The Extroverted, People-Person Librarian
As we all know, public libraries these days are way more than just places where community members get books and attend a few events. Seemingly every week brings a story about a public library doing something new and extraordinary for its community. One of the people in the library world making these extraordinary things happen is Erin Shea, branch supervisor for the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Something that I really enjoy about my job is that no day is the same. Sometimes, I’m in the stacks weeding or I’m at my desk compiling and analyzing circulation data. Other times, I’m interacting with our staff members and asking how their day is going. We talk about what books we’re reading and what interesting interactions we’ve had with patrons lately. And then sometimes, I’m unclogging a toilet or shoveling snow to free a patron’s car from the parking lot—not always glamorous, but necessary.
What’s your main goal as you work with the different branches in your system?
My main goal is definitely to have our branches and branch staff be a cohesive part of the Ferguson Library system as a whole. This is much easier said than done! We have a lot of staff members who work in multiple locations, which definitely helps with communication and teamwork between the branches and the main library. I also am constantly working on communication. This is probably one of the biggest parts of my job—communicating via multiple channels based on the content of the message, whether it’s a weekly email with what’s going on the next week or in-person trainings on new systems or policies. I focus a lot on having our part-timers feel as much a part of the team as our full-timers.
What have you seen your branch libraries do for their communities that you think should be applauded?
I was recently out of the country for 2 weeks, and while I was away, one of our local schools had to close due to mold. Our Harry Bennett Branch became a school to house the displaced students. This means our staff members worked long hours and had to be incredibly flexible, with hundreds of schoolchildren coming through our doors. I am so proud of them for stepping up to the plate to help out our community—that is exactly what a public library should be doing.
Managing Big Community Events
Let’s hop into our Library Land boat and make a trek across the Atlantic Ocean to speak with the great Kate Smyth, the library development officer for Oldham Libraries in Oldham, England, part of Greater Manchester. Kate’s one of the best when it comes to organizing large events for public libraries and also for partnering with other community organizations.
What did you learn from working with youth in libraries, and how have those experiences helped you grow as a librarian and in your current role?
The main things I learned from working with young people were, don’t assume to know what they are interested in, and ask them what they want and be prepared for a lot of different answers. If you can, offer a menu of activities.
I felt it was my role to support them to bring their ideas to life. When they wanted a Twilight Prom, they were really keen to get involved in the prep, the marketing, and the setting up. The teens I worked with were not passive attendees; they gained a lot of skills by organizing their own events and a sense of pride when their hard work paid off. During the project, I was in the library every evening and on Saturdays, and I know that this consistency helped build trust, confidence, and a good relationship with the teens. It also gave them a sense of ownership of the library space and the confidence to run events and advocate for the library.
That experience has informed my current role. In 2018, I worked on a Carnegie UK Trust/Wellcome Trust-funded project, Comics and Cosplay: Caring for Young Minds. It was focused on improving young people’s mental health, and we aimed to provide different activities and a tangible outcome. The project included the opportunity to share stories about mental health and contribute to a comic based on their lived experiences of anxiety, school pressure, and sexual identity. More than 100 young people from Oldham’s Youth Council, LGBT group, and Young Carers took part and created a comic called Jack & Lucy. So far, thousands of copies have been distributed in the U.K. and even at New York Comic Con.
Can you tell us a bit about the state of public libraries in the U.K.?
Libraries in the U.K. are funded by local authorities and are in crisis: More than 650 libraries have closed since 2010, while many others have faced a reduction in budgets, staffing, and hours. Many U.K. libraries have been passed to community groups and are run by volunteers or operate as Smart Libraries, where users enter locked buildings with their library cards and a code to check out books and use computers without staffers being present.
I feel that Oldham Council really values its library service and has worked well with library managers to ensure that budget reductions don’t negatively impact staffers or users.