It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye, a reflection on library life at a branch library
By the time I graduated high school, I had attended 9 different schools in 3 different states. My college career involved taking classes on 5 different campuses, again in 3 different states. So you think I would be good at saying goodbye, but the truth is I suck at it. It’s hard. And I keep looking for that place that I can call home.
But today is another day for goodbye. Today is my last day at my library, The Betty Warmack Branch Library. It’s a very sad day for me, a hard one. Betty Warmack Branch Library has meant a lot to me, these people are my friends and a lot of great things were accomplished here. My children spent 3 years + growing up here. This library is full of echoes of my life, it is a part of me.
For the past 3 and a half years I have worked as the Youth Services librarian, my first time working at a smaller branch and not the main building.
Just as being a parent has made me want to call and apologize to my parents for so many of the things I said and did, working at a branch has made me want to call and apologize to previous coworkers. It turns out they were right, it is hard. So let me share with you some things I have learned about working in a branch versus working at the main library in a multiple library system.
You sometimes do feel like the neglected stepchild
Because administrators and decision makers are usually housed in the main library, and because the main library is usually so much bigger than any of the branches, a lot of policy tends to be made with that main branch dynamic in mind. A lot of the following points will touch on this in various ways, but it all comes back to this sentiment I have heard time and time again in my library career. It turns out, sometimes there are some valid reasons for these feelings and our job is to help create situations that minimize these feelings and empower our employees.
No two branches – no two libraries! – are alike
I have always been aware that no two branches are alike, this is not new information to me. But I experienced in a very different way these past few years. The teens in my library branch tend to come from the surrounding suburbs; they are very education focused and often come into the library with at least one parent. This was a new experience for me when at other locations I worked at the teens came in alone after school, spent a great portion of their day there not because they wanted to do homework but because they wanted a place to hang out. I found that the programming I did at this branch had to be education oriented in some way because these kids were far too busy with extra curriculars to spend time just hanging out. For this crowd, the teen volunteer program became one of the most successful program/outreach activities we did because it filled their need to have community service for NJHS or college applications. Although it was a constant struggle to find ways to meet the high demand at a facility our size. In comparison, another library in our system had a larger number of teens who hung out for hours and were looking for ways to fill that time. So while movies were successful at that location, I never had more than 2 people show up for a movie at my location and it didn’t seem a valuable way to spend our programming time.
Because our library was smaller, we had a much different relationship with many of our patrons. They came regularly and shared their life stories with us. And because our staff was so much smaller there were only a few different faces you would see at the desk which helped create that comfortable feeling. At a previous main facility I worked at you would have some regulars to be sure, but daily you saw a string of new faces and the interactions were different; not bad, just different.
This library branch also had a more economically comfortable patron base. Still struggling, but so very different from a previous library I worked at with a large homeless and impoverished population. Even here our main library struggled with meeting the needs of a homeless population that we did not see at our branch.
Communication IS hard
You don’t realize until you are in a different environment how much casual conversation comes to influence library policies, procedures, goals, programming, etc. The problem is that not everyone has access to those casual conversations and when they do become some type of formal conversation, it often is passed on to the branches at a point way later in the conversation. Those casual conversations in the hallways can lead to important changes, and it turns out we often don’t bring branches into those conversations until very late in the process. Remembering to reach out to and involve the branches takes a very concerted effort that involves purposeful and inclusive leadership. I have discovered that all anyone wants is an opportunity to share their library branch’s point of view – it’s story – and ask that it be considered in the decision making process. In the end compromises have to be made and a one size fits all policy needs to be made that best fit the needs of the entire system, but it’s also important to recognize that each branch within our system has varying flavors. Feeling like you have been heard and were part of the process, that the needs of your staff and patrons are being considered, go a long way in helping create staff buy in.
Think WHOLE and PARTS
I’m going to go with a Biblical metaphor here, please humor me because it works as a good example here. In the Bible there is a verse (1 Corinthians 12-31) where it mentions that while we are all parts of the whole, we all have different roles to play: “Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” I have worked at more than 1 library system that has wanted us to think of our library as a system to the point that they forget to recognize the unique qualities of each branch and, more importantly, the unique communities that they serve. They in effect wanted everyone to think of themselves as say an ear when what we needed was an ear and an arm and a foot . . .
What we need is to promote system wide team thinking and still allow each branch of the library system to thrive in its uniqueness. It’s a delicate balance, but it also allows each branch to recognize the unique needs of its immediate service community and meet them. For example, one of the library systems I worked at had a large Amish population and they needed a much bigger Inspirational fiction collection as well as a well stocked shelf of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. While our main branch needed a larger collection of Urban Fiction. You of course always want all kinds of diversity in all collections, but you also want to make sure that you have enough of the high demand types of titles in each specific location to meet the needs of the patrons using those locations. That same type of balance needs to be considered in programming as well. I had many a successful author visit at the Betty Warmack branch but we had less success at our main branch location. A one size fits all approach doesn’t work because our populations even within our systems can vary so much.
Work Life Balance is Important, No Matter Where You Work
Branch libraries can have some crazy hours. When I started working at Betty Warmack the library was open 1-9 every M, T, Th. 9-6 on Wed. Closed Friday. And open on Saturdays and Sundays. This meant that every full time staff member had to work every night we were open until 9 pm and way more weekends then other building staff to get their 40 hours a week in. I worked every Sunday for the past 3 years, which is hard when you have school aged children and the only time you have together are Saturdays and Sundays, now down to just Saturdays. Many of the staff members worked every Saturday for 10 years. New administration came in this year and one thing they were mindful of is that branch staff had the suckiest work schedules ever and they really worked hard to try to create a better work schedule for branch staff. They worked hard to make sure they were open the optimal hours for the needs of the community but also made sure to provide a situation where the employees were able to maintain a better work/life balance. And that balance is so very important because we want healthy employees, healthy families, and low turn over. All of these scenarios help us better optimize our resources and improves our communities.
Some Branches May be Small, but They Are Mighty in the Hearts of Patrons
It’s easy to forget the importance of a branch to the immediate vicinity. Time and time again our patrons refused to drive down to the main library to pick up a book, choosing instead to have it transferred to their home location. And that’s what our patrons think of us, a home location. We are a part of their immediate neighborhood. We are the faces they see when they stop in to grab a book or movie, jump on a computer, or attend a program. No matter how much we want our patrons to think of us as a system, we have to keep in mind the power and might of that simple seeming concept: home. We all like that feeling of belonging, of ownership, of comfort. That’s my pizza place. That’s my ice cream place. That’s my library.
The people at the other branch aren’t my people the patrons say, not because they don’t like them but because they don’t know them. That’s the person that cuts my hair. That’s my favorite waiter at my favorite restaurant. That’s my librarian. She’s the one that read me stories when I was a toddler. The one that taught me how to make a Rainbow Loom bracelet. The one who knows what I like to read and thinks of me when a new book comes in that fits my taste.
There’s tremendous power in that, that sense of belonging and ownership.
Branch Libraries, Like Small Libraries, Have to be Creative with their Resources
Working at a large library or a large main library is a dream. I had an amazing budget. I had the space, time, money and tools I needed to feel mostly successful at my job. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I did. Working at a branch, however, presented some very unique challenges. I could order supplies, but we didn’t have near the space we needed to store them because our building was so much smaller. I could host a program, but our program room had a much smaller maximum occupancy than our main library. There was no floor space to transform into a MakerSpace. There was no floor space to create the teen area we needed to meet our high demand. There was no floor space to add the number of computers we needed to actually meet our demand. And the budget is so much smaller, though our numbers weren’t necessarily so. This is where good documentation and advocacy come into play. You have to be an advocate in so many ways and as a branch librarian, you have to advocate for your branch, but respectfully because every other library in the system is facing the same challenges.
I have lived in a poor town and I have lived in a rich town. I have worked in a well funded library and I have worked in a barely funded library. This was the first time I worked in a branch library and it was an illuminating experience. Not a bad one by any means, I love my branch library and branch library family, but it has also given me a new and different perspective. I advocate reading every day because there is value in understanding experiences different their your own, because there is value in taking a walk in another person’s pair of shoes. These past 3 years I have walked in a branch pair of shoes and I am so very different for having taken that walk.
And today I walk away from my branch in very sad shoes. I love this library. I love these people, my co-workers and my friends. I love looking up and remembering that once my two year old daughter, now six, sat right there and looked at a book like she was reading it. I love walking into my program room to see my teens and find out how they are doing and what they’ve been reading. I love that I had the opportunity to serve and learn and grow. Sometimes I wish my shoes would just keep me here because this is my library.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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