Saturday, November 24, 2012

On Being a Library Assistant

"Granted the departure from the primitive condition in which everyone makes things for himself, and granted, therefore, a condition in which many work for others (who will pay them), there are still two sorts of job. Of one sort, a man can truly say, "I am doing work which it is worth doing. It would still be worth doing if nobody paid for it. But I have no private means, and need to be fed and housed and clothed. I must be paid while I do it." The other sort of job is that in which people do work whose sole purpose is the earning of money; work which need not be, ought not to be, or would not be done by anyone in the whole world unless it were paid.

"We may thank God that there are still plenty of jobs in the first category. The agricultural labourer, the policeman, the doctor, the artist, the teacher, the priest, and many others, are doing what is worth doing in itself....The opposite extreme may be represented by two examples. I do not necessarily equate them morally, but they are alike by our present classification. One is the work of the professional prostitute..My other example is this. I often see a hoarding which bears a notice to the effect that thousands look at this space and your firm ought to hire it for an advertisement of its wares..."

C.S. Lewis, "Good Work and Good Works"

I often wonder which of the above categories by own job would fit into. Is the work of a library assistant a noble avocation? (Not a librarian, mind. People always confuse the two. A librarian has a qualification in library science. A library assistant is the unqualified dogsbody who assists these mandarins.)

I've worked in the Main Library (latterly the James Joyce Library) of University College Dublin since 2001 (apart from one unhappy year working in UCD's Veterinary Library). It's pretty much the only job I've ever had.

Sometimes I wonder why I've been so blessed. When I was a child, and a teenager, and a student, I dreaded working life with all my heart. I expected it to be a daily slog, to fritter away my soul day by day, to leave me with no life left over to call my own. I literally had nightmares (well, at least one) of being trapped on a factory floor.

Well, my fears have been ungrounded (so far). I think few jobs must be less irksome than mine. Even when it is very busy (as it can be), it's rarely stressful or tedious.

I remember when I was applying for the job, there was a form on which applicants had to list their reasons for wanting it. One of the reasons I put down was, "I want to work in one of the great centres of Irish public life". Whoever read it almost certainly thought it was a spiel. But I really meant it.

I love that I can say those three syllables, "U-C-D", and everybody in Ireland knows what I mean. I love that so many prominent intellectuals and public figures work in the same place as me (and often come to the library issue desk). I love that a huge swathe of the Irish people pass through the gates of my university, and that their years there will be amongst the most memorable of their lives. I love that I am so close to one of the major dramas of human life, which is university education. If I had a huge office and a secretary and a hundred people working under me, but I was devoting half of my life to the sale and manufacture of bubblegum, I am sure the banality of my work would bother me.

I love the whole university atmosphere. The posters, the crowds, the infectious excitement of youth, the wooden plaques that list the names (going back decades) of the various chairmen of student societies, the rhythm of term and holiday and term and holiday, the restaurants and caf├ęs buzzing with conversation, the clipped greens, the whole sense that the university is a little world of its own; I love all of it.

Students are wonderful people to work for. I assumed that dealing with the public (since I work on the issue desk) would involve lots of hassle and aggravation and arguments. It doesn't. The vast majority of the students are so polite and friendly and calm that it almost beggars belief. Unfortunately, the exception are the mature students. Most of the mature students are fine, but if you do come across a difficult and demanding and aggressive student, it is very likely to be a "mature" student.

When it comes to academic staff, this phenomenon seems to work in reverse. When you encounter an unpleasant academic-- usually a bullish, go-getter type-- he or she is usually a younger academic. The senior academics, the ones who seem to have grown up in a university atmosphere, are remarkably easy-going, even serene. They often wear a quizzical smile, and (if they are men) chunky sweaters and sticking-up hair. I always think that these are the ones who have a genuine love of knowledge. The younger academics (at least the aggressive ones) seem to be more like careerists, who took up medieval history as they might have taken up moped repair.

I haunted libraries when I was younger, and I had rather a romantic view of them. I can seriously remember being shocked (and at not such a young age) when I heard a library assistants in Ballymun Public Library talking about Oasis (the rock band). I really expected (at least deep down) that library assistants should talk about Yeats and Dickens and Salvator Dali and the Holy Roman Empire all the day long.

It's not really like that, of course. People who work in libraries might (might!) be a little more bookish than the man in the street, but not by much.

One of the things I like about working in a library is that everybody knows what a library is. Even a five year old has a mental picture of a library (as opposed to an advertising agency or a stockbroker's firm). They have been one of the abiding institutions of civilization.

I say "have been", because I really worry whether libraries, as we know them, have had their day. When I say I work in a library people picture shelves full of books, and trolleys full of books, and a woman wearing a cardigan and square-framed glasses putting her finger to her lips and telling chatterers to "Shush!". And, happily, that picture still bears a strong resemblance to the working life of a library. We still deal with books all day long. We still loan them out and take them back. We still tell people to be quiet.

But now-- the computers, the computers, the computers! Every day, their total conquest of the world grows nearer, their infiltration into every human activity and moment of life becomes more disturbing. (I realize the irony of writing this on a computer.)

In my library (as in almost all libraries, no doubt), we are as dependent upon our computer catalogue and library software as Stone Age farmers were dependent upon the sun and the rain. We spend our lives supplicating with the priests of the digital age, our harried and hurried IT workers, who rush from catalogue computer to printer to the automated turnstiles that control entry and exit from the library, and who minister unto them.

We loan out laptops, which are hugely popular. We desperately try to work out why a student phoning from Tipperary can't access our online journals and databases. We try to soothe researchers who have one hour to print out a bibliography but who can't get the blessed printers to print. We fight with photocopiers. And the amount of time we spend doing all this seems to grow month by month.

Worst of all, there are the self-issue machines, on which customers can loan books to themselves, and also return and renew them. I've hated these with a passion from the moment they came into my life. Not because I fear they will make me redundant, but because I fear they will make libraries as we know them a thing of the past.

I think lots of library customers must dislike them too, because a huge amount of our users still prefer to come to the issue desk. Occasionally, somebody explicitly tells us that they prefer to deal with a human being. But I fear that, in most cases, people simply find the self-issues machines too slow or too erratic or too intimidating-looking. But they'll get better, and more reliable, and more user-friendly. No doubt about that. (A lot of people complain about modern gadgets being slow or always on the blink. To me, that is their one redeeming feature.)

Most people who work in libraries don't have a romantic or sentimental attitude towards them. Sometimes it seems to me that a lot of librarians actually dream of the day when books will be abolished, or relegated to cavernous and unbrowseable store-rooms. Their attitude seems to be that the only good book is an e-book, and that humans are there to serve the public only as a kind of last resort, when all mechanical aids have failed.

I know one librarian who rhapsodised about her experience of using an airport when, as she put it, "I didn't have to deal with one human being from beginning to end." (Not her exact words, I'm sure, but pretty close.)

I guess I'm grateful I got in before the end. Maybe in twenty or thirty years (and maybe much sooner) kids will watch movie scenes set in libraries with shelves full of books, and feel as wistful for them as we feel for old sweetshops, or for horse-drawn carriages.

It's true that, a couple of years ago, I found a book on a second-hand bookshop called The End of Libraries...which was published in the early nineteen-eighties. It's easy to laugh at that kind of failed doom-mongering, but I can't help remembering the joke about the hypocondriac's epitaph. It read "Do you believe me now?"


  1. interesting.
    I worked for 3 months with Dublin Public Libraries and stupidly left to become E.O. in Civil service.
    The had to retire on health grounds (anxiety and stress) after 13 yrs.
    Trying to get a library assistant job when they recruit again. Liam

  2. Good luck to you. It's a good job to have, I'm sorry you had to leave your other job. Glad you liked the post!

  3. Thanks for your post, I'm interested in doing the same kind of work. If it's not too personal, could I ask how much money you make?

  4. I'm glad you liked the post, Anonymous. And yes, that is too personal a question to publish on the internet! Email me and I'll tell you.

  5. query re your salary was not from me Liam

    I have applied for the recent post as library assistant in u.c.d.

    Awaiting to hear back

  6. Hi Liam

    I didn't think it was.

    I wish you luck with the job application! It's a great place to work!


  7. wow you are an early bird!!