Booksellers v. Librarians: GO!

[Ed. note: I started writing this at the end of January of 2009 but never published it for whatever mystery reason I may have had at the time. Nearly 11 months later (eep!), a lot of what is written here is still highly relevant, so I’m cleaning it up and pubbing it.]

I wish I had some witty story about a patron to give this entry more punch but the best I can come up with is the “faculty” dude who came and started yelling at me about “throwing out those kids” who were apparently disturbing his royal highness while he was working. I was, at the time of the yelling, walking over to work with another patron who needed access on the all access computer (no Internet access but allows students to install and run software for classes. Thus, “all access” is kind of moot, I suppose.). Even though I motioned that I would be with him in a second, he kept yelling across the open area about how they were bothering and disturbing him and I HAD BETTER DO SOMETHING! Right sparky, I’ll get right on that.

After helping the student get logged into the all access computer, I looked for the librarian on duty for consultation and it turned out “those kids” were two girls who were talking quietly while working on a project together in an area designed for such a thing. The open plan area is not a quiet study area and that information is posted as such all over the place. The librarian on duty spoke quietly with the girls, his royal highness kept glaring at the librarian on duty and at me and didn’t say a peep after that. It was one of those “what the fuck, becky” kind of moments.

And I’m only two weeks into my new job.

The one thing that has been stressed since my starting this program is that you need experience, experience, experience in order to make it in the real world and winning this job has been a $deity_send in that it is giving me not only real world reference experience but experience in an academic library to boot. But here’s the thing: my classes that were to prep me for this job have really had no impact on how I handle myself at the reference desk. This sentiment was also echoed by several librarians I have interviewed over the last six months who have all told me that while lib school was great for the theory and some of the application, they really didn’t feel that they learned their jobs until they were on the jobs.

This, then, becomes the catch-22: You need some experience to get an entry level position but you must obtain an entry level position in order to get the experience. Lots of libraries like to hire in-status students, which is a boon to many of us who have had no prior experience in libraries before lib school. But this goes back to the teaching moment in that how you are trained while working in the library whether as a volunteer, intern or paid employee. These experiences can and will shape how you handle your professional career thus one must also take this factor into account when one is looking for a starting library position.

One thing I have noticed is this slightly playful but not really competition between those who work in a library and those who work in bookstores. For some reason that I cannot fathom, there seems to be some sort of unspoken rivalry between booksellers and librarians, and I’ve heard more than one librarian on various message boards bitch and complain how booksellers “try” to be like librarians by providing reader’s advisory and reference services without proper training and booksellers complain that librarians try to treat bookstores like libraries or that librarians feel like they are slumming if they come and apply for a job or work in a bookstore.

This is the part I don’t get: Bookstores are out to make money and to the corporate bookstores, the bottom line is ALL about the money. Whether or not someone gets interested in reading or enriching their life based on the books they purchased means nothing to the higher ups in corporate America – it’s just about how much the customer has spent and is there a way to get them to spend more. It’s about discounts, volume and bestsellers. It’s not about education, enrichment, support or education. This is not to say the average bookseller is not a reader, I’d roughly guesstimate that about 90% of the people I worked with were huge readers who read in a variety of genres and many of us had subject specializations. We were a very well rounded crew with a broad spectrum of education and backgrounds.

And this is not also to say that every bookstore feels this way – but having worked in $corporate_bookstore and being told time and time again that I spent too much time educating the reader rather than hand-selling them crap, I speak from experience. The other big argument that often comes up in discussion is how the bookstores are attempting to be like the library system (“help desks” that imitate reference desks, library-esque setting, comfy chairs, etc) while the library system is attempting to try to be like bookstores (cafes, overhead music systems, wider range of programming). But my question is: Why spend all this time arguing about who is trying to be like the other? All this mudslinging is ridiculous as libraries and bookstores can co-exist AND live together.

It’s like watching a never ending game of Tekken and in the end, the ones left holding the “WTF?” bag are the customers/patrons who just wanted help finding a damned book.

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