Here is the second of two runner up essays for ULU’s inaugural book scholarship and essay contest for area library school students, submitted by Andy Rutkowski, who is currently enrolled in LIU Palmer/NYU’s Dual Degree program and pursuing a library degree alongside a degree in Trauma and Violence Studies. For the past six years Andy has been a Reference Associate for Business and Government Documents at NYU’s Bobst Library. Recently he converted to long distance running and enjoys the new perspective that running brings to looking at and understanding the city.
Here is what Andy submitted in response to the question: “What is the role of the librarian in the city?”
To be a librarian in the city is to be many things, to play not one role, but to play many roles and to play them well. The string that ties it all together is the ability to welcome the patron, the researcher, the reader – whoever walks through the library doors – to the resources and expertise that you have at your fingertips. The city is sometimes a cacophony to the senses, as librarians we are instrumental in helping make sense out of questions as mundane as “where are the bathrooms” to as intensive as “I am trying to understand how education can impact rates of recidivism in New York State.” In each and every interaction our role should be one that not only answers a question, but whenever possible answers it in a way that opens this question to further dialogue, instruction, and reflection. To do this effectively we must “listen” to the questions being asked. And, as we all know, this is no small task in our busy multi-tasking environments.
How do we learn to listen? I would suggest it begins before we hear any sound. Listening means to anticipate and to trying to greet the patron before they even arrive at the Reference Desk. It is as simple and subtle as making eye contact and saying a quiet hello to a patron waiting in line as you help the two or three persons before them. Perhaps, most importantly, it means that we must learn to listen to ourselves and know our limitations, weaknesses, and strengths. One of the hardest things when at a Reference Desk or answering a question via chat, or phone (traditional or cell or text!) or whichever new method we create or encounter is admitting that we do not know the answer. It is an impulse that is hard to resist and yet how else can we ever truly collaborate with our colleagues if we don’t ask them for help? In a way, this means that we need to be more like our patrons, learning to ask questions and knowing that it is OK to learn the answers to questions together.
I remember one of the first trips that I ever took to the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd street. What I recall vividly was that the space opened up before me when I entered the building and I encountered a seriousness, a feeling that something important was happening there. I was only there to look at a book, but the atmosphere and the help that I received from the librarians made me feel like I was there for a reason – that I had arrived at the right place. I think one of the most important scenes that we must help create as librarians in the city is this space for awe and wonder. To become part of a journey for anyone who comes into this space. Buildings themselves can be wonderful places, but devoid of collections and people they are nothing more than hollow shells filled with potential. Librarians fill this void, picking up the shell and bringing it up to the patron’s ear and letting them listen to all that is inside. With every reference interaction there is an opportunity to make a change in not only that person’s life, but countless others, by simply pointing them in the right direction. By helping them understand their questions better. By being a partner in their quest for knowledge.
To be a librarian in the city is to be many things, but the most important thing, in a way, is to help bring into relief all of those things that make each and every library so important – the collections, the people, and services that they all provide. In this way, the hardest role that a librarian can assume is one in which they disappear so that all those other facets of the library appear. I don’t want to argue that a librarian’s role is that of a magician. But, I will argue that there is something magical about providing access to knowledge. And this is one role that we should all take pride in enacting.