The Wisdom of Work at the Library

by Bill Peak

I wear a lot of hats at the library. In addition to this column, I write the library's newsletter, press releases, and fund-raising materials, do all the lay-out for the newsletter and create all the signage for the book discussions and other programs I oversee. I also work regular, daily shifts at the Circulation and Reference Desks. And I'm not alone. Pretty much everyone at the library carries a load of responsibilities as heavy as or heavier than mine. To get everything done, we tend to multi-task. While working at the Reference Desk, for example, I usually try to squeeze in a little writing as well. The problem with this is, of course, human nature. Let me give you a for instance ...

The other day I was sitting at the Reference Desk, struggling over this column, when, to my relief, the suggestion of a sentence capable of freeing up my log-jammed English floated into view. But just as I was about to reach for the thing and, possibly, save a day's efforts, an elderly gentleman settled into the chair at my side, leaned back with the unhurried air of one who has all the time in the world, and asked, “Do you know where I can find a map of all the counties in Iowa ... in 1846?”

Of course my job at that moment is not to save a day's writing. My job is to help that patron. Indeed all the other things I do—the writing, the desktop publishing, the checking in and checking out of books—they are all performed in service to that moment, the moment when a living breathing human being turns to the library in search of knowledge. If I don't drop what I'm doing then and give the patron my undivided attention, what's the point of my other work at all? But, still, there is always the temptation, however ignoble, to hurry the man along, to intimate through the tone of my voice, the tilt of my head, that, while I'm more than happy to help him find a map, I have more important things to do than listen to him go on about a distant relative who, it seems, played some minor role in Iowa's now-long-forgotten bid for statehood.

But here is where the genius of work patiently and persistently teaches us. If I hurry, force the exchange faster than it was meant to go, inevitably I come away from the encounter feeling a little ashamed of myself. Inevitably too, the sentence I sacrificed my patron's time for will turn out not to have been worth the cost. If, however, I give the patron the time he deserves, I come away feeling good about myself and the service I've provided: I step a little lighter that day, sleep a little better that night. This is the simple, gentle wisdom of work. We can do our work well, with pride, and be happy, or we can do it hurriedly, haphazardly, and be unhappy. The choice is ours.

Every day people turn to the library for help in finding a job. I want the good people of Talbot County (who have entrusted me with my job) to know how hard we work at the library to ensure that everyone in our community has the chance to learn the great lessons of life's labor.