A day in the life of a library

People come and go, work and learn, talk and laugh, peck keyboards, seek answers. It is a precious corner of our world, writes librarian JUDE VACHON

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I'm writing this from one of the reference desks on the first floor of the Carnegie Library in Oakland. It's a Sunday. I like Sundays here.

We have our Sunday regulars -- we have lots of regulars other days, too, but the Sunday regulars are their own class of regulars -- and every Sunday afternoon we have some type of a performance. Today it was a young Filipino dance troupe. The dancers have taken over our staff office to store their things and to change into their costumes. I just ate my lunch back there while they packed up their stuff and horsed around.

Behind me sits my co-worker Jane. She'll be leaving the country for South America at the end of the month to be around her granddaughter more and probably teach English. One of her regulars just stopped by to ask for help. He likes Jane best. He'll miss her when she goes I would guess, though I'm positive that I'll miss her more.

Two friends of mine just walked in, which happens all the time here. Both because people love the library so my friends do too, and because after working here for two and a half years I have new friends.

The painter who has paintings in my neighborhood coffee shop is here with his wife and son. I just introduced myself and we talked about how nice the coffee shop owner is, and I told him how much I like the two new paintings that he put up there. A few minutes later he walked by and thanked me for telling him that.

To my left on one of the computers is someone pecking away with two fingers. Maybe he'll take one of the 24 free computer classes we're offering this month. Maybe I'll have him in class because I teach an occasional computer class here.


The Pittsburgh region has a library history beyond compare. It is home to the first of some 1,600 Carnegie libraries in America, the first Carnegie branch library system, the first library with stacks for browsing and the first children's department. Many of its libraries are architectural gems and integral to Pittsburgh's heritage of industry, immigration, philanthropy and culture. History tourism is hot, and Pittsburgh has a great story to tell. It should tell it.

Constance the children's librarian is having a coffee in the cafe with a couple of friends. Earlier she told me that she's trying to get a group of performers who dress as werewolf, vampire and hunchback to come and do a program here. They spin a wheel and then they and the kids do whatever 1950s dance comes up, like the mashed potato or pony or something. They call it Ghoul-a-Go-Go. She's excited. Duh.

Kate just waved hello. She's on break from working in the Foundation Center, where they help people find grants.

My co-worker Lisa, who has become a friend, is leaving for a new job in a few weeks. It's important and exciting for her, after five years of doing really good work here. This was her first real job. She's pushing a book cart around and shelving books right now.

I just helped an older gentleman find information on Baton Rouge. He's going there for his family reunion. I found a book that we have in the music department that's specifically about Baton Rouge blues musicians and he was interested in it.

All of this within about an hour today, without moving from my chair.

There is of course a lot more happening outside of my field of vision. Upstairs people are using the Job and Career Center or asking the Reference Services staff any of the number of questions that our smart, quirky human brains are able to generate. A few people asked for the Pennsylvania Department earlier, so they may be doing genealogy research or research on local or regional history.

Today I don't feel angry that we have to fight to keep our funding every single year, despite the fact that as times get tougher, we're needed more than ever, despite the fact that we're the most-visited regional asset in the county. This over even the sports teams, who have ticket sales to raise revenue.

It has definitely made me very angry many other days, and tired. Advocacy has become an essential part of our jobs, as we worry about keeping those jobs and about keeping our service to the community intact. Why do people need to fight so hard for things that so plainly have a positive effect? Why do we?

No, today I feel tender and sad and grateful as I look around me. Today I'm thinking about the people here and about our interactions. I think it's the relationships that really make this place, like they make any community.

I'm not saying we don't have conflicts with co-workers, aren't annoyed when patrons are rude; this place isn't perfect. But I'll tell you that the mission of the library -- providing, at virtually no cost, materials that support people in literacy, learning, fun, job searches, technology skills acquisition, and more -- makes this place basically an excellent one.

The relationships allow us to work together, they encourage a first-time visitor to ask a question, they make regulars want to come back. The places like these, where people build relationships, where they build a feeling of community and get information and exchange information with each other, are precious. They comfort us and sustain us and empower us.

Some losses, like Lisa moving on and Jane going to be with her granddaughter, are necessary. Losing workers and library branches and service hours and databases where non-academics can do research are not necessary losses.

I want all of the people who are or could be involved in sustaining our libraries -- city, county and state representatives; Regional Asset District board members; private donors, possibly including you -- to preserve one thing that unquestionably does a world of good.

How often do those things come along? When they do, hold on to them. Sustain that which sustains us. Duh.

Jude Vachon is a first-floor librarian for new and featured material at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh - Main (vachonj@ carnegielibrary.org).


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