, I pondered why this was. I concluded that these books were unpopular, because the Internet and television exposed us to the topics so much that reading about them was superfluous. If I needed to know about the implications of the Citizens United trial, reading a Wikipedia article would save me the hassle of reading two-hundred pages of biased opinions. Instead, patrons borrowed books that the media left untouched. On occasion, I would encounter a bizarre title that someone checked out, though I never understood who would need a book about baby names based on Greek mythology. The greatest feature of the library is that it provides a wealth of books—even silly ones like that.
In addition to shelving and labeling books, I assisted many patrons. Instead of venturing to the front of the library to ask one of the librarians for help, patrons would mistake me for someone knowledgeable and ask me for direction. For my first visits, I redirected them to the front desk, because I could not answer their questions due to my unfamiliarity with the layout. However, as I grew more comfortable, I started to help patrons with their requests—usually finding books. Once, a woman asked me to help her find a cookbook with a blue cover that she thought was over there (she waved her hand to a large number of bookshelves) when she visited last week. I helped her to the best of my ability by showing her every book with a blue cover in the general vicinity, but, after I failed to chance upon the correct book, I told her regretfully that someone must have borrowed the book since her last visit. One of my friends from high school worked at a bookstore, and she told me that this happened frequently; I never thought that it would happen to me. Otherwise, most requests were manageable.
However, in one unusual encounter, I helped a boy and his tutor with trigonometry homework. As I placed stickers on books, a boy and his tutor sat at an adjacent table working on math. They often met at the same time that I worked, so, while I never talked to them, I recognized them. After a problem stumped them for some time, the boy turned to me and asked if I knew trigonometry. While I took it three years ago and could not remember the particulars, I still offered my help. I had to flip through a few pages to see what they were studying before confronting the problem. Trigonometry baffled me in high school, but I managed to remember the Pythagorean property—the equation necessary to solve the problem. While I enjoyed reconnecting with a former love, I also had a revelation about the library: it is not solely a place for books—it is a resource.
Through my service learning, I learned how the public library is embracing technology. With the revolution of eBooks, some question whether libraries will still exist when I finish graduate school. Of course, loyalists to the printed copies will continue to protest eReaders, but, if eBooks pervade the market, then the loyalists will dwindle in numbers. With the recent financial situation of the post office, it is obvious that even government institutions once thought essential are vulnerable to the convenience of technology. However, I disagree with the idea that libraries will close. Amazon recently allowed over 11,000 libraries throughout the United States the ability to lend eBooks to Kindle users. Now, the public library can satisfy both advocates of the printed word and of the electronic word. As I observed, many still frequent the library even though they own eReaders. All avid readers continue to revere the library and will continue to pay homage.
Moreover, to reduce the library to a building with books is an injustice to the institution. Today, public libraries grant patrons the ability to use access magazines, newspapers, computers, typewriters, newsreels, and electronic databases. In addition, many libraries offer programs in the evening allowing patrons to learn new skills, like knitting and financial management. After the programs finish, patrons can borrow books relevant to the topic, so they can continue to pursue the skills outside of class. In my hometown, the library has the drive-through window; patrons can call the library or visit the website to reserve and book and retrieve it without leaving their vehicles. Other libraries are implementing other ways to make their services more convenient. For a fee, some libraries will mail books to patrons. Others are using phone and web applications to allow patrons to reserve books with ease. While such programs may not lend to the same convenience as eBooks, libraries have made advances to provide convenience to their patrons. Though some believe that libraries and information technology oppose each other, I found that they actually complement each other.
On my final day, I secured a tête-à-tête with the head librarian. I asked about her degrees and her advice for a prospective librarian. She said that any undergraduate degree in the humanities lends itself to library science, although she also supported computer science and management degrees. For graduate school, she recommended obtaining two master’s degrees (one in library science and another in an area of interest) if I planned to work in a specialized library. Most importantly, she offered that, if I had any questions or wanted to talk about the career, I could contact her, and she would be glad to help. Making a contact in the library science field was like receiving a bonus check at the end of the year. For me, the library now houses one additional resource.
Through my service learning, I observed many of the happenings in a public library. While the institution seems simple, it has a strict organizational scheme necessary to provide patrons with easy access to resources. Working at the library helped me to determine that I want to continue pursuing a library science degree. In the future, I might want to return to this site; however, I also desire to experience other positions that require a library science degree (for example, curators and archivists). I do not want to confine myself to one application of the degree, so I hope to get more experience. Working at the Mid-Continent Public Library extended me the privilege of studying the library from the perspective of a worker, not a patron. I hope that one day I can view it from this perspective every day.