Here’s one indication of how much the job of librarian has changed in recent times: When Erica Bess became a librarian, she found that her best preparation for the position came not from her long hours doing research — which she loved — but from her part-time job as a customer service representative for a beauty products company.
While Bess studied at Rutgers for her master’s in library science, she paid the bills by taking a job with L’Oreal answering customers’ questions about hair dye and cosmetics. The customers would call with questions about how to fix their hair or apply makeup, which were hard to answer because, you know, it was over the phone.
“We didn’t have a picture of them,” Bess says. “We had to do a lot of training learning how to do that. Learning how to tell someone how to fix their hair color when they don’t know how to describe it is challenging. For a woman, your hair is extremely important. Good or bad hair can make or break your day. It’s a touchy subject, and you have to get it right.”
L’Oreal trained Bess how to do a reference interview, which is the art of asking questions to get the information the customer needs, even when the customer is not sure what exactly they are looking for. It’s a skill that she finds herself using every time she mans the front desk at the library. Instead of advice on what to do if you turned your hair green by accident, customers are looking for information, but the same techniques work in both cases.
Bess, who is now the head of adult services at Princeton Public Library, is part of a generation of librarians who are highly trained, technologically savvy, and who seem to know at least little bit about everything. To master their profession, the modern librarian has to be a jack of all trades.
Bess grew up in Edison, where her father was a chemist for big drug companies and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Bess’ mother was blind, and hadn’t been able to work since her 20s. It so happens that Bess and her three sisters all went into public service: her older sister is a teacher, and her two twin sisters work in hospitals. Looking back on it, Bess thinks her mother’s disability may have given them all a sense of compassion and an affinity for public service. But growing up, Bess had no intention of going into a social service field. Her goal going into the College of New Jersey was to work for an advertising agency.
When Bess graduated, she found that no one in her chosen field was hiring due to the economic tailspin caused by the September 11 attacks. During her undergraduate years, she had developed a love of research so she decided to go back to school to prepare for a career where (she thought) she could spend her days immersed in books.
Though there are some library jobs that are mostly about research — for example, a reference librarian for a corporation — Bess’ career path took her to public libraries, where dealing with the public is key. After graduating from Rutgers in 2008 Bess almost stayed with L’Oreal because she liked that job so much, but instead took a fellowship at the Darien Library in Connecticut. The fellowship turned into a full-time job as Bess discovered the parts of being a librarian that no one taught her about in school — dealing with the public and being a master of information technology. Later, she moved back to New Jersey, taking a job at Princeton Public Library to be closer to her family.
“Before I became a librarian, I had no idea what it was about,” she says. “I really thought it was just like when I was a kid, and I would go to the library for storytime, and later, for research projects for school. I really didn’t understand all that a library could be until I started working at these two libraries.”
Her colleague, Janet Hauge, Technology Initiatives Librarian, is of the same mold. Hauge has been a librarian since 2007. It’s a second career for her, after a first life spent as a technologist in private schools, working with children and adults. Hauge studied business administration at TCNJ, and also got her MLS at Rutgers. “I liked books,” she says. “I thought, if I liked books, this would be an opportunity to be able to work with books as a part of a career. But when I entered library school at Rutgers, I quickly found out that books are only a segment of what librarians do. It’s really so much bigger.”
PPL is not just a repository for paper books anymore. Because so many of the library’s assets are electronic, in the form of databases, E-books, audiobooks, and other forms of media, being a good librarian means being able to help customers access these assets and use them to their full potential. And that means keeping on top of the ever-expanding array of mobile devices that can be used to access them.
A typical day might find Hauge spending a few hours behind the desk, helping customers, a few hours writing blog posts, some time catching up on the latest apps, and maybe some community outreach as a representative of the library to the Princeton Merchants Association. She also teaches a variety of classes, such as an introduction to computers mostly aimed at the elderly.
This is where Hague’s experience as a technologist served her well. “It’s challenging because people are coming, possibly with absolutely no knowledge of computers. Maybe they’ve never used a touchscreen or used a mouse or a touchpad,” she says. The biggest hurdle for most new computer users is the use of pointing devices. “You’re maneuvering something to the side of you that’s affecting something that’s in front of you on the screen. It’s a concept that’s not always intuitive to pick up on.”
Hague and Bess help patrons with basic computer struggles or advanced database queries and everything in between. As head of adult services, Bess offers classes to the public on how to download library books to their e-readers, cell phones, Kindles, and other tablets.
Hague says sometimes, getting access to library services can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
“A few months ago we learned that one of our frequent customers was residing in a nursing rehab facility while he recovered from surgery,” she says. “A few months prior to that, after receiving a Kindle for his 90th birthday, he came to the library to learn how to use it and to find out the collections that we have available. Since then, he has visited every week to get help in loading new books onto his device. When his daughters, who live far away, called to inform us of his nursing rehab stay, they asked if there was a way we could still deliver books to his Kindle while he was there. Of course, we were more than happy to help! He has since recovered and we continue to assist him with downloading mysteries to his Kindle.”