You get what you give

This post has been in my draft folder for a while, but I got a letter recently that reminded me of it. So I’m going to get these thoughts out of my head today. Over the summer, Meredith Farkas wrote,

Something I frequently think about when I go to conferences is the whole idea of “service to the profession.” I’m not a fan of the idea that librarians must provide service outside of their daily work and I think, for way too long, there was a very specific prescription for how one even could provide service to the profession. I guess it’s the obstinate anti-authoritarian in me that hates being told that I need to do anything. On the flip side, I have discovered that helping and sharing with other librarians is really fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge or code, serving on a committee, teaching, writing or just sitting down with a colleague and showing them how something works. Even if it wasn’t fun, it’s worth helping your colleagues, because we would want someone to do the same for us (and we may need them to do the same for us one day).

I agree with her. I don’t want to be forced to do things — it goes against my generally stubborn and independent nature. But I do want to help. I think it’s fun to help people — or else I’d have stayed in my cataloger’s corner, never venturing out into public service and administration. (I still hate working at the Reference desk, but that’s another issue entirely.) It’s fun to interact, assist, and learn from and with colleagues, peers, students, intern, and volunteers.

But you know what? It’s a lot of work.

Let me repeat that. It’s a lot of work to help people.

Over the past year, my library hosted a volunteer and an intern (both local LIS grad students). I worked closely with the volunteer, and managed the work and progress of the intern. And it took a lot of time and effort to manage those projects, writing up project plans, discussing options, making sure that there was enough daily work but not too much, doing quality control, talking with the participants, writing evaluations,  helping them understand our work, answering their questions, training them, and facilitating the whole process. And none of that is a part of my daily work — it’s an add-on — but all of which is part of my commitment to our profession.

I wanted to help the volunteer learn more about libraries, and nurture her curiosity and interest in academic collections. I wanted to offer her some insight into the behind-the-scenes administrivia that come with being a professional librarian, above and beyond the theory that her graduate program is providing. I wanted to talk with her and maybe help her crystallize some of her career goals. The same goes with the intern — I wanted to give her a productive, honest, and realistic look at what a cataloging librarian does every day. I wanted her to see the systems and services that support the metadata and classification theory she’s learning. I wanted her to see how messy our decision-making processes sometimes have to be. I wanted to give a little something back.

Because I was given a lot. As a freshly graduated BA, I worked for a year in my undergraduate library (where I had worked the four preceding years as a student) as a paraprofessional staff member. And I learned a lot. My paraprofessional colleagues, my boss, the director, the administrative librarians, the reference staff, the catalogers… they all opened up their work to my scrutiny, welcomed my questions, gave me some really cool projects to work on, and generally taught me more than I knew I needed to learn about what a library is and does. And then I applied to graduate school, because what they taught me was that I could work in a library forever and not get bored, and that I would be a welcome addition to the profession.

I’ve also been blessed with good directors who believe in mentoring new professionals and allowing them to grow, and my curiosity remains indefatigable because my peers and my leaders and my colleagues and my institutions have all continued to support, understand, and feed my desire to know more.

I want to give some of that back when people need or want it. And if that’s a lot of work, well, that’s the price, I guess. I got a nice letter from the graduate school the intern is attending, thanking me for my generosity with my time and energy.  That, and a sense of pride at contributing to the professional growth of a new librarian, is all I’ll get for it.

And that’s enough.  Even if it is hard work.

Now playing: Terry Oldfield – Mountain Path
via FoxyTunes


  1. So … I doubt you meant it that way, but “stayed in my my cataloger’s corner…?”

    So we don’t help people? Of course, you betrayed that (possible) sentiment anyway by your discussion of helping the intern. 😉

    So just a very minor point about something I’m not sure you even really meant and perhaps only phrased poorly. But I truly enjoy helping people, too, I am a cataloger AND I help people. 🙂


  2. I agree with you. I started out helping the profession because I had to (part of our promotion requirements). I do it now because I want to. I get a lot out of it. And while helping interns and newer professionals is a lot of work; I’ve also found that they teach me. They ask those questions that I now take for granted and that is a fabulous reminder of why I love what I do.


  3. Mark, of course, you’re right. 😉

    I meant, more accurately, that if I’d wanted to stay away from the very public help desk environment (be it ref or circ or info commons), I should have stayed in my cataloger’s corner (and some days I wish I had; it was a nice office!). Catalogers can and do help people, both directly and indirectly, and I appreciate that fully.


  4. I knew you did, and after 6 years on the front lines in Access Services I love and appreciate those folks (and reference, too) but leave me in my corner. 🙂

    Actually, I do like more direct interaction, too, just not so much of it. One of the biggest pleasures in my life is in directly helping people.


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