This installment of Librarian’s Spotlight includes a librarian whose blog I’ve been following for quite some time—Brian Herzog! Enjoy!
Roaring Out: Please introduce yourself and speak a bit about your background
with libraries. Also, what made you want to become a librarian?
Brian Herzog: For an introduction, my name is Brian Herzog, and besides writing the Swiss Army Librarian blog, I am the Head of Reference at the Chelmsford (MA) Public Library. Chelmsford is a medium-size library in a very supportive and progressive community, which means we get to experiment with a lot of the latest trends in the library world, and our community lets us know pretty quickly what they think.
(Blogger’s Note: This is the short version. If you’d like to read the long version of Brian’s story, click here).
RO: What is your least favorite aspect of being a librarian? What is
your favorite aspect of being a librarian?
BH: My favorite thing about being a reference librarian is that no two days at work are the same – patrons always have interesting questions, which cause me to learn about a new resource or just some aspect of the world I’d never even considered before. The variety is fun, and helping someone find what they need is rewarding. The least favorite thing about my job is having to play policeman. We have pretty lenient policies at my library, but some patrons always still push the rules as far as they can – while others ignore them outright and interfere with other patrons, staff, or library resources. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but as a department head, it’s part of the job.
RO: Librarians have been pegged with several stereotypes. Are there any
that you find particularly amusing?
BH: I suppose the classics are that we sit around and read all day, and that we know everything. I’m always quick to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out,” to combat the latter (and to engage people in the search process). Besides, the reference librarian’s motto covers this: we don’t need to know everything, just where to find everything. As for the former, I rarely even get a chance to read during my lunch break, let alone all day. I am sensitive to the stereotype though, so if I do find myself reading reviews in a journal while sitting at the reference desk, I always have a pen in my hand – if you’re holding a pen, it looks like you’re working, not just sitting there reading a magazine. How the community sees library staff is very important to their image of their library, so even when I am working, I want to look like I’m working (while still looking approachable). Also, I do not wear my hair in a bun.
RO: What is your favorite database/online resource? Why?
BH: This really depends on the question, but the tool I use the most is the library catalog. My library is part of a consortium, and it’s a powerful tool for finding and getting items to patrons. We also have extras, like Novelist Select, and records for our ebooks and databases, which make our catalog that much more powerful. The more useful we can make library resources, and educate patrons on how to use it well, the better.
RO: What book are you currently reading, or have recently read, that
you would recommend? Conversely, what book are you currently reading,
or have recently read, that you NOT would recommend?
BH: I just finished Matt Ruff’s “Bad Monkeys,” which I enjoyed far more than I expected. By the end of the second paragraph I knew it was my kind of book, and I was right. Before that was “Swell,” by Corwin Ericson, which I also liked a lot. Both of these are off-beat novels, with plenty of absurd humor and social reflection. The only thing I’ve read recently about which I have anything negative to say is “The Last Kind Words Saloon,” by Larry McMurtry, but I don’t think my comments are fair. I’ve never read anything by him (although “Lonesome Dove” is coming up soon on my to-read list), and what I read was an advanced reader’s copy I picked up at PLA this Spring. I think it was a very early ARC, because some parts of it read more like a story outline than a novel – so much so that I’m curious to read the final published version, just to compare the two. The story itself was interesting, but the ARC just didn’t seem developed enough.
RO: What is the best (most challenging or however else you may define
“best”) reference question you have ever been asked? What is the
wackiest reference question you have ever been asked?
BH: One of favorite types of questions are when the library is able to surprise people by having exactly what they need – be it a recipe the really want, town records from the 1800s, or obscure contact information that they’d been trying to find on their own for weeks and finally gave up and called us for help. It surprises me that people are surprised we’re good at our jobs, but there you go. Another favorite type of questions are the ones I barely notice, but end up having a huge impact on someone’s life. Sometimes a patron has come in the library specifically to say thanks for helping them format their resume, or send an email, or find an HR person’s contact information, because that little act on my part – which probably took just a few minutes – led to a huge and positive change in their life. Library staff do seemingly inconsequential tasks like this every day, and it’s not very often they make a point of coming back and letting us know that it made that much difference, but it feels pretty good when they do.
As for the wackiest, usually those are based on misunderstandings. One of my favorites was when a man who moved here from India called and asked if “wifey” was at the library. I thought he was looking for his wife, but it turns out he was asking if we had wi-fi, and just pronounced it differently than I do.
RO: In your blog, Swiss Army Librarian, you explore all things bookish,
including conferences and reference questions. Where did you get the
inspiration for your unique blog name? What prompted you to start your
blog and take your love of books beyond the library’s walls?
BH: Here’s how I explain the name on my About page – I wrote it in 2008, but it’s still accurate:
Why “Swiss Army” Librarian?
There’s actually two reasons for this:
1. During my freshman year of college (1992-3), the guys on my floor got together and placed a huge order from the Smokey Mountain Knife Works catalog. I ordered a Swiss Army Knife, and I’ve carried it with me ever since. I use it all the time, too, to open boxes of tax forms, tightening loose screws (wherever I encounter them), cut away tree limbs from paths when I’m hiking, or let friends trim their split ends during long car rides. Most people who know me have become accustomed to me always having it, and claim it is a major defining feature of my personality.
2. If I had to summarize the job responsibilities of a librarian, “swiss army knife” comes pretty close. We’ve got to be ready to handle any request that comes along, from directing someone to the restroom to researching the propulsion physics behind the space shuttle. Not to mention check books in and out, shovel the walks, design websites, change light bulbs, give presentations, tactfully interact with unruly kids (and adults), balance million dollar budgets, and ensure that everyone has unmonitored access to whatever information or resources they need. Like a Swiss Army knife, librarians need to be ready with whatever tool is needed for the job at hand.
As for what got me started, all the credit goes to my friend and fellow librarian Lichen Rancourt. She and I had been friends and colleagues for awhile before this blogging fad came along, and she was an early adopter and could see my potential for the platform. She was right, and I probably would not have gotten started without her encouragement and motivation. Since then, it’s been sort of a self-fulfilling kind of thing – we do something fun or interesting at my library that I want to share, and people read and respond to it. And then, to make sure I have new and interesting things to talk about, I stay engaged in the field to learn what’s upcoming and what’s shareable, and comment on my experience with or thoughts on it. It’s hard to believe I’ve been posting almost weekly since 2006, but there you go – maybe it’s my slightly compulsive nature that keeps me going, or a fear that if I stopped blogging, I’d likewise fall behind with new developments in the field and start slipping at my job. So in a way, the blog is my own personal professional development exercise – but I am extremely happy that other people enjoy and benefit from it too.
RO: What is something librarians do that, in your opinion, should be
considered a superpower?
BH: Huh – since I work mostly in adult reference, I think entertaining a room full of kids during storytime is a superpower. With me, I think the only thing that comes close would be the reference interview. We all learned about this in library school, but it’s really true: our job is to address the patron’s need, despite the question they’re actually asking. In a lot of situations, I know the answer, or at least the right resources, before the patron finishes their question – and in certain situations, before they even ask it – and that often mystifies patrons. Or those library staff people who can find the right book with only “it has a red cover and is about a woman” to go on. Being able to give people exactly what they want is pretty awesome. It’s often taken for granted, but it’s still an amazing ability.
RO: Going off of that question, if you could have a skill that is traditionally considered a superpower, what would it be?
BH: One of the worst feelings is when a patron – especially a kid – asks for a book, but it’s checked out. I always feel like we let them down, even though resource sharing is just part of the nature of libraries. Still, the ability to always have the item on the shelf would be nice. Or, to be a more traditional superpower, the ability to fly – that way, when a child came in looking for a summer reading book, I could just fly to whichever library had it and fly back, providing instant ILL service (or even home delivery). The patron benefits, and plus, I get to fly.
RO: Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who is considering
going into the library science field?
BH: I think might depend largely on the person, but in general I’d suggest volunteering in a library first, because our profession does have stereotypes and not all of them are accurate. Don’t become a librarian because you like to read, although that does help. And you certainly won’t get rich being a librarian, nor is it as easy as it might look (no job working with the public is as easy as it looks). You have to enjoy people, not be afraid of technology, want to be engaged with the community, and not be afraid to admit you don’t know everything. The best library staff are those that are truly motivated to help people – everything else comes with experience.
Thanks, Brian! I love that reference librarian’s motto!
If you’d like to check out Brian’s awesomely named blog, click here.