The Good Old Summertime in Recessionary Times

Posted: July 29, 2009 in Library, General, Uncategorized

Last summer my supervisor started putting me on the reference desk, as I’d completed at least one reference course working toward my MLIS. She figured it was time to initiate me in the wonder that is working with the public. And sometimes they really do make me wonder.

At first I was limited to a couple hours a week, but now I’m up to two or three shifts some weeks. But still, it can be an intimidating proposition. Thank goodness I’m never out there alone.

Summer, at least around here, can usually be counted on to be pretty quiet. There are summer reading sign ups for adults and young adults, and prizes to be handed out; books and other materials to locate and/or put on hold, etc. You know the basics. Aside from that, it’s usually quiet enough to get other work done in between patron questions and phone calls. Working the reference desk in the summer used to be a relaxing proposition, something to look forward to.

Not so this summer. I was on the desk yesterday, for the first time since my vacation, and never have I seen it so swamped. For the first half hour or so it wasn’t bad. There were questions, but nothing exceptional. And then it took off, continuing rapid fire for the rest of my shift. I and the other librarian were running the whole time, searching for materials or answering questions one after the other. Occasionally lines formed at the desk – something I’ve hardly ever seen – and the phone was rang off the hook.

There are loads of articles on the topic of libraries booming in this economic downturn, and I have seen the increase. But it’s never been like yesterday. I don’t work the desk every day, but I see how packed it is when I’m out in the library(normally I’m tucked safely away in the uber-quiet staff room). Some patrons are here to save money on books and other forms of entertainment, but others are seeking specific information on job searching, interviewing and resume writing.

We keep job ads from the local newspapers behind the reference desk, to lessen the chance they’ll be stolen. It’s a shame, but that’s how it must be. Patrons requesting these papers look more and more harried all the time, more defeated and forlorn. You have to feel for them, wishing you could do more.

Many days our parking lot’s so full I have to circle around a while to find a spot. It’s more than at-home moms making use of the library, unlike the old days when they and the retirees made up most of our daytime traffic. Now you see patrons from all age groups. While that is, theoretically, a good thing, it’s too bad it must come at such a price.

I wonder how many of these patrons currently making use of our services will continue coming once the economy turns up again, and they’re able to secure jobs? Surely a percentage will, but somehow I have the sinking feeling most won’t. Maybe I’m a pessimist (maybe?!), but once life returns to normal I don’t know what impact this current activity will have on the importance of the library in general.

Our county has been hit hard by unemployment. The current rate hovers around 10 %, which is huge. It will be a while before things start looking up again. In that time, what can we do to communicate to the public how willing we are to serve them, that we’re professionals in the information-seeking business?

In my own position, adult programming, I’ve scheduled job search program after job search program. But it’s not like people are knocking at the doors to get in. So far none of them have been full. What seems more popular are programs about saving money on groceries and essentials. Even a program on tips for winning sweepstakes was well-attended. But job search programs? So far not so much.

Why? One reason may be the perception of embarrassment attached to meeting other people who are also out of work. There may be misplaced shame attached to losing a job which is stronger than being seen asking for help. I honestly don’t know, but I am surprised.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep doing what we do, helping our patrons as much as we’re able. It’s a catch-22 seeing the library being utilized while people are struggling to make ends meet, knowing once things are better we’ll slow down again. We can’t wish them ill, but …

There’s only so much we can do; we have to face reality. In the interim, we can hope those who deal with new digital technology will keep us on the cutting edge, and that libraries won’t be seen as outdated institutions. Hopefully what we’re doing right now will raise our profile within the community. Chin up!

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