To be a good reference librarian, you have to know a lot of things about a lot of different topics, but I've found that understanding human nature is the most important knowledge. That's a broad pool of knowledge—but the job itself is constantly teaching me. Today I had an experience with a patron that humbled me and helped me remember what matters most.
There is an older woman who calls about once a week and asks us to pull 7-10 books for her. She has a hard time getting around, so she'll ask one of us to pull her books and put them upstairs on the hold shelf, and then her husband comes and picks them up for her. Generally she has a list of titles, but she also will usually ask for a few "good, clean, honest" books of our choice to be put in her stack.
I've had a little bit of success in introducing her to gentle authors outside the realm of her usual LDS-writers-only lists: Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, Lynn Austin. I've also tried to branch out a little, to non-religious writers: Elizabeth Berg, Maeve Binchy, Rosamund Pilcher, Ann Hood. But almost every time she calls and talks to me, she wants the same type of book she usually requests.
Occasionally I get frustrated by her calls, partly because it takes a while to work through her lists. Partly it's because I keep hoping she'll branch out a little bit. I know it's none of my business, and people can read whatever they want, and there's a book for every reader. But she just clearly loves reading so much—she must go through a book a day—and I wish she could experience the freedom of reading new stories outside of her usual comfort zone.
But I never let my frustration show because: professional librarian.
Today, I was working at the fiction desk, and I heard her familiar voice—but not on the phone! She was feeling well enough to get out and come to the library. She gets around with a walker, so I still went through the stacks for her, grabbing her books. I got her requests, and then I tried a few others I thought she might like, but she rejected them on the basis of the cover images. I ran upstairs to get her a book out of the large print section and then helped her check out and get all of her books into a bag that she hooked on to her walker.
Ready to go, she said "Now, what's your name?" and I said "Amy" and she said "Oh yes! I've talked to you before."
Then she leaned in toward me and said, "Listen, Amy. You should thank the good Lord Jesus every day of your life that you have a strong body that you can walk and run with."
I patted her on the shoulder and said "Oh, I do." Because, really: I do. I work hard to make sure my body stays healthy, flexible, and strong—but I also know that it could be taken away at any moment. Disease, accident, earthquake, terrorists, aliens: who knows what tomorrow will bring? And this is really why, librarian professionalism aside, I really actually love helping her, even with her limited reading choices: because one day I could be in her shoes. And I hope that if I am, there will be someone in a younger body than mine who will bring me books.
"Well, that's good," she said. "I can't really walk much anymore, and I definitely can't hike like I used to. So I just read all the time. And I thank the good Lord Jesus for books, too." I hugged her shoulders and told her I was glad that she could get outside and come to the library today. And I felt thoroughly ashamed of my previous frustration. She's just a person stuck at home who loves to read, and who am I to judge her choices? Books bring her company, adventure, escape. They give her something to do with her mind, since her body can't cooperate much anymore.
And I remembered, once again, that even though there are frustrations with my work, and even though I sometimes feel underpaid and undervalued, there are greater things than appreciation. It is an honor to be able to help people through books, and I am grateful to do it.
(And now, knowing she used to like hiking, I might just stick a copy of Wild into her next pile. It might be too, well, wild for her—there are condoms involved, after all—but who knows? Maybe not!)