Kristen Arnett: Am I a Librarian or a Writer?
Ed. Note: The Word 'Wribrarian' May Have Appeared in Drafts of This Column
There are phrases people tell librarians that raise my hackles every time. “My fines pay your salary” is absolutely one of them (thanks for the 15 cents, Brenda, I’ll try not to spend it all in one place). “Isn’t print dead?” is another (please stop saying this, don’t say this to anyone, ever again, I’m banning this phrase forever, amen). I especially loathe hearing “It must be so nice to have a job where you can read all day.” A big part of my job is working with the collection, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m lounging behind a desk leafing through a big stack of novels—absolutely not! I save those massive to-be-read piles for home, where they can tower menacingly next to my bed, threatening to fall over and crush me to death at any given moment.
Since I’m a writer, a particular phrase I often hear is “librarianship must give you so much fodder for your work.” I mean, hey, they’re not wrong! Here I am, writing you all a column every other week about libraries! I’m writing about what I experience in my work life. I’m writing about what I know (or what I’m thinking about, God knows I never feel like I really know anything). Librarianship is a huge part of my life, so it’s absolutely gonna factor into my work.
Not every librarian is a writer. Hell, not every librarian is even a reader! I’ll never forget the time I was working an evening shift at the public library and one of the new part-time reference librarians told a patron that they’d never heard of William Faulkner and asked if they wrote “those vampire graphic novels.” Some of us are voracious readers and some of us are not. Some of us like writing and some of us don’t. Some of us work circulation and some of us are in technical services. Some of us like spreadsheets and some of us want to murder Microsoft Excel on a daily basis.
Library work is curation. It’s weeding. It’s cataloging. It’s looking at collections through a broad-but-constantly-narrowing scope. It’s staring at a budget and praying you’ll come up with the numbers you need for books and for paychecks. It’s sometimes data-centric. It’s often about public service and interacting with the community and yanking paper from the jammed copy machine. It’s not sitting around writing a book. It’s barely sitting down at all most days!
So how does librarianship impact my writing?
Clearly it has given me a sense of humor. I’m able to look at my bizarre interactions with patrons and think about how things that are aggravating or annoying would work in a fictional sense. How can I turn this into a joke, I think, as I’m struggling to remove tacky glue from the cover of a board book. Is this really how people speak to each other, I wonder as someone yells about the difference between ravioli and manicotti on their cellphone. If I can look at how things function as jokes, then I’m better able to understand humor in my own writing. I can see an interaction and possibly understand how dialogue might work. I can think about what kind of person would eat a pizza in the public restroom and wonder over the broad range of weird humanity. It gives me some perspective.
I’ve also used the organization from my library work and have applied it to my writing schedule. When I’m at the library, I’m on all day. There are one million things I need to do and I have to list them all efficiently, get organized, remember all of them at once because there are a billion jobs that need to get done and only one of me. Scheduling very strict rules for myself when it comes to writing has helped me to stay on task. I’m able to apply the principles of my job to the more nebulous areas of creating fiction.
And then there’s all the reference work. Librarianship has given me prodigious research tools. It means that if I’m working on a project, I know exactly where I need to look to find more information. Okay, granted, sometimes that means I fall down an internet hole looking at pictures of horses wearing cowboy hats for several hours, but it often means that I am able to find out the information that’s going to lead to a better quality of work. I can be my own reference librarian! I can find out what I need to know to make the writing better.
The intersections of librarianship and writing in my life sometimes can feel like a struggle. There are days when I’d love to be writing but know that it’s not possible, simply because by the end of a ten-hour shift, my brain has decided it can only focus on beer (oh God, I wish I had a beer right now). I get frustrated. I wanna be able to do the work that feels necessary, but oftentimes both sides of my life feel competitively important. I do know that librarianship has allowed me empathy and respect for others, and that is essential to my work. I like helping others and knowing I can assist them with things. My writing is better because of librarianship and I am very grateful for that.
Okay, time to go write. If you need me, I’ll be over here “researching” for a few hours (aka googling ducks in raincoats).