Friday, May 23, 2014

I Was a Volunteer at a Public Library

Last winter, a branch of the public library reached out to my library school, asking for volunteers. I eagerly answered the call, as I was interested in gaining current library experience. Ultimately, I gained more than experience; I also gained a peek into human lives and what life is like working at a public library today.
Beginning another bright day as a volunteer at the public library.
Image via NYPL on Facebook

After I contacted the public library, expressing my interest in volunteering there, the volunteer coordinator at the branch requested that I come in to fill out an application and take a test, which measured my understanding of alphabetical and numeric order and the Dewey Decimal system. Having passed the test, I was given a quick but detailed tour of the library and asked when could I start. I began volunteering at the library two weekends later.

Typically, I arrived for my volunteer shift at the library between 10:30 and 11 o'clock on Saturday mornings. Even at that early hour, the library would be filled with people: adults in the reading room or at computers, parents with young children in tow, and elderly patrons browsing the audiobooks and DVDs. Already, there would be a growing line at the circulation desk, people anxious to check out their books or other items (often DVDs) so that they could get on with their day.

I would come in, jot down my arrival time in a binder, pick up a name-tag sticker on which I'd write "Volunteer," put it on, put my things away in the employee break room, and then get to work. Sometimes I would pull expired items that patrons requested but never picked up from the hold shelves, or I'd take DVDs that were returned, lock the cases, and re-shelve them in the DVD section. Most of the time, however, I worked in the children's section of the library.

Spending time in the children's section was a fun and eye-opening experience. I was always amazed at just how many parents (or nannies) would be there with their children so early in the morning, and they would often be reading to their children, using different voices for different characters in the book without an ounce of self-consciousness. Seeing parents read to their children always made me feel good; I guess it was just seeing that connection between parent and child, knowing that the parent could've been anywhere on a Saturday morning but chose to spend that time at the library with their child, and witnessing a love of books (and a love of reading) being passed on to the next generation.
Parents reading to their children was a common sight at the public library.
Image via

Another thing that astounded me as I worked in the children's section was seeing very small children being so comfortable using the library's computers. A common sight was four- of five-year-olds sitting at the computers, their little feet not even touching the floor, busy clicking away as they played computer games with an extreme focus. One Saturday, I even saw a little boy who couldn't have been no more than three years old bounce around his mother, saying, "Computer, mommy! I want to go computer, mommy!" I thought that was pretty wild.

Not all parents who brought their children to the library were so attentive to their children. One father had checked out one of the library's laptops, and he was totally zeroed in on it, despite his young child - who was less than a year old - crying loudly in a nearby stroller. It was only when I walked near the father that he looked away from the laptop and began to shush and cradle the child. (Later, this same father snapped his fingers at me, letting me know that he was done with the laptop. If he wasn't balancing the child in one arm and steering the stroller with the other, I would've told him where to put that laptop.)

Most of the parents who brought their children to the library were not like this father, fortunately. They were completely engaged with their children, some overly so. As I was shelving books in the young-adult section, I overhead one mother say to her child, who was reading aloud a book for school, "Read slower! Is that how you pronounce that word? Read louder, I can't hear you! Is that how you read in school?" The child's older sibling got in on the act: "No! That's not how you say it! No, read it like this! No! Like this!" I genuinely felt sorry for that kid and was afraid that his mother and older sibling were giving him a complex.

Shelving books in the children's section (which is mostly what I did, partly because so many of the books that were being checked in were children's books), I got to see what was popular reading for little kids these days. There is a series called Captain Underpants (I kid you not) that the library's youngest patrons seem to really love. Pokémon graphic novels were also favored reading, as were anything featuring the characters from the Disney animated movie Frozen. Speaking of Frozen, princess books are a thing; there's an entire section of children's books whose protagonists are princesses. And fairies (yes, fairy books are definitely a thing, too). Among the easy reader books, Marvel superheroes, Disney and LEGO characters, and Dr. Seuss' and Berenstain Bears books continue to be popular.
Dr. Seuss' books are still popular with young library patrons.
Image via

In the process of shelving, I would occasionally come across books that I had as a kid, such as those by Richard Scarry. Scarry's books were among my favorites as a child because the way they were illustrated, there was always so much going on. And I think a part of me was greatly amused at the sight of animals wearing people clothes (overalls, dresses, caps, etc.) and doing human things (driving cars, steering boats, laying bricks, etc.). As I was flipping through one Richard Scarry book in particular - his Please and Thank You Book - an older woman, who was always tutoring in the children's section at that hour, walked past me and said, "You're reading that book so intently!" I held it up and said, "I had it as a kid. It's Richard Scarry." She smiled and replied, "Oh, he's great!" I agree.

My Saturdays volunteering at the public library came to an early end with the library being closed for the Memorial Day weekend and with my beginning an archives internship soon after that. Although it will be nice sleeping in again on Saturdays, I will miss my Saturday mornings at the library. It was great being around the little kids (my favorite moment was when a small child, who looked to be not quite three years old, mimicked my actions as I put away books: when I knelt to put a book away on a lower shelf, she knelt to put a book away on the adjacent lower shelf, and so on). It was also a great pleasure to work alongside other enthusiastic volunteers and with upbeat and witty library staff who were clearly happy with their career path. Volunteering at the library was an all-too-brief experience, but an experience I am extremely grateful to have had.


  1. I am glad that you still have your "love of books" and the library. Looks like when I got you your first library card at a very early age (even though you could only "read" the pictures), it was a good decision. I remember telling you and your sister that as long as you had a love of books...your would never be adventure was only a book away.

  2. So true! I am so thankful that you passed on your love of books. It is one of your greatest gifts to us!