Success and Meaningful Work

I wanted to pause from my usual focus on youth programs and talk about something else that’s on my long list of responsibilities. Around 85% of my week is spent at a public service desk and most of my patrons know that even if they see me hammering away on the keyboard or on the phone with a co-worker, they can come ask me for help and I’ll put down what I’m doing. I also try to encourage patrons who need help understanding something new to set up a one-on-one appointment with me so I can dedicate some time (always at least an hour) especially to meeting their needs.

This service is something I report along with all my usual program numbers, because it is just as essential. On top of needing to fill quotas for providing x amounts of programs each year, I also have to report “success stories” for each quarter. Success stories, as far as our budgeting office is concerned, is any story that would make someone feel good about library services, but everyone over-analyzes this very general directive. Whenever the reporting period rolls around, you can bet all the librarians are calling each other and our supervisor like, “is this a success story?”

In talking with my two teammates, we always have really interesting conversations about these stories we’re submitting. In truth, we feel our impact is really hard to measure. Let’s say we help someone all the time with online job applications and one day we learn that he got a job. Did we touch that application? Did we pass on necessary skills? If a kid in storytime has slowly started to participate more in the activities, does that mean I’m doing a better job of connecting with him? What about all the people we know who live on the fringes of society? All the women who come to us from shelters, all the patrons who are mentally ill, everyone we know on permanent disability…these people are unlikely to have big life changes that we can talk about in a story, but they’re enjoying a place of equality and respect every time they come into the library.

It’s these people that society ignores that we want to talk about most. We talk about them every day between their visits and have come up with special strategies for helping them. We see them as being just as important as every kid who reports better test scores after the summer, but our work with them is so much harder to describe.

Last week, I had a one-on-one session with a man who is…not neurotypical? I’m nowhere near qualified enough to give you a diagnosis for him, but he is just a complicated, thoughtful, very kind and creative man. I’ve only seen him a couple times at the library, but he always remembers me and details from our last conversations. He creates art and comics and loves to share them, but his humor is hard to grasp. He’s very organized and has invented all kinds of little tools and accessories from things most people disregard. His favorite place to feel creative is at a local fast food restaurant. He’s intelligent and interesting, but he’s not easy to understand. He lives in his head and it’s difficult to help him translate what’s there in a way that makes him more socially relatable. So when he asked me to help him start a Kickstarter campaign to fund printing a collection of his comics, I knew it was going to be a lot of work.

I cleared an afternoon, and I’m so glad I did, because it took almost three hours to help him understand the prompts and help him communicate what he wanted and how we would accomplish this task. Along the way I kept fighting the feeling that I was fighting a losing battle. I had a feeling even as I was helping him figure out what to say and how to say it that weren’t many people who could understand his project, and it was even less likely that someone would decide to give him money. What kept me going was how motivated and inspired he seemed. He had a purpose in this project and he was, in some way, opening up and inviting people to see him and what he’s capable of.

So afterward I had a few minutes to check in with my teammate and talk about all those complicated feelings. I told her that I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work for him, and it made me feel like it’s hard to justify three hours spent on a project that might not amount to much. I couldn’t help feeling that it was just so important, though. She didn’t have a wise answer for me either, but she said she agreed somehow.

Later that night, when I was telling my husband about it, he chuckled and said it was probably a waste of my time. (I can tell you with no degree of doubt that he would do the same, by the way.) I couldn’t disagree, but I told him that I think everyone needs a place and a feeling of acceptance and purpose, and I thought I provided that for a few hours. In so many ways, that’s just as important as getting kids excited about reading.

As librarians, we wear so many hats, and the things we find meaningful are diverse and surprising. We can’t always be reduced to a statistic or percentage or dollar amount, though that’s certainly what we’re encouraged to do when our funding is questioned. I wonder how we tell these stories of lost and ignored people.

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