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Rewards Greater Than the Risks

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about my career as a Children’s Librarian is that my potential to do good has been unlimited while my potential to do harm has been virtually nil. This is not to say that I have not had a few dicey moments. In the interests of encouraging my fellow Children’s Librarians, both new and old, I’d like to give a few examples of near disasters I’ve survived without ever losing a patron, a physical facility, or my job.

On my very first solo evening in my very first professional position I prepared the Children’s Room to close for the night. The tables were cleared, the shelves were tidied, and the patrons had all been helped and had taken materials to the lobby where they would be checked out. I was relieved to have gotten through the shift without incident. But…not so fast. Book bag on my shoulder, I prepared to depart, clicking down all the light switches on the bank by the door. And then I heard a clerk in the lobby exclaim, “My light pen just went off!” And the clerk across from her answered, “So did mine!” None of us knew what had gone wrong until the next morning, when it was revealed that one of the light switches on the bank in the Children’s Room controlled the computer governing the circulation system for the entire central library. Somehow, no one had told me that. The switch in question had never been marked, up to that point. They fixed that oversight quickly, as you can imagine. The Circulation Department staff nudged each other knowingly when I passed by, but after a few weeks they seemed to have forgiven me.

A few months later I was assigned to present a puppet show at an annual outdoor festival in one of the parks. One of our clerks teamed up with me and I decided that it would be fun to do a Punch and Judy show, since we had a book with scripts in our collection and appropriate puppets were available. We had an uproarious time of it, the high point being when Punch flailed around so frenziedly that his head flew off into the audience and I had to repeatedly, heatedly demand that it be thrown back so we could complete the sketch. I thought the entire event had been well received, but the Director of Children’s Services came to a different conclusion after hearing complaints about the violence of the performance. We were called into her office to be reprimanded. I prepared a defense and arrived with a stack of books in which I had marked citations about the antiquity of Punch and Judy shows, their origins in 17th century Italian commedia dell’arte, their traditional place in British Victorian puppetry and so on. We were educating the children, I insisted. “Would you like me to speak with the parents?” I enquired, sweetly. “No, thank you,” she replied. “I’ll take care of it, myself.”

A few years later, I was temporarily in charge of a branch library when everyone in the building was disturbed by loud voices emanating from the staff room. They grew louder. And angrier. I realized I’d have to investigate. Unfortunately, both of the keys to the room had been taken by whoever was inside in the midst of the escalating argument. I pounded on the door until a third staff member heard me and let me in. She was heavily pregnant and the other two—a man and a woman—were literally throwing punches and pulling hair. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but whatever it was, I said it forcefully enough to make them disengage. The pregnant woman fled to safety. I separated the combatants into different parts of the library until a supervisor with more authority could arrive to take statements. Ultimately, there was a disciplinary hearing where grievances were aired by which time the matter was out of my hands. I’m still uncomfortable thinking about it, though. Nothing in library school had prepared me for that incident.

More recently, I almost set fire to our library. I’m not sure why we decided to make waffles in the program room. I know the kids were going to vote on which toppings were the best, so it may have centered on the 2012 election. In any case, my waffle iron, which had been working perfectly at home, refused to heat up at work. I decided I could fry up pancakes with the batter instead. Not a bad idea, except that we didn’t have a frying pan and I attempted to substitute a broiler pan on top of the four-burner electric stove top. Because the burners heated unevenly some of the pancakes began to burn and the smoke alarm went off and we had to evacuate the entire building. Once the fire engines had left, we went back inside and ate toppings without waffles or pancakes. In case you’re wondering, the kids liked the whipped cream much better than the fresh strawberries, the jam, the butter, or the syrup. I credit those results to the fun of using the squirt can.

All told, I’ve been very lucky in more than four decades in the profession. I know that many of us face much more serious problems than I have and deal with them with more equanimity and good sense than I.

It is fortunate that there’s something about working with children that allows us to retain optimism even when faced with ecological, financial or political disasters. We never know who’s coming through the doors of our libraries and what impact we will have on them. I know I have rarely heard authors speak without crediting the librarians who influenced them when they were young. We can all take pride in that.

Today’s post was written by Miriam Lang Budin who wreaked havoc in libraries on both coasts before her retirement in 2018. Miriam wrote this post as a member of the ALSC Membership committee.

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