Simone Charles, M.A. Library and Information Studies graduate, UCL (2014-2015)
Public libraries are places of study, respite, reflection, safety, solitude, quiet, meetings, teaching and learning (to name a few) for persons from all walks of life. My experience as a part-time Library Assistant over the last year was both a very enriching and rewarding one. My first day on the job saw me helping out at a craft sale, while another day I was asked if I would like to join in a ‘baby rhyme time’ session, much to my simultaneous delight and perplexity. In the public library experience, customer service is key. Many users view library staff as the authority on a number of things such as directions, local area guides, problematic home-work, job applications, nearby restaurants, recycling centres, online tests, printers and photocopying machines, visa application forms, and even gyms in close proximity.
In Library School at UCL, I learned that public libraries are the enablers within society and can provide avenues for a number of entities and events which may or may not deal with books or literacy. As with the above examples, I learned this first-hand and it therefore contributed to my knowledge of the not-always-first-choice role of becoming a public librarian. I can admit that I was not particularly enthused about cleaning toys in the children’s area, shelving what seemed like millions of books classified in the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, renewing books over the phone with irate patrons, or being called to the public computer area numerous times within the same hour.
Despite these occurrences, one experience that changed my views on public libraries was when I was asked by an elderly gentleman to explain what his medical letter meant. He knew that he wanted to use a medical dictionary, and as it was not available, I proceeded to help him by using an online version. Together we were able to decipher the complex terms that his doctor used, and hence arrive at a better understanding of his prognosis. I was surprised that he trusted me; a more or less complete stranger to assist with such a sensitive issue, and it was only then that I began to realize the value of public libraries. Not only did this facilitate access to information, it created a bond of trust and security between the user and I, and I felt a great sense of satisfaction.
Though there are several other experiences of my interactions with users during my tenure as a public library assistant, another profound instance was my participation in last year’s ‘Summer Reading Challenge’. This annual reading promotion which is administered by The Reading Agency through public libraries in the United Kingdom, is aimed at children between the ages of four and eleven, and it stipulates that they must read six books over the summer period. In order to win interim stickers and armbands which culminated in the awarding of a certificate, the children signed up enthusiastically with their parents and guardians in the hope of reading as fast and as much as they can. However, most of the children didn’t realize that in order to receive a prize, they had to tell us about the book that they read! For me, listening to the children on various occasions was the best part of the challenge in itself. From the very shy, to the very talkative and even to the ones who did not remember the story line, I listened to them all, and what a joy it was to do so. The challenge therefore reinforced the role of public libraries as trusted symbols within society, as enablers and as promoters of literacy on a general scale.
Public libraries should therefore not be simply replaced by processes of automation or shut down entirely as they serve as poignant symbols within the community. In my opinion, it takes much fortitude, goodwill, patience and care to work in public libraries; and my experience within them has surely increased my capacity to serve provide access to information in an overall sense. Public libraries should therefore not be disregarded, as their place in society is a well-earned one; and I hope to emulate, even to the slightest degree, some of the characteristics of public librarians, wherever my library career takes me next. Suffice it to say, public librarians, thank you for all your hard work. I salute you.
Refer 32 (1) Spring 2016