A couple weeks ago, I came across this article about the surprising world of the rural librarian, and it resonated with me. All at once, I had some clarity about the mixed feelings I have working for my current library. Let me explain.
I started my life in libraries working for a small, municipal library in a town of around 14,000 residents. Most people would call it a rural library. It was one of those places where you rarely ever rushed (at work or elsewhere), most people stopped to say hello, and you knew your regulars by name. (If you were really good, you also knew just what new book to spontaneously recommend for them.) My job was always different because so many of my duties changed with the needs of whoever walked in the door. One day, I looked up local folklore and legends for a gold prospector and, later, found information about a printing press that published a family Bible. Patrons were so happy to have quality programs, even though they weren’t as frequent as you find in urban libraries. They expressed their gratitude with homemade cookies and chocolates and vegetables from their gardens. It was heaven in a lot of ways.
I ran out of room to grow there and, after lots and lots of searching, secured a position as a library assistant for a large, city library. It’s municipal, just like my old library, but it’s located in a suburb of my state’s largest city and is much, much busier. To add to the craze, I came on board during Summer Reading, when it wasn’t unusual to see between 200-300 kids in our department. In this particular suburb, the regulars in our children’s programs tend to be affluent. I mean, most of the kids in my storytimes have iPads waiting for them in the car. They and their parents have high expectations when it comes to library programs because many of them are either homeschooling or supplementing school with their own lessons and activities. For families who have time to browse Pinterest for constructive activities to do as a family, a crafts day just isn’t that thrilling in terms of programs for their kids. The way I run programs and storytimes has drastically changed since leaving the smaller, community environment. I now make sure all of my programs combine learning and fun in the most interactive way I can imagine.
All of this has challenged me to become the best that I can be. With two storytimes every week and two other programs each month, I’m constantly working on the next thing. I’m also pioneering relationships with local educators and creating partnerships that root our services in the needs of our community. I’m growing by leaps and bounds but there are huge question marks in my mind, covering the spaces where something feels to me to be missing.
I miss the time I had for my patrons in a small library–the way I used to take an hour to get to know someone and to fully understand what they needed from me. I miss the words and gifts of appreciation. (Seriously, I’ve been here six months and have never seen a single thank you card… or gift…or email…or comment in the suggestion box.)
I don’t like stretching myself thin to produce a smaller program, rather than one, big, excellent program each month.
I wish I could put more time into reaching lower-income families and getting them involved in what we offer. My storytimes are my favorite part of my job and I’m very proud of them. They put a lot of people to shame. But…the kids I get already know the material I’m showing them. They have moms, dads, grandparents, and nannies who are giving them one-on-one attention and reading to them. While they have fun with me, and their caretakers have mentioned how they learn from what I do, I don’t see the same enthusiasm that I experienced when I was doing storytimes in preschools and day cares like Headstart. You wouldn’t believe how a kid with a single parent who works all the time can get so excited just to have an adult read to them. Those kids would see me out in public and run up for a hug because I was that lady who showed them a fun fingerplay at school, or showed them the magic of a flannelboard. When you’re a children’s librarians, I don’t think you can ever make a bigger difference than giving a storytime to a child of a poor family.
Yes, I have a ton of spiffy toys at my library and our budget allows me to take programs wherever I desire. The busy schedule of our department keeps me on my toes and forces me to grow and change.
But what I really want is to feel fulfilled by the people I help. I want to know about them and their families for generations and I want to reach the kid who never even dreamed of the library.
That’s a rural librarian.