On Commitment in Librarianship

On Friday, June 17th, my job at the Lancaster Regional Library is coming to an end. This has caused me to spend some time lately thinking about my first year and three months as a professional librarian. Though my hour-long commute makes reflection a normal occurrence, allowing me to mull over the doings of the day, a definite end to my term has made deeper contemplation of the experience as a whole much more meaningful. Combing through my successes and failures, the lessons I’ve learned and the people I’ve met, I keep coming back to a familiar concept: commitment.

To that end, the last year and three months have only served to reinforce what I had expected to feel since I began volunteering at my local library as a teenager, that I love being a librarian. The daily grind tells me that there is nothing I’d rather do then what I’m doing now, which is why I am saddened by what the current circumstances mean for me and my patrons. Though I knew from get-go that mine was a temporary position, the initial year for which I was hired seemed like such a long time. Like any good tree there was just no way I could avoid doing what came naturally; I found a nice place at the Lancaster Library and began to take root.

From the beginning, I sought out interesting people and made connections. I met people at the reference desk, I met them when out to lunch, and, most of all, I met them at my programs. After establishing the Lancaster Library Writers’ Group, my branches began to sprout; many of the well-known local writers came through the group at one point or another and some even stayed. Reaching out to the local paper scored a couple of articles…Always fascinating new people. The life of a librarian, like a busy spider weaving, weaving.

And then the Santa Clarita situation began to unfold. Throughout the major activity, us rank-and-file librarians were privy to pretty much the same information as the public. It was only about two months ago, after the dust began to settle, that I found out I was being forced out by a Santa Clarita librarian. Actually, it was not that librarian pushing me out as much as the circumstances above both of us.

Still, what is one to do in this situation? Do I drop everything and vegetate, walking like a zombie back and forth from the reference desk? How do I continue my work knowing that I will soon be gone. Now, for some this may not pose a problem, but for me, doing a good job requires commitment. My feeling is that part of customer service in a community organization like the library is actually getting to know people; as a librarian, I am part of people’s lives on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily basis which means I’ve grown friendly with many people during my time in Lancaster both in the library and just around the Antelope Valley. Moreover, I’ve developed a personal geography of the area, becoming intimately involved with places I visit practically daily.

Since finding out about my fate, I’ve been doing what I feel is right, remaining my usual friendly self though not completely without reservations. So here I am, stuck dutifully zooming around the library with a residue of discomfort because, as I’ve said, commitment means fully giving of myself and I just can’t. On a day-to-day level, I’ve scaled back the publicity for my programs, and have stopped building up my to-do list and jotting down ideas. I’m slowly cleaning out my work area, taking the variety of doodads and pictures I’d pinned to my cubicle walls in happier days off. All in all, I am gently vacating my space in the same way I hope to make my exit, gracefully – leaving things just as I had found them.

This is not so difficult with cushy gray walls. It’s harder when I tell my favorite patrons that later this month I’ll be gone. Lacking psychic abilities and hindsight, I can’t tell exactly what part I played in their lives or if they’ll remember me in five or ten years…Maybe: “That librarian, what was his name? Oh yeah, Oleg…He was nice,” would be okay. I could live with that. As for me, I can’t say who I’ll remember when I think back to my first librarian job; there are so many great people to choose from.

I’ll remember the library staff, of course. Everyone with their unique personalities thrown boiling together in the summer heat. Of course there was plenty of drama (not related to me, mind you) that I, an oblivious male, only noticed emerge a few months into my time on the job. That stuff was never really at the forefront of my experience at Lancaster though. Instead, I tried to learn a little bit from everyone and I think I did. After learning everyone’s peccadilloes and developing intricate, and sometimes not so intricate, inside jokes, it’s downright tragic to think that soon it’ll, poof, be gone – the people outlined daily in your eyes no longer there. How will they remember me? I wonder. I was the young librarian who was always smiling and joking around. Maybe, but like with my favorite patrons, there’s really no telling what will stick. I know what I want to stick: that I loved being there; that I never lamented having to go to a job that wasn’t really work. The truth? I want my co-workers to occasionally think back and say, “That guy…(long pause, savoring the memories)…that guy really liked it here,” and be temporarily lifted above the hassles of the everyday.

Before I came to work at the Lancaster Regional Library, I was told that it was “umm…interesting,” that there were a lot of homeless people, that other people transferred away. In fact, I wasn’t told, it was more like I was warned. Having worked there for all this time, I’m still not exactly clear what they were going on about. In the end, I figure it doesn’t matter what “they” said. I came here expecting to like it and I did. That’s what matters in the end, isn’t it?

And still the question lingers: How does one just up and leave? I don’t know. Will the other librarians continue my programs? I don’t know. A tightness in the chest comes from relinquishing control over a part of the world which, if you don’t have it figured out by yet, I actually cared about. My feeling is that librarianship feeds on that kind of commitment; good librarians care about what they do and where they do it. But that’s not something that can be measured in beans, its something that can only be measured by the undefinable stuff of memories, those byways of experience we travel down. The hope that maybe, that perhaps, we’ve had an influence on someone’s day somewhere out there in the windy Valley.

UPDATE (13 June 2011) – I got a call last week telling me that the County was not intending to release me. All I know at this time is that after I finish at Lancaster on June 17th that I’ll be transferred to the Lomita branch (as a Children’s Librarian, no less, which is pretty cool) for an indefinite amount of time.

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6 Responses to On Commitment in Librarianship

  1. Tim says:

    I was sorry to hear that you’re being ‘made redundant’ (is there a worse way to describe a position vanishing than for an organization to claim that they will still get done the wonderful things you were doing?), Oleg. Your positive attitude and commitment to commitment points to at least a shorter search than some might experience, though. At least I’m hoping so!

    The way my library works – part-timers might work eight different desks in five locations in a week, and full-timers stay at one branch for a ‘randomly’ determined period from between 3 and 12 months – has always troubled me. It seems like the value of being a daily presence in patrons’ lives (being committed, if you will, to the community), as you describe, is undervalued in deference to…

    Are we that interchangeable?

    • Oleg K. says:

      Your final question is a very important one. It feels like that in itself can be a whole post.

      The situation at your library irks me. How can a library be a community organization if there is no continuity at all. It can’t be! All it is is a shell of a building with a collection inside staffed by folks who have no motivation to serve the (not THEIR) patrons well. What irks me even more is that this is not an uncommon thread in the library world. The Los Angeles Public Library is now hiring “On-Call Librarians” – five hour/week as-needed positions, it’s ridiculous! Another library that I regularly go to has two or three full time staff and somewhere between ten and twenty half-time librarians that get unceremoniously circulated between their three branches (a floating collection!). Kind of hard to maintain any sort of library love from users with this sort of idiocy going on.

      My situation is a bit different since I was originally hired as a month-to-month temporary librarian. I was told a many times over that there was no guarantee that my position would remain after my initial year. One could say that I’ve been serving since March on “borrowed” time. Regardless, we agree that committed permanent full-time positions are best for patrons. That’s the bottom line.

      (Check my post, I’m about to post a little update on my job situation as it currently stands)

  2. Diane Hitchman says:

    Hi Oleg,
    I regret I couldn’t attend the “Farewell Party”. Nevertheless, I want you to know that
    your professionalism, generosity and postive nature made you a standout. I know
    I appreciated your wit because it allowed me to smile during some critical times in the
    past year. Now, it seems you will be in the Children’s department. What a grand adventure. They have some wonderful people in that Region, so have fun and I hope
    to see you, possibly at a system-wide meeting. My best to you always.

    Diane Hitchman

    • Oleg K. says:

      Hi Diane, “Grand adventure” indeed. I’m looking forward to starting my sojourn in the West region tomorrow.

      Nice to have worked with you in Lancaster.

  3. Marianne says:

    Oleg, you are an inspiration to all newbie librarians. Good luck.

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