What I learned in a year of working for a public library

lisa dempster
Jan 17, 2019 · 3 min read

Last year was my first year working for a public library, and it has been quite a shift from the world of writer’s festivals that I inhabited inhabited for nearly a decade before deciding I needed a change.

As an admirer of libraries but never having worked in one, 2018 was a steep learning curve! But as an Exec Manager working on strategy, governance, operations, marketing and public programming, I’ve had the opportunity to experience lots of facets of library life. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

  • How to slow down (admittedly this is still a work in progress). Festival work is fast, there are constant deadlines, and the energy is frequently excited if not frenetic. Because of their nature and structure, libraries have a different pace. It took me a while to figure out some strategies for rolling out projects and comms over a longer time frame than I was used to.
  • It’s awesome to have consistent, ongoing training and professional development opportunities offered and supported within a workplace. (Who knew!) I’ve been lucky to land in a library that embraces the ethos of lifelong learning for its staff as well as patrons.
  • Libraries don’t have as much funding as they appear to – but they punch well above their weight in terms of what they deliver.
  • Despite their democratic ideals and community focus, libraries (as with many cultural institutions) still have a ways to go in terms of inclusivity. Inclusion is not just about who comes to the library but who works there, who is invited to speak/present, who is represented in the collections, who is making decisions etc. With an "access for all" ethos, libraries don't just have have the ability to lead change, but the responsibility to do so. Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance has put it beautifully: Challenging oppressive structures is what we need to do to assist positive social change.
  • Work/life balance is possible. (Rejoice!)
  • I need data. I hadn’t realised what a huge and helpful analysis toolkit I had built up in my previous role. While my library has a lot of quantitative data, it will take me a while to build up my library toolkit of evaluation and reviews, market research, industry trends, and user insights to aid my decision making.
  • Change can be a dirty word. (I always thought it was fairly neutral — it is inevitable, after all!)
  • Public libraries are amazing. I knew libraries were vibrant, democratic, accessible, vital book palaces. Now having seen the scope of work a public library does on a daily basis, the variety of resources (not just books!) and the role they occupy within their communities, often supporting the most vulnerable — well, just, WOW.
  • Librarians are superheroes. As for the staff and volunteers who deliver all that (and more!) on a daily basis — they are true superheroes.

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