What Can I Help You Find Today?

Library Computer Lab

I work as a library manager for two neighbourhood public library branches, and some of my shifts are working the front line, providing customer service. We’re not a business, so we don’t have sales quotas, although we would be alarmed if we checked out far fewer books or if kids stopped attending puppet shows! Being non-profit, we’re not out for a buck, and we don’t relish collecting library fines. We have consistent government funding. Apart from grumpy folks reminding us, “I’m a taxpayer and I pay your salary!” we have it pretty good.

On a typical day when I work at the Information Desk, I walk around the library every 20 or 30 minutes and see if anyone needs help. We leave the regulars alone because we know they will ask. Usually someone will snag me if they have a question. The most common one is (when looking at the online catalogue), “How can you tell if this book is at this branch?” Otherwise people ask for “sections:” “Where’s the cookbook section?” or “Where are the history books?” Rather than pointing, I go along and describe what’s in the section. Otherwise my customer spends half an hour browsing all the cookbooks when they really just wanted a few recipes to use up zucchini, or they survey all of human history to find a book on pre-Columbian art, only to give up because it was in the art “section.”

You might think that everyone coming into the library loves reading, but not so. We have reading-related questions, and then we have “all the rest.” Most people think you can only ask for library books, or maybe information about library programs, at the Information Desk. In fact, we answer every type of inquiry, from “Can I put a hold on Vincent Lam’s latest book?” to “What are the dates of the film festival this year?” to “Is there any place I can get my bike fixed for free?” When I give a library tour to newcomers, I tell them they can ask about books, technology, programs, community information, or they can ask us for any kind of factual information – and we look up the answers. (We are trained to find authoritative sources, too.)

At my two library branches, we have lots of people who spend every day with us, and we get to know them well. There are the ones who compete to get in the door and read the newspaper first, and the ones who run to the computer lab to check email and Facebook and play online slot machines, and those who scour the DVD shelves and leave with armloads of movies every day, and those who want a big easy chair to use the free wireless. Of course, anyone looking for a quiet spot to study is out of luck, because we don’t have a “quiet policy.” Everyone is permitted to speak in a normal conversational tone, and once you times that by 60, it’s bedlam! The library is a home away from home for people who stay at shelters overnight, or have too many room mates, or are killing time between appointments, or just need somewhere to spend time, not money.

At my library branches, we spend time every day with people who have serious mental health issues, who have difficulty getting along with others in public places, who have significant health problems and don’t take care of themselves as they should, people with addictions, people moving back into the community after a prison term, people biding their time, and people who are diligently trying to start over.

I divide our regulars into four categories:

  • the “in-and-out” transaction people, who are self-sufficient and don’t interact with staff much
  • the library lovers, who talk with us about books and reading or community events, and show a lot of appreciation for libraries
  • the demanding people, who engage us with one query after another
  • and the high-needs folks, who rely deeply on the library and its staff for social interaction and personal assistance. It’s this group of customers who create our biggest challenges, but also the most rewarding outcomes.

I can’t count the number of times I have chatted with someone in the stacks, who has said “I can’t read so good,” and asked if we have an adult upgrading program (we do). Or how many times I’ve sat down beside someone who doesn’t know how to hold a mouse or open a program, but needs to create an email account so they can sell stuff on Kijiji. Or how many times a 20-year-old who left school at 14 has asked to volunteer at the library because they need work experience and a reference.

I don’t give the same level of service to everyone at the library. If you want to check where you are on the waiting list for Mockingjay, you’ll get a moment of my time while I find out you are #233. But if you need someone to give you feedback on your resume and help you re-format it, I am yours for 40 minutes, while any new customers are sent scuttling to their “sections.” Equal, no. Equitable?

So for all of you self-sufficient book lovers out there – excuse me, but this guy here needs my help getting his life in order!

Now if you need someone to set up your e-book reader for you, we do that too…

Photo credits:




  1. This is a great post… I think I’m always sort of vaguely aware of the other things going on at the library and the social services they provide, but I’ve always been the “in-and-out” person who just wants my books. I am trying to become more of a “library lover” type and get more involved! Thanks for everything you do! 🙂

  2. I am more a donating the books I have just reviewed type of customer. So it generally comes as an absolute shock to the staff when I go in and ask to borrow a book…LOL

    I should have been a librarian as I do enjoy reading books.


    • Oh yes, we like you folks. Most of our donations are decidedly NOT new and mostly not useable either!

      • I have to say they do well out of me, as I am the only one to read the books I donate, so they are brand new hot of the press and it must save them at least $60 a month on buying new books. However it is a small library with limited funds so it’s the least I can do.


  3. Mel

    Fascinating post. I had no idea you wore so many hats. Keep up the good work!!

  4. idreamofdownsizing

    I’m an in and out kind of person, but enjoyed being reminded of everything else that goes on at the library. I’m excited to read your behind the scenes post!

  5. Darlene

    Hey Dar, I don’t how I stumbled across this! Great description of life in the public library! Cheers!

  6. Pingback: Links: San Francisco’s last public typewriter; book covers in the digital age « Barbary Prose

  7. Freckles

    I loved reading this post. I love my library! I consider myself an in-and-out person, although I am in the library at least twice a week. Additionally, I’ve definitely taken advantage of the free Internet service each time my personal laptop has gone kaput and needed servicing. Once the library catalogue went “online” in the mid to late 1990s I’d estimate that my personal participation increased tenfold. Being able to browse the catalogue online while sitting at home is awesome. I remember watching Oprah’s book club selections on her TV show and once she announced the title I’d amuse myself by checking the library catalogue every 10 minutes to see how fast the number of “holds” increased on that particular book. As a teenager I worked part-time in a retail book store and I remember playing 20 questions with customers who “saw a book on TV but I can’t remember the author and I can’t remember the title but it has a bright yellow cover and I really want to buy that as a Christmas present for my mother”. One perk of working at that bookstore was that we were allowed to take home books for free to read so that we were able to anticipate questions and provide better customer service.

    The branch I visit most often doesn’t see very many homeless people, but I’ve definitely noticed many dependent adults and their paid caregivers who spend their days there as an outing. My hat is off to all librarians who now wear about 20 different hats (so to speak) during the course of a day. I’m curious if you’ve noticed over your years of library employment and management if the level of “social servicing” has increased steadily (perhaps due to cutbacks in a city or province’s social services budget???) or have librarians always functioned in that jack-of-all-trades manner?

    P.S. Calgary’s “mega” library is due to open in 2018 – you’ve written in your blog how you occasionally visit this province so perhaps it can be put on the list of things to see for any future trips!


    • Hi Freckles, I would say that library staff have always worked in lots of social support roles. There are some staff who are resistant. Over the last 10 years, there has been a shift to better customer service and more community work. Libraries are no longer hiring the stereotypical academic who wants to sit in a back room and catalogue books, and who thinks of customers as interruptions. As time passes, we lose those people through attrition and hire new staff with a people-first attitude.

      I have been to the current Calgary downtown library many times. One observation is that when I was there (2004-2007), Calgary had the most aggressive street people I have ever dealt with (and we have a lot). We in Halifax are eagerly following how your new library goes up! We have all seen the concept/plans. We have a wonderful new Central library that has transformed our downtown. Yours will be spectacular!

    • Thank you for this! Another public library, Ottawa I think, was recently in the news for asking people to leave if they had personal hygiene (or lack thereof) that bothered other people. All libraries, indoors and out, are full of nooks and cozy places. I doubt if it will work to eliminate them. Might just bring the problems further out into the open. I wonder what CPL will do when homeless/street people sleep in the comfy chairs in the library? If they say everyone has to be “using” the library in some way, the sleepers will just nod off with a newspaper and go back to reading it when they are woken up. The library would find it hard to be consistent if some other people use the library just to chat with friends or have a cup of coffee.

  8. Freckles

    Saw this today and thought you and your coworkers may like it …

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