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Career Strategies for Librarians
Becoming a People Person: Social Growing Pains of a Visiting Assistant University Librarian
by Laura Woodruff

Early Class, Tough Crowd

“I just wanted to say that I’ve been using these databases for years now, and I think it’s ridiculous that we
are required to be here for this instruction on our day off!”—a somewhat jaded response to my innocent
question, “How is everyone today?”

My gut response: “Do you think I want to be here at 7 a.m., teaching ungrateful students like you?!”

My actual response: “Well, then my goal today is to teach you something new.  Let’s get started.”

A strained smile and a rehearsed spiel later, and I had completed my third and final ProTeach
instruction session.  These ProTeach students, enrolled in an intense five-year undergraduate/master’s
degree program in education, were normally very positive and motivated—which made this initial
response to my instruction session even more surprising.  However, I could definitely understand the
student’s point of view.  I, too, was a bit disgruntled at the early class hour, and if I had prior experience
with searching our library materials, I, too, would be even more disgruntled at being required by my
program to sit in on an instruction session.  

But I knew something that my students didn’t: there is always something new to learn.  After reviewing
my evaluations at the end of the session, this point was confirmed.  Though a few students expressed
their displeasure at being required to attend the session, each and every student learned something
new from my instruction.  This session in particular taught me one of many valuable lessons during my
stay as Visiting Assistant University Librarian at the University of Florida Education Library.   

Lesson 1: Patrons Have Issues.

These issues may be easy to decipher: they’re tired because it’s an early class; they’re frustrated
because they can’t find the information they need.  But most of the time there are other issues present
that you can’t see: they just broke up with their significant other; they’ve had a death in the family; they’re
homesick; they’ve just moved to a new apartment, etc.  It is important to empathize with your patrons, but
never lose sight of the value of what you are teaching.   

Much of what we do as librarians involves teaching.  We are bibliographic instructors in the classrooms,
research instructors at the reference desk, library services teachers at outreach booths, and supervisors
at the circulation desk.  We are often in varying positions of authority and must be aware of our dual
responsibility to empathize while still teaching those around us.

Long Hours, Little Questions

My stints at the reference desk (approximately six hours per week) started to feel repetitive when I began
work during the summer as fewer students frequented our branch library on campus.  Those who did all
seemed to have one question on their minds: “Where is your bathroom?”  Though at first I was thrilled to
be asked such a question because I was sure to know the answer, its frequency soon grew wearying.  
One day in particular when it appeared that every student within a fifty-block radius had drunk a large
soda and required the use of the only functional public restroom, apparently located here at the
Education Library, I imagined the following scenario:

[Enter patron]

Patron:            “Where is the bathroom?”     

[I try to look befuddled by this obviously deeply-considered reference question, furrowing my brow and
pursing my lips a bit.]

Librarian:        “Please have a seat, and we will research this question as a team.”

[The patron looks a bit befuddled, furrowing brow and pursing lips, but follows my suggestion and sits
beside me.]

Librarian:        “Let’s begin our research interview.  What venues have you already researched so that we
can avoid duplication in our work today?”

[The patron appears a bit unnerved, fidgeting a bit.]

Patron:            “Um…”

[Dead silence.]

Librarian:        “Well, let’s check our library web page to see if there is a floor plan, shall we?”

[Slow mouse movements across the computer screen.  Click.  Back. Click. Click. Click. Back. Click click
click…Patron begins to cross and re-cross legs, bouncing heels in what appears to be frustration,
anticipation, and gastric compulsion pulsing together with more intensity in each heel-bounced spasm.]

Librarian:        “Aha!”

[I smile widely (eyes squishing together), toss my brown locks over my shoulder, and point to the
northwest corner of the library.]

Librarian:        “According to this floor plan on our homepage, our bathrooms are located in that direction.”

[Patron grunts a “thanks” and scurries in a north-by-northwesterly direction.]

[Exeunt.]

Fortunately for my sanity and my patrons’ humility, I learned to grasp onto the nuggets of joy brought by
“true” reference questions in order to counterbalance the abundance of necessary but tedious
directional questions.  Additionally, momentum at the reference desk soon picked up with the start of the
fall semester, and though I still faced directional questions, they were outweighed by the intrigue of “real”
reference questions.  Before long, I began to realize the value of treating every question with reasonable
(if not equal) importance: many of those patrons who required bathroom directional assistance
subsequently stopped by the reference desk with a question.  A clipped response or slight scowl now
could discourage their future attempts to ask for assistance.  In other words:

Lesson 2: Be Accessible.

Be physically accessible in that you are actually seated at the reference desk, but also be emotionally
and intellectually accessible so that you are best able to discern your patron’s research need by
teaching him or her with an empathetic focus.

One Backpack, Two Policemen

“Oh, and just real quick,” she said after dropping an item in the book return slot, “I’m not sure if you know
this, but there’s an unattended backpack ticking in the instruction area.”

Not exactly the warmest welcome to my first shift as sole supervisor at the circulation desk.   

Wait a minute!  I received no training for this in library school!

With no official preparation for such a situation, I acted on instinct.  First, I confirmed the girl’s story that
there was indeed  

1) a backpack

2) ticking

3) in the instruction area

4) left unattended   

I did this by sending one of my two student assistants to scope out the area while sending the other to
ask patrons on both levels of the library if they left their backpack in that area.  Once this information was
confirmed, and the owner of the backpack couldn’t be found, I was left with no alternative: I called the
campus police.   

Within minutes, the first policeman arrived and blocked off our instruction area and postponed further
action until the arrival of his supervising officer.  This wait lasted less than two minutes but felt like hours
as my adrenaline subsided, and the implications of the ticking backpack finally sunk into reality:

This could actually be a bomb.

At last, the supervising officer arrived, and I was told to guard the entrance to the instruction area so that
no patrons would enter while the two policemen examined the backpack.  Anxiety caused me to forget
much of what happened next, but I do remember thinking that the officers resembled two canines as
they actually sniffed at the backpack before delicately patting and peeking into its pockets, as if they too
had become pure instinct.

Ultimately, what had generated so much fear was simply an electronic translator with a built-in—albeit
abnormally loud—clock.  After thanking the officers, writing up my incident report, and confiscating the
backpack into our lost-and-found, my hour as sole supervisor of the circulation desk was over.  I was
later told that the backpack was picked up that afternoon by a patron who had gone to lunch and left his
backpack at the library.  Whoever said librarianship was boring?

Lesson 3: Response Time Is Imperative.

Whether you are on the reference desk, in a classroom, or supervising circulation, there are always
underlying time constraints.  On the reference desk, the patron may need to go to class by a certain time;
in a classroom, patrons may lose patience or focus after a certain amount of time; at the circulation
desk, a patron may need a book or information by a particular time.  Or, less commonly, you may need to
respond to an imminent threat quickly, without time to consider every informational avenue.  Recognizing
the situation in which you find yourself and its underlying response time is imperative to your success as
an information provider.  Unfortunately, even the best information is in vain if it arrives too late.

About the Author:

Laura Woodruff is currently a Visiting Assistant University Librarian at the Education Library at the
University of Florida in Gainesville.  She graduated with her Master of Library Science (MLS) and Master
of Arts (MA) in English from Indiana University in Bloomington (IUB) in June 2006.  Her professional
interests include literature and film scholarship and information architecture.

Article published Jan 2007

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