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Expansion, Not Demotion

Sean, Standley Lake Library

“What the heck are you doing up here? Did you get demoted or something?”

I get this joke a lot of late when patrons discover me working the Accounts Desk (that’s the "Circulation Desk" if you’re from the old school). I understand why. For the last ten years, they’re used to seeing me at the Information Desk (AKA the "Reference Desk" in antique parlance).

We’re implementing an ambitious new service model to maximize use of everyone’s capabilities. Part of this means Circulation staff learning reference work and Reference staff learning circulation tasks, with the goal of fulfilling our patrons’ basic information needs in as quick and seamless a way as possible.

What an eye-opening experience! Reference transactions tend to be time consuming and messy. We delve through databases and teach people to use technology. The Accounts desk is more precise and often far more hectic. Also, it’s the place where people pay fines. I hate handling money. This stems from a bad and unlikely three-month stint I did as a bank teller about 20 years ago. I lost almost $2,000 on my first day of work—I swear I’m not making that up—and was at one point even accused of stealing it.

So my fingers go shaky around cash registers. Thankfully the average patron’s fine seems to be about $.60. I can handle that.

Patrons probably don’t realize how much they’re touching on a pressure point in library culture when they joke about “demotions.” Like many occupations, librarianship long has been stratified between the “professionals” (those with a Masters degree in library science) and the “para-professionals,” who often get lumped together regardless of their job or education.

There are librarians out there who consider the very idea of doing “Circ work” offensive and demeaning. This attitude ignores economic realities and job contraction. We’re leaving the rigid concept of departmental duties behind—as we should.

Take reader’s advisory as an example. It’s a joy to recommend books to people, but in the past only Reference staff were allowed to do it. How does that make sense? If you seek my recommendation for some good mystery novels, I can use databases and websites to generate a list, but I won’t have first-hand knowledge because I don’t read mysteries. Yet I know a Circulation clerk who devours mysteries like candy. Wouldn’t you be better off getting your mystery recommendations from her? Under the past model, she wouldn’t be allowed to help you.

Now she can.

And everyone is better served.