Behind The Books: A Conversation with Emma, Library Assistant

Today I’m super excited to have my fourth installment of Behind the Books with someone who does something a little bit different from what we’ve covered before – library work! Emma is a part-time library assistant in Virginia, where she works at the circulation desk. Her day is full of juggling projects while also helping library patrons. She pulls hold requests, shelves carts, works on projects such as making sure the collection is in the best condition possible and organized in a way that makes sense, puts together take-home craft kits for kids, checks in deliveries from other branches, and of course answers tons of questions! I think libraries are such an important part of many communities and do so much more than supply books to patrons, so I was really interested to hear about Emma’s experience!

From Editorial Intern to Library Work:

I’m a part-time library assistant, which is what a lot of systems call their circulation desk workers. I’ve been one since September 2020; before that I was a page. I got started in the book world by interning with Bloomsbury Children’s managing editorial team for a year. I studied creative writing in college and knew I wanted to work in publishing as my day job while pursuing novel writing. Managing editorial was a great fit since it’s focused on schedules, coordinating with the different departments, and copy editing manuscripts. I love the nitty-gritty of going over pass pages to make sure the formatting and typesetting are done correctly and that there are no grammatical or continuity errors. My day-to-day was usually “slugging” (final rounds of proofreading) second or third passes for any errors that had slipped by our production editors and freelance copy editors. Bloomsbury at the time was less digital than other publishers; I’m sure COVID has changed that to some extent. So I also maintained the organization of our foul matter shelves—all the passes, cover passes, and any other relevant details for designing and producing each book. I enjoyed my time there! I moved home and worked in retail for a bit, but I missed being around books so that led to my position at a library.

What skills are important at your job, besides a love of books?

You have to be proficient with computer systems. We have computers available for public use, so people will have questions about Microsoft Office, Google Suite, Ancestry, and so much more. It’s also helpful to be knowledgeable about at least one kind of smart phone and/or e-reader, and we all have working knowledge of Overdrive and Libby. Hand in hand with all of that, it’s important to have good customer service skills.

What is your favorite part about your job?

I have two favorites! One is picking out books, DVDs, and CDs for our staff recommendations display; we all contribute to it, and it’s a fun way to learn about my coworkers and also share my favorites with the public. My other favorite task is paging (that is, looking for items put on hold) and searching for materials my coworkers couldn’t find on first look. It’s like a treasure hunt. Humble brag: I’m pretty good at finding things from the second-look paging list. I joke that, if I can’t find something, it’s either missing or it’s all the way across the library from where it’s supposed to be (and if that’s the case, a patron browsing has a better chance of finding it!)

What are the biggest challenges?

I’d have to say managing people’s expectations. It’s like retail in that aspect. Some expect us to be able to pull a book as soon as they put a hold on it, or to have every book or movie they could ever desire. They expect us to check in returns immediately, to be open more hours, or to have an answer for everything. We’re going to try our best, but we’re only human and, since we’re county-run, there’s only so much funding for staff and resources. And then, this kind of connects with the next question, but we basically have never-ending returns to check in and carts to shelve. We have a finite number of return bins and shelving carts, so it’s a balancing act of trying to maintain enough empty ones.

How Covid Has Affected Libraries:

All of the branches closed in mid-March; most of our staff is part-time so we were furloughed for at least two months. I was one of the lucky ones brought back in late May to help with reopening our specific branch. Before that, though, our library system was one of the first to start curbside services, and we still operate those for people who don’t feel safe coming inside or who maybe have a bunch of kids they don’t want to wrangle out of the car.
Pre-COVID, we’d check in returns whenever the drop bins started to get a little full, or we’d check them in immediately for people who brought them to the desk so they could check out more and not reach our item limit. Now, we quarantine returns for at least three days.
Social distancing has affected how we can assist people at computers, but our librarians now have a helpline and screen sharing capability, so that’s helped several patrons. We’ve just launched a self-checkout app and I know we’re working towards getting self-checkout machines, so we can minimize close contact with others.

What’s the biggest challenge facing libraries today?

Libraries have been so great about adapting to community spaces. We’re not just a quiet place to borrow books anymore. In pre-COVID times, we hosted acoustic concert nights; one of our branches has a maker space with sewing machines, 3D printers, and woodworking tools. Pre-COVID, we checked out toys, hosted author events, and have meeting rooms people could reserve. But those things require funding, adequate staff, and funding for adequate staff. People were surprised that not all branches were completely reopening to the public back in June, but the county had lost a lot of tax revenue so we couldn’t support the staffing numbers we’d had previously. Things are better now, but I don’t think people realize just how much free public services cost on the backend.

An Exciting New Role!

[After our interview, Emma had an exciting update!] I’m starting as a managing editorial assistant at Simon and Schuster Children’s in late April! I saw this position open in late March, and it was one of the few entry-level openings that said no experience required. Which, I have experience from my internship, but also that made me feel better about my chances. It was a really fast process, surprisingly – about two weeks from my application to the offer phone call.

I’m sure not all hiring managers will approach things like mine did, but my soon-to-be boss was interested in my retail experience and time at the library. She didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t had a bunch of publishing internships, though I’m sure it helped that I have some familiarity with copy editing and managing editorial. At S&S Children’s, I’ll be in charge of reprints – making sure they go through on schedule, that any updates are made, etc. I’m so excited to see what this new role holds, and I can’t wait to come back to New York once we’re no longer work-from-home!

Let’s chat books! What are your top 3-5 recommendations?

I have so many favorites and recommendations, but my go-tos are:
1) Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills. All of Emma’s books are great contemporary YA with realistic dialogue and characters and great focus on friendships. Foolish Hearts is my favorite, though, with a cinnamon roll of a love interest, and boy band mania, and Shakespearean shenanigans.

2) The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. I minored in history, so I have a deep love for historical fiction, particularly books set a) somewhere other than the U.S. and Europe, and b) set during an era other than the World Wars. This series is about a female lawyer in early 20th century India, and there are mysteries afoot!

3) Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli. I don’t care much for sports, but the Olympics always capture my attention, and gymnastics are fascinating to watch. Combine that with the #MeToo movement, complex female characters, and a swoonworthy romance, and Break the Fall is a recipe for success.

4) Slay by Brittney Morris. In this age of social justice-themed books and expecting Black authors to write stories of pain, it’s nice to get a book that also prioritizes Black joy. Don’t get me wrong—I love The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and This Is My America too, and Slay doesn’t shy away from racial injustice issues. But it’s about how epic a Black girl can be, and it’s a love letter to Black culture and community.

Thank you so much to Emma for sharing your experience as a library assistant with us – and huge congratulations on your new role at Simon and Schuster! If you’ve missed previous Behind the Books posts, check them out here!

Leave a Comment

  1. Andy wrote:

    This is such an interesting post because it emphasizes and reminds people of why libraries are so important. I also love the personal story of how Emma was able to use her experience in various job roles and use them to advance her career into other related fields.

    Published 4.28.21 · Reply
  2. Jenna wrote:

    I love these interviews! This one is especially interesting to me because I’ve always imagined what it would be like to work in a library. I grew up going to the library with story time and my mom used to take me to our local library all the time growing up. I am still a huge advocate for libraries and donate to my local one. I wish more people would take advantage of the amazing libraries in our cities. I feel like people don’t realize how much they have to offer besides just books. Sounds like Emma had a really great experience and her new role sounds great, too!

    Published 4.29.21 · Reply