Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A View from a Children's Library

I'm a part-time iSchool student and a member of CYA, now working as a page in a children's library. I thought I'd share something about my experience.

I'm a "mature" student (nice euphemism for old!) making a career change, hoping to work as a librarian in the Mississauga Library System (MLS). Before I even enrolled at the iSchool, a librarian friend gave me some excellent advice. As I have no library work experience, my friend urged me to get a job as a library page, shelving books. After the probationary period, I'd be eligible to apply for other jobs, and most importantly, I'd see internal job postings. Most library jobs, I'm told, never go external, so seeing those internal postings is key.

I want to work in my own community, and I'm lucky that MLS is easier to break into than Toronto Public Library (TPL). MLS's probationary period is much shorter than TPL's. In addition, MLS doesn't hire and promote on a seniority system. There are pros and cons to a strict seniority system, but when you're starting a new career at age 50, a non-seniority system looks pretty good. I'm not eager to spend 10 years working my way through the ranks to a full-time librarian position.

I applied for a page job just as MLS closed five branches for renovation, bringing on a hiring freeze. So it was a long wait - two years! - until I was called for an interview and a shelving test. The wait paid off. In December of 2011 I was offered a page position, and by happy coincidence, I was placed in the Central Library's Children's Department. And it is an awesome place to work!

Shelving books is not too exciting, but shelving books in a large children's library is more of a challenge than you might think. In the rest of the library, there's fiction organized by author's last name and there's nonfiction organized by Dewey. In children's, there are dozens of categories places a book might go, based on reading level and type of material. Fairy Tales, Fundamentals or Favourite Friends? Level X, Z or J? English or French? Those are only a few of the places a book, CD or DVD might go. The variety makes the job a bit more interesting, and while you're shelving, you become more conversant in children's lit.

More importantly, you become familiar with the kids. Kids, kids, kids, and lots of them, along with their parents, grandparents or other caregivers. As a page, you're out on the floor and in the stacks, accessible and approachable. People are much more apt to ask a page a question than they are to approach someone sitting behind the desk. I'm not supposed to answer complex reference questions. If someone says, for example, they need books for a project on global warming, I listen, then say, "Sure, no problem. Let's go ask at the desk." I escort the child or parent to the front desk, and give a little intro, so the patron doesn't have to ask twice. "Jason, could you help this young lady find books about global warming?"

But pages are authorized to answer simple directional questions, and I answer a dozen or more on every shift. Where is Harry Potter? Do you have any Geronimo Stilton? Where is Diary of A Wimpy Kid? Being a page is a great way to see what kids are reading. I also learn how young people ask questions - what they say and don't say. In iSchool-speak, I observe our young patrons' informational needs and information-seeking behaviour.

Being a page has been all about observing. I'm seeing, for the first time, how a library runs, a backstage view I've never had. I'm observing librarians who are models for the kind of work I want to do. And of course, I'm meeting people who might one day be interviewing me for a better job. The incentive to do well is very high!

So what have I learned, what news can I bring from the front? Children's librarianship is largely about two things: collection development and programming. Programming is paramount, not only for youth, but especially for youth. Storytime, Lego Club, Robotics Club, Welcome to Canada, holiday events... the list goes on and on. This, I believe, is the principal way our LIS education fails us. A graduate of our program who is now a branch manager at MLS once said to me, "I spend 75% of my time on programming, either planning or implementing or both. How much programming did I learn about in library school? None."

If you think you want to be a children's or young-adult librarian, I highly recommend working around kids, either as a volunteer or through paid employment if you can find it. Many people theoretically want to work with children, but the reality may be much different than we imagine. There's a lot of noise and chaos; staff is always seeking a balance between letting kids be kids and keeping in check behaviour best suited to a playground. Programming takes a lot of energy, and there isn't always enough. If it turns out children's librarianship is not for you, that's a bullet dodged. But if, like me, you find it's exactly what you're looking for, you'll be building your new career as you learn.

On my blog, "we move to canada", I posted the top 10 reasons I love working as a children's library page. You can read them here.

--contributed by Laura Kaminker, CYA member

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