Tracking down doughnuts, contending with live chickens, and making medical diagnoses may not be the stuff of library school coursework, but perhaps it should be. In Gina Sheridan’s recent book I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories from the Stacks (Adams Media, 2014), the Missouri-based librarian shares tales from her own experience and others librarians’ about patrons who are surly, inquisitive, eccentric—and, at times, quite endearing.
Sheridan began working as a librarian in Fresno, CA, in 2007, following a stint in retail. She loved working with people but found retail work less than stimulating. Becoming a librarian “was the best decision I’ve ever made,” she told SLJ. “I get to meet people from all walks of life, and helping people and problem-solving all day long is so gratifying.”
She’s certainly met a cast of characters since joining the field. Sheridan began chronicling her daily adventures on the Tumblr site I Work at a Public Library in 2010, and other librarians began to contribute. In true librarian form, she categorizes the book’s anecdotes and lists them by the appropriate Dewey number.
There are the queries that no reference library course could prepare one for: “Can you tell me what babies were born in Cleveland in June 1965? I think I am one of them! I just found out some stuff about my family.” Another: “We want a biography of a dragon. No, an autobiography!”
And then there are the hilarious overheard patron exchanges: “I think we really should do the Facebook. Art and Frieda are doing it. We don’t want to be the only ones left.”
Sheridan devotes a section to a patron she calls “Cuckoo Carol”—filed under 598.2, “Rare Birds”—who gives new meaning to the concept of oversharing. A trip to the bathroom is accompanied by the loud announcement, “I’m supposed to drink a lot of water before I donate blood tomorrow. That’s why I need the bathroom. Because of all the water. Because I’m donating blood.”
Cuckoo Carol turns up her nose at the idea of a return slot. She tells Sheridan, “I don’t like my things mixing with other people’s things,” which prompts the response, “Some people would argue that that’s the point of a library.” Cuckoo Carol also takes a creative approach to the lost and found: “Is that a cane I see…? I’ve got dibs if no one comes back for it!”
Librarians also find themselves providing general life advice and assistance—and, in some cases, lowering their patrons’ expectations. One librarian described a man who brought in his resumé on a flash drive and said, “I’d like to apply for all the jobs on the Internet.” Upon gently being informed that “that’s not how it works,” the patron replied, “I can’t just stick [the flash drive] in and let it go live?”
Possessing a strong stomach may not be an official job requirement for librarians, but it can be an asset. One librarian told of a patron who came up to the desk, removed her shoe, and asked, “See how my foot is swollen? I need to Google it to see what’s wrong with it….Would you say it’s inflamed or irritated?” Another witnessed a man approach the desk and spit out a tooth, which he then pocketed before nonchalantly asking for computer help.
As for the chicken story, it’s a valuable reminder for librarians to have faith in their patrons. One librarian reported a patron saying that she heard chickens clucking in the reference section. Skeptical about the claim, the librarian investigated, only to discover four backpacks, each containing a chicken. “We never found out why they were left or where they came from,” the librarian said, but “I promised myself I’d never doubt a patron again.”
In addition to the host of strange, bizarre, and just plain difficult experiences, there are many rewarding ones. One librarian related how she put up a Banned Books Week sign, prompting a six-year-old patron to ask questions about book banning and censorship. When told that people have complained about books and had them removed, the girl concluded, “We are learning about bullying at school. It sounds like even libraries get bullied sometimes.”
Sheridan’s favorite tale? A story of an elderly man who requested her help tracking down the nearest Krispy Kreme store. It turned out the nearest shop was hundreds of miles away, but Sheridan had been planning a trip to Los Angeles, and she promised to bring the patron a box of the glazed doughnuts—in exchange for some information. What followed was an afternoon during which, over doughnuts, Sheridan learned about the man’s incredible career as an editor, freelance photographer, and spy.
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how very important the public library is for people—for patrons who don’t have anyone else in their lives, for job seekers, parents, children, [and] students,” Sheridan said. “And for me…because I get paid to do what I love.”