Meet a Librarian
Kathleen Keeler has fond memories of the bookmobile that came to her neighborhood when she was a child. Every week it parked down the street from her house, and Keeler visited it regularly. It felt like her own private library. She checked out books and participated in the library’s summer reading programs. Now, as a children’s librarian for the San Francisco Public Library, she helps run the summer reading program for her library branch. She also helps children select books, just as the bookmobile librarians helped her choose books when she was a girl.
Keeler has been a librarian for fourteen years, but being a librarian is a second career for her. She received a college degree in speech pathology and worked for five years helping people with speech difficulties. Her favorite part of that job was working with children. That fact, combined with her love of books, prompted her to return to school to get a library degree. As Keeler comments, “I’m amazed that I didn’t think of a library career the first time around, because it’s the perfect job for me. The minute I thought of it, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I’ve always loved to read, and this is a good career for a reader.”
Two Important Responsibilities
A children’s librarian does many different tasks every day. Of these, Keeler feels that answering children’s questions and recommending books are her two most important responsibilities:
Every day that I work, I answer reference questions. A lot of the questions that a children’s librarian answers involve homework assignments. Children also ask questions about things they are interested in, like mummies, folding paper airplanes, spooky stories, and how to take care of pets. Today one child wanted to know about glowworms. Another wanted to know what the letters J.K. in J.K. Rowling stand for. [The answer is Joanne Kathleen.] A third wanted to know what day of the week his birthday would be on in the year 2012!
Another big part of the job is suggesting books to kids. When a child asks me to recommend a book, I ask them to tell me the name of some books they have read that they liked. Then I try to think of some other books similar to those. I also like to tell children about some of my favorite books. I describe the book, especially the exciting parts, but I don’t give away the ending so the child will want to read it to find out what happens.
No Typical Day
One of the things Keeler enjoys about her job is that the days are so varied. She does everything from attending committee meetings to holding story times for preschoolers. Like most public librarians, Keeler sometimes works evenings and weekends. She is based in one branch of the library, but she works in other branches as well. Even though she is a children’s librarian, she sometimes works in the adult section of the library.
Keeler does lots of work out of the public view. She and the other children’s librarians put together reading lists to distribute to children. Every month she reads new children’s books and reviews them to help the library system decide which books to purchase. Because Keeler is a children’s book author herself, she brings special knowledge to her purchase suggestions. Sometimes before the library opens, she hosts class visits, giving students a tour of the library. She also looks through the books in the library’s collection to see if they are out of date or in bad condition. If so, they will be removed from the shelves.
Finding time to do all these jobs is one of Keeler’s challenges. As she explains, “There is a lot to do to keep the library running. Sometimes it is hard to find enough time to order books, plan programs, help patrons, decorate the library for holidays, visit nearby schools, supervise the children that volunteer at our branch, and serve on committees. It is a job that keeps you busy!”
A Creative Career
One of the things Keeler enjoys about her career is that librarians are able to bring their creative talents to the job. One of her coworkers does all the art projects and displays that decorate the children’s room of the library. Another folds origami cranes to hang from the ceiling. Librarians with musical skills sing or play instruments during story times. When Keeler visits local schools to tell them about the library’s summer reading program, she uses her own artistic gift: “I like to tell stories, so when I do the school visits, I learn a new story to tell the kids in the schools. That’s always really fun—acting the story out, and seeing from the kids’ expressions how interested they are.”
Keeler also helps plan some of the many free public events her library branch offers: Because I’m a children’s librarian, I help plan special programs for kids. Sometimes the programs involve music, or dance, or puppets. The programs are a nice service for kids and families. At this branch, we also offer several story times. Once a month we show films of children’s books.
The best-attended program I ever gave was “Murder Mystery at the Library.” Kids scoured the library looking for clues as to which suspect killed the victim. The clues were hidden in books to introduce the kids to the different types of books. We had to stop letting kids in after we reached 100 participants!
Like any job, library work has challenges. Keeler remembers evenings when the power in the library went out and she had to lead people to the door with flashlights! Some difficulties are more predictable, such as budget problems and changing technology. As she explains:
When the city and state have budget cuts, we don’t have enough money to buy all the books that would be useful or subscribe to all the online databases we’d like to. They also result in hiring freezes, so we have fewer people working to put away the books and help people with reference questions. And it is a challenge to keep up with technology. The library offers training and also allows us to attend courses on new databases. We librarians talk to each other about what new online and print sources we discover.
A Sense of Achievement
But for most librarians, including Keeler, the rewards of the job far outweigh the difficulties. As she further explains:
I love helping children find books that they love. I think my favorite thing is when kids come back and say, “That was a really good book you told me about!” Sometimes they come in and say, “Well, I liked your book, and you might like the book I just read,” then they tell you about that.
I also love the opportunities to be creative that this job provides. Helping people with their questions is always very satisfying. Solving a tough reference question gives me a great sense of achievement. Sometimes illustrators come in looking for pictures of certain things they need to draw, or writers need specific information, so a librarian can be a part of new books being created. When I work at the adult desk, people ask us for books on writing résumés, or on how to study for a test to be a teacher. Librarians help these patrons improve their lives. There are so many rewards.
6 All quotes in “Meet A Librarian”: Kathleen Keeler, interview by author November 12, 2003, and e-mail to author January 13, 2004.