Being a book lover for as long as I can remember, I also recall a time when all I wanted was to open up my own library. I grew up in a small town without one. The thought of being perpetually surrounded by stories of every shape sounded like paradise to my book-obsessed brain.
My childhood dream remains, and may yet come true some day. The life of a librarian still holds its charm. If you’ve ever felt the longing to work in a library, or you’re simply wondering what it’s all about, Chrissie Harris from the Columbus Metropolitan Library is here on Daily (w)rite to answer some burning questions.
Thank you, Chrissie!
1. I’ve always been fascinated by the life of a librarian. What are the common myths about what librarians do, and what is the reality?
The myth we joke most about is that we get to read all day. I wish that were true! I think people who haven’t been to a library in a while would be surprised at what a dynamic place it is. We have programs going on all day for all ages. We’re fine free and have self checkouts, so library staff spend more time helping kids with their homework, working with caregivers to prepare young ones for kindergarten, hosting author visits, and helping with tech questions, and less time standing behind a reference desk.
2. What made you wish to become a librarian?
I’ve always liked to read, and there’s no way I could afford to buy all the books I want to read – or think I want to read, because I definitely don’t finish everything I start. My hometown library was a sanctuary to me as a young adult because it was a quiet place I could go to, surround myself with books, and not spend any money. A library is a place of possibility.
3. How does one train to become a librarian in the USA?
There are a variety of jobs in the library. I spent a while in customer service, which is definitely what people think of when they think of working in a library, but there are a lot of jobs behind the scenes that are so important – Property Management, IT, Marketing, Transportation, Finance, and Collection Services, where I work now.
To have the job title of librarian, you usually need to get your Masters in Library Science. There are many people who come to libraries as a second career, but there are also many people who started as pages, also known as shelvers. Shelvers keep the library running, because they put all the books back in the right place on the shelf. Now, teens can volunteer as a way to get started. We have an extensive volunteer program every summer.
4. Would you like to share any memorable anecdotes from your time as a librarian?
The most memorable anecdotes aren’t really ones I want to share. I will say, if you know any library workers, take them out for a drink and ask them to tell you some stories. You’ll hear some wild things.
5. What are your special areas of study or interest as a librarian?
I’m a selection librarian in Collection Service, which means I buy books for the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Our department buys, catalogs, and labels all the books for the system. My colleagues and I select physical materials and digital resources (like Creative Bug and Kanopy) for our library, and ebooks for a consortium. I’ve always been interested in the collection and reading advisory and I get to use that in my current role.
6. Who are five of your favorite authors, and why would you recommend them?
Wow, I always see interviews where authors are asked this and am glad that I haven’t had to yet. I don’t have a lot of loyalty to specific authors usually – I’ll love one book by an author but hate the next. Right now I’d say Tamsyn Muir (and Moira Quirk, the narrator of her audiobooks), Percival Everett, K.J. Parker, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Susanna Clarke. There are more authors I have fond memories of but am apprehensive about revisiting them because I read them so long ago.
7. Would you like to share your last five-star read, a book you’ve been recommending to others?
The Chinese Groove by Kathryn Ma was a really warm-hearted coming of age story, and I think it deserves more attention.
8. How does a library decide to acquire a particular book? Are all books requested by patrons acquired?
The library has a Materials Selection policy to guide our buying decisions. For example, materials should be accurate, relevant, and suitable for a popular library. We’re not an academic library, or an archive, although our Local History and Genealogy department does hold on to local history material because they have a different focus.
There are also practical factors. Books in the library need to stand up to repeated use. We need to be able to easily get the books. We work with library wholesalers for the vast majority of our materials. Anytime we have to order from Amazon or direct from a publisher, it puts a wrench in our process. We do order this way things that we need in the collection but are hard to get, such as books in languages other than Spanish and English.
There are also factors like budget and shelving space. Before I started this job, I knew a lot of books were published every year, but I had no real idea of the scale. The amount of traditionally and self-published books put out each year is in the millions. We simply don’t have the budget, space, or time to add everything, so we have to make hard decisions.
We get feedback from our customers through public service staff, but also from customer holds and suggestions, and data on what is circulating. I find it really satisfying to order more copies of a worn out book that is still circulating like mad.
We do not buy every customer request. We get a lot of customer requests and consider the same factors for these requests as for other books. We can get items from the Ohio State University and other libraries around the country through Interlibrary Loan, and we have Search Ohio for customers to request books from libraries around Ohio. When we don’t purchase a customer request, we’re not making a value judgement on the book, just determining if it’s a good fit for our public library according to our policies.
9. What are the biggest challenges librarians face today?
Library staff can get burnt out. A librarian, Amanda Oliver, who worked in Washington D.C., recently wrote a book Overdue that talks about that, and dives under the warm glow that many get when they think about libraries.
We’re very aware that book bans are on the rise. That’s a big concern. School libraries in particular are removing books because a member of the community disagrees with the content of the book. Often that person hasn’t even read the book. Public libraries are also seeing challenges to books in their collections. It’s worrying that the people making these challenges want to make decisions for all patrons. This NYT article sums it up better than I can.
10. What activities do you organize in order to promote the love of reading and writing in a community?
Our vision is “A Thriving Community Where Wisdom Prevails.” From birth on up, we’ve got something for everyone.
Caregivers can get babies library cards and go to storytimes. We have programs to help kids get ready for kindergarten, homework help and reading buddies for school-aged kids, and author visits for readers of all ages. I’m looking forward to seeing Jason Mott in December. His prize winning Hell of a Book was, in fact, one hell of a book.
We have a program called Staff Picks Live, which highlights staff favorites. Our Virtual Events page has past and future programs.
The selection team puts on a book buzz, highlighting new adult fiction and nonfiction titles, and this year we’ll be putting on a live version for the first time in a while.
11. Would you like to speak about the library at which you work, and a little about its history?
This is a momentous year for the Columbus Metropolitan Library. The library was founded on March 4, 1873 in City Hall – 150 years! The current Main library was the next stop after City Hall. Andrew Carnegie allocated $200,000 for the building and it was dedicated on April 4, 1907. We’ve gone through many building projects since that time, but the original Carnegie library is still an integral part of our system. There’s a great video on the history of the Columbus Metropolitan Library here.
We’re really pulling out all the stops with activities and programs for our 150 th birthday this year. Customers can pick up a Sesquicentennial Passport at any of our locations and complete activities. Once the passport is filled out, you get a tote bag with a design from a local artist, Carlisa Hayes. You’re also entered into a grand prize drawing. Librarians have a thing about tote bags (I have at least three at my desk right now), so this is totally appropriate.
In addition to author talks throughout the year, we also put on a Book Festival July 15-16. I was on the committee that helped pull in authors and the list of authors was amazing.
12. Why do you think libraries are important for a community?
It’s a place you can go to and hang out and not spend money, which is not all that common. In a library, you can check out a huge number of books, apply for a job, reserve a meeting room, or use resources to start a business. You can change your world. What could be better?
Libraries contribute to the well-being of a society and the services we provide are necessary for a thriving community. I’m proud to live in a state and a city that values libraries.
About Chrissie Harris
Chrissie Harris grew up in Northeast Ohio, but now lives in the Columbus area with her husband and two kids. She graduated with an MLIS from Kent State University. Chrissie spends her free time reading, learning Italian, and watching Guardians baseball.
Have you ever wanted to start your own library? Did Chrissie answer your questions about being a librarian? How is the reality different from your expectations? Have you visited the Columbus Metropolitan Library before? Do you plan to?
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