Last winter I was given the opportunity to work as a library assistant in a research library for three months. I’d never done any kind of library work before, but I was intrigued by the idea. Before I knew it, three months stretched to six, then nine, and now there’s no sign that it will be ending any time soon.
I’ve discovered that I love library work, even the tedious bits! I’ve also gained some insights into how the library life can translate into living better and writing better. Here are a few takeaways from my experience as a library assistant.
1. Keep Your Day Organised
When I first started working at the library, things were a mess. The office was overflowing with uncatalogued books, papers were stacked on the desk and none of our supplies had a proper home. The one thing that was well-organised was the way the books were classified and shelved. Slowly, we’ve been able to bring order out of chaos over the last several months, and it’s made such a difference in our ability to do our jobs properly.
I have also learned that starting my day with a plan is helpful—or a pattern, if not a specific plan. For me, this looks like: check post, receive books and journals into the catalogue, print a list of who is at each desk this week, etc. Even if a hundred things interrupt my day, the pattern keeps me on track and helps me stay focussed.
You don’t have to use the Dewey Decimal System to be able to appreciate some library organisation in your everyday life. Having a proper place for everything in your home can make such a difference in your quality of life, and starting your day with planned goals can energise your thoughts and actions. I’m still working on incorporating that outside the job myself!
There’s no need to turn from a pantser to a plotter if the former is how you roll, but having an established pattern for your writing time and a method to your approach can cause your imagination to flourish in ways it can’t if you’re bogged down with wondering what to do next.
2. Pay Attention to Detail
One of the more tedious bits of library work involves entering books into the catalogue. I worry about whether I put in every piece of information correctly, if I spelt everything properly or if the book is classified in the right section. If I skip or ignore any of those questions, it causes confusion for my fellow library workers and our patrons when they’re trying to find a book.
Though boring, it’s necessary to keep my focus on the little details to make sure everything runs smoothly—and there’s a great deal of satisfaction in knowing I’ve gotten it all done the way it should be.
While having a ‘big picture’ mentality might look exciting and glamorous, it’s important to pay attention to the little details in life as well. I’ve made the mistake before of signing my kids up for loads of activities, only to realise afterwards that I can’t work my schedule around those activities. Or I might have really good intentions for getting a great deal of work accomplished in a day, only to find myself floundering because I didn’t think through all the labour that would be involved in each task. If I can remember to think about the details first, it makes my life flow so much more smoothly!
Likewise, in writing, it’s the details that make your story more vivid and real. Having an exciting overarching plot is great, but if that’s all you have, the story is going to feel flat. It’s the way the characters interact with each other and their surroundings that bring a story to life. Incorporating all five senses into your writing is another great use of detail: how does something smell, or taste, or sound, etc? Little snippets of background to the world, the characters, and the plot can also be a great way to bring that extra bit of detail to your work to really make it shine.
3. Create a Dream Team
One of our regular readers at the library calls us The Dream Team. He also brings us chocolates to show his appreciation for our work, which is why he is one of our favourite readers. He’s not wrong, either. The head librarian is one of those big-picture people I mentioned above—he inspires us all with his vision. The other library assistant and I do the everyday tasks that keep the library functioning smoothly, and the deputy librarian is the linchpin holding us all together.
It’s the most supportive environment I’ve ever worked in, and it makes the job a joy. Our patrons know that if one of us can’t help solve a problem, one of the others can. It takes all of us, with our different skill sets and abilities, to make the library work. We know that we can trust each other enough to ask for help when necessary, and while it can sometimes be humbling to admit you can’t do it all yourself, it’s also freeing.
That old saying about how ‘no man is an island’ may sound cliché, but it’s true. We need other people, and other people need us. We thrive best in a supportive community, one where we can use our gifts and talents and where other people fill in where we’re lacking, outside of work as well as within.
There are many different ways to build community: finding people with mutual interests, attending church or other religious meetings, interacting with neighbours, etc. It takes some work but it’s so worth it in the end.
The idea of the lone writer scribbling away in a garret with no one near to support or encourage is one cliché I’d like to see retired forever! Writers need community, too—a team of people to constructively critique, encourage, share ideas, stimulate imagination and even just bring a cup of tea or a chocolate bar when you need it. Sometimes it’s easy to think that other writers are competition, but we’re all in this together. Cooperation helps everyone much more than a competitive mind-set.
Library work may not be for everyone, but it’s much more than the popular stereotype of a stern woman wagging a finger and hissing ‘hush’ at noisy patrons. Organisation, attention to detail and teamwork are all aspects of a good library environment, and they can apply to other aspects of life and writing as well. The next time you pop into your local library, take a second look around you and see what else you can borrow from there to use in your everyday life. It’s much more than just books.