One Year Done: Lessons from my first year of work!

by Amy Steinbauer, Senior Assistant, INALJ California

One Year Done: Lessons from my first year of work!


AmySteinbauerBy the time this is published, I will have my first year of professional library experience under my belt! It has been a really crazy and mixed up year. My personal life has been full of grief and troubles; which has made my first year of work a whole different kind of crazy. But, I have learned a lot that will shape my future career. These lessons focus on the public library experience, but I am sure other fields will find commonality with them.

Flexibility is a MUST

One of the biggest difference of working in a public library that I have found is that your role and title can change at any time due to budget or staff concerns. I was under the assumption that the job that I was hired to do, would be the job that I would be doing. That is not a guarantee in a public library, things shift, people leave and aren’t replaced, and your job changes with these things. I was hired as the Early Childhood Outreach Librarian, then my supervisor retired 6 months early, and suddenly all of children’s services had to be rearranged. I had to relinquish some of my outreach responsibilities, and pick up more in house programing. It also changed the way the staff interacted with each other, and there were some hiccups that came from working with different points of view. Honestly, it still is a bit rocky with some employees getting used to the transition. Try to be as flexible as you can, and find things that you like about the changes that you have no control over. For me, I realized that doing more in-house programming would give me more experienced with other age ranges than my outreach can (which is solely birth to age 5).

Break out of your comfort zone

Working in a public library gives you a lot of face time with people! That should be obvious, but think again. When I work the reference desk, I see it as my time to advocate for the library. I am friendly, helpful, informative to their questions, and then I make my spin by showing them flyers for upcoming children’s programs, talking up ongoing outreach, or suggesting books based on interest for people who haven’t asked. I am a very outgoing person, but even to me, it sometimes feels like I am accosting strangers. And yet, I do it anyway. One great reason to be bold with people goes back to your beginning reference classes, people still don’t want to bother the librarian and/or are afraid to ask. One of the most surprising ,and yet common things I see at work is people getting frustrated because they don’t know where the books are physically located (after they look up the call number). Another common problem is taking someone to the shelves, and they don’t know that the books are by authors last name, left to right, etc. It seems simple to me, but then I remember how dumb I felt when I looked for books in college and realized they were arranged by Library of Congress classification, and not Dewey!

If you’re a full time employee you probably have lots of other things you do beside manning the desk and some of the people who you are desperately trying to email or call to plan events or coordinate services are the people who come in to check out materials! Nothing is better than the face to face interaction with people! It allows me to make changes to my outreach schedule and coordinate book themes with childcare providers, that I otherwise play phone or email tag with.

Be careful with your yes!

Public libraries are strapped for cash. Another obvious statement, and get ready for another. Librarians are very helpful people. Put those two statements together and you can get a lot done, but you also get an overworked, tired, and underpaid employee. And in the long run, more trouble for your library. To illustrate this point, I will use one of my co-workers, Tina (name changed). Tina had been working at my library for three years while getting her MLIS. She worked part time in shifting hours as the years went on. When I got there, she was working two full days a week. She did reference for about 10 hours or so, and was in charge of all technology problems and logistics, and the library’s website, she also was working on an ongoing local history project. It was far too much for one person, and don’t just take my word for it– take the fact that my library hired three people to replace her! Despite being offered more hours with the possibility of full-time hire in 6 months, she decided to leave for her well being. A decision that I fully supported. When you are working more than one job, and not being paid for it, you feel taken advantage of. While it is nice and important to be helpful and pitch in, it’s better to do it as the exception and not the rule of your employment.

This is a really tricky line. You want to help out and make it work to help to better serve the community and or certain objectives you would like to accomplish. However, no one wins when you stop enjoying what you love to do because of the demands placed on it. The environment that you work in and how you are treated there is a really underrated, but important part of your mental health. See my past article on this here.

Employment hacks

Having a job can change your understanding of job opportunities. My library is very small. Since I started, a full time librarian retired, 2 part-time librarians quit, and a library page quit, and 3 library assistants left. While we didn’t exactly fill every position. We have had four new employees come in. I don’t think any of those positions actually had a job ad. Most of it was done through word of mouth or other library connections. We needed an archivist to work on the local history project, and have one come in once a week, but I think she was found because she works at a nearby library. We finally hired a tech person (no offense, Tina) and he just happened to come in and look for volunteer work… but he’s so good, we decided to keep him as a part-time worker! It has reminded me that so much of the job search is just pure luck or serendipity.

With everything being online now, we forget the experience of dropping off your resume somewhere. My director always reminds us that it can’t hurt to drop off a resume at a library you are interested in working at because you never know, they may have a small opening but no time or money to post it. She also instructed me that some of the job boards cost money to post and small libraries can’t afford that… look other places like local library job boards or this site here. The point is not to be so fixated on just one way of getting a job, there’s a lot going on with job searching that you may not be aware of!

Keep track of the books you read = instant RA!

In my reader’s advisory class, my professor suggested keeping a list of all the books you read in a year. Then you have an instant RA available to you. At the time I thought it was kind of silly, but last year I have challenged myself to read 100 books (and I finished!), and I kept a running list on my phone. It has been such a small, but amazing gift to myself. I tend to do RA in very unlikely places, at the bank, at the Thai place where I am having lunch, etc. And, it’s nice to have a handy list of what you have read as it helps jog my memories to see when I read something. The technology version of this is to open a Goodreads account and use it, which can help you keep track of when you read them!

The danger of your “someday, if I have time” list

We all have projects/ things that we would ideally like to accomplish when we have some extra time or room on our schedule. They can be personal things, like I want to learn to play the guitar because it would be fun to whip out during storytime; or professional things, like how I want to redo some of the outreach materials. These are just some of the things on my “someday, if I have time” list. The problem with this list is that there is no time, ever. If you are a public library employee, you will realize that you never have any time to get things done. There is always other work to do. I hardly ever leave work at 5 pm, and I am still working my way through the “must get done” list.

If you really want to accomplish anything on your someday list, you need to carve the time out of your schedule and make an appointment with yourself to work on it. For example, one of my continuous tasks on the “someday, if I have time” list is to inventory all the books and materials on the bookmobile. It is a really big task that will take me months, so I just added it to that list. However, in a few months I noticed that I done just a very small percent of the inventory, and the reason was that I never had time to stay in the van and work on inventory. So, I decided to start doing the inventory as I checked in materials, and to keep it with me on the van and in my sight. Now, when I am reshelving or rearranging the books, I pull out the inventory and am able to complete two tasks at once!

Another hint at this would be to organized yourself now! When I first started working, my supervisor had me create these formal lessons for my community storytimes. As I got into working, I would want to keep them up, but never had the time. They fell by the wayside. After a year of countless programs and storytimes, I wish that I had kept better records! Find a way to keep track of what you did, why you did it, and if and what was useful! Your future self will thank you!

Let go of the idea of getting things “DONE”

As you can probably tell, this has probably been the biggest challenge for me this year. Since it was my first year, I tended to put a lot of pressure on myself to make things perfect and get my programs just right. This is one of the biggest reasons that I overwork. I get caught in this trap of the perfect storytime, and then spend hours crafting it to make it just so. In reality, no one cares if my storytime is perfect or even if it is a flop. Parents are looking for some engagement with their children and for something to do. They are much kinder than you would think when you forget the words to the song or mispronounce words wrong. This past week, I realized on the last page of the book I was sharing that I was reading “mouse” as “moose” and therefore the illustrations were pretty different than what I had stated. Maybe that was the reason that the book got extra laughs! It would be easy to beat myself up for that, but it was such a minor incident, and we still had a great storytime.

The perfect storytime myth or urban legend is actually too rigid to even have fun with. When you are preoccupied with the carefully planned order of songs to rhymes to books, you miss out on the children have fun experiencing them! I have planned some really elaborate storytimes that worked out really well. I have also been so busy that I had nothing planned but the books, and ended up having a BLAST with just being silly and spontaneous! You have to find the right balance for you, but let go of that myth.

Professional Organizations aka HELP!

You are not alone in your job! Join any and all professional organizations that are related to your field! Your employer may even pay for them– make the case, they are worth it to be connected to so many talented and kind resources. If you can’t afford them join their list-servs or any other ones! Also, don’t forget the local ones. Your state and region may have their own organizations, and at most you will have a network of people to aid in your first year! My employer pays for my ALA and ALSC. I joined ABOS (Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services) on my own, and was able to present at their national conference, and then was later elected to the board! It’s a great start for my first year, and I know will help in my future career goals! Also, look for the professional organizations on social media. ALA has a Think Tank on Facebook- a great place to get ideas and help! I love using Twitter to connect with other librarians.

How to survive your first year?

Be flexible, be willing to learn, and don’t forget to have fun! No job is ever perfect, but you can make it work for you! Good luck out there!