Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Meditation on Adult Services

Yes, another library post. Perhaps the end of the year has inspired me to be particularly reflective about my job, especially against a background of inevitable budget cuts? I work as a reference librarian in a public library, which means that technically I help anyone who asks me for help (and a few people who just look lost and happen to be in my vicinity), but my passion is really for serving the adult population. I believe that no matter how awfully local schools perform, children benefit from an infrastructure (teachers, counselors, parents) that exists to support them through a certain age. I know that there are flaws in that infrastructure, but when budgets are cut, there will always be more money preserved for schools (along with public safety), because who wants to go on record as being "against" educating our children? I hear they are The Future. A lot of the smaller libraries I've spent time in clearly devote more resources to the children's department, and who can blame them? Kids are supposed to be reading, while services for adults can always be construed, if it comes down to a choice, as optional. Kids are pretty much forced to try to learn stuff on some kind of schedule, while most adults have to try and figure things out for themselves.

One thing I can say with absolute certainty after working in public libraries for several years: Adults need our help, sometimes desperately. A lot of them don't have technological savvy or access to resources they need, and they often don't have the support of government, family, or work to make things easier. In fact, they often come to us for information on how to locate and use government-supported programs (such as the Safelink Wireless program). When I say adults, I'm not talking just about the homeless, or the elderly, or non-native English speakers. I'm talking about the ever increasing number of people who find that they are directed to an online employment application when they have very limited experience with computers. People who haven't visited the library for twenty years, and just want to know how everything works because they discovered that it's a lot cheaper to get DVDs at the library than at Blockbuster. People who need to figure out how the FAFSA (now completely online) works, so they can get their kids through college. Even adults who know how to use the catalog and Dewey (they do exist!) sometimes need help. These are the people who have the courage every day, as adults, to actually admit that they don't know something and ask another adult for help.

Yesterday someone--a judge, actually--queried me about whether I still had a job to do, considering the availability of information on the internet. For a lot of our service population, the existence of the internet actually makes life more complicated--not only do they need it to perform basic tasks like creating resumes and filling out job applications, printing pay stubs, looking up phone numbers, and communicating with friends and family, they need the library to provide access for them. Why? Guess what: Not everyone has the internet at home or at work, and in this economy, the number of people who do is not likely to increase.

I know that the library can't be all things to all people--we don't have the budget for it. But we do have computer classes, adult programs, one-on-one assistance, and an excellent collection of adult material designed to appeal to a broad segment of our population. In the purest world, one with a support system for adults that does a better job of making sure people don't fall through the cracks, the library would be all about voluntary self-education and entertainment. That world doesn't exist. My goal as a reference librarian is to help people--adults, teens, and children--find what they're looking for to navigate the world, even if they don't know exactly what that is when they come up to my desk. My desire is to be as open as welcoming as possible, so they feel comfortable interacting with me, and I try whenever possible to give them the tools to help themselves in the future. This is not to say that I don't help my share of people who go on to MySpace and post their provocative pictures, then complain when the computer freezes. And while I can't really argue with any serious conviction that libraries are more important that police, fire, or schools, I can say that I am proud of what I am doing every day to help adults survive in these tough times.

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