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What It Means To Be A Librarian

I am a librarian.

I think I got that notion as a young girl. My Aunts, Rose and Eileen, each retired after 40-plus years of service for Carnegie Library, one at the Woods Run Branch and one at Allegheny Regional. So, library work is in my blood.

Rosie had to go out to visit the North Side elementary schools. She kept the supplies at home that she needed to check out books from a big bag that she carried (on the streetcar). One summer I recall sneaking the date stamper and book cards and using them to check out our family books to my neighbors. I was a “play” librarian.

A street car on the North Side.


When I got to high school I volunteered in the Domenec High School library for Sister Joanne Marie. Shelving the books was okay, but unpacking the new books was the fun part. Oh, if only they could only can the smell of new books… But the school library was small potatoes compared to visiting the big work room at Allegheny and watching the clerks and librarians get the books ready for the public – cataloging and processing. I also got to observe my aunt in action as she answered reference questions and located books people wanted to read. She was smart and a serious reader, so her work came easy to her.

The summer after I finished college, I could not find a job as a school librarian so my dad spoke to a neighbor, Miss Bark, to see if she could get me a library job at the CLP – Bookmobile where she was the manager. That service had five special bus-sized vehicles, each filled with about 3,000 books. They made weekly visits to neighborhoods that did not have a library throughout the city and the county. For the interview, I had to travel to Oakland. That was not my first visit to Main, as I had done several high school research papers there. I wore a dress and pointy-toed shoes for the interview. There was a lot of hustle and bustle at Main, but it seemed very formal. Miss Reed of Personnel was very prim and proper, and I was very intimidated. But she sent me for a second interview to the West End Bookmobile Center. Needless to say, I got the job. Miss Bark asked me a lot of questions about books and what I liked to read. She said, “You seem to be a reader, and that’s important here.”

Wow, that place was a different world from Main or Allegheny. Everyone at the Bookmobile Center was dressed for hard work in jeans and sneakers – even the librarians were pretty informal. The work room was hands-on and super busy. Drivers shelved the books when they were not out on the road and about 20 clerks, librarians and library assistants were pulling book stock from stack upon stack, of tens of thousands of books for the rolling libraries. Staff was constantly pulling requests for specific books or subjects, processing “reserves”- i.e. postal cards (for which customers self-addressed and paid 25 cents), ordering new titles, keeping everything organized, preparing overdue notices and bills and a gazillion other things. All of the processes were manual. Staff really had to memorize both the Dewey Decimal and the new-fangled Library of Congress classification systems as there were no “card catalogs” on the bookmobiles. You not only had to learn authors and titles of specific books but you had to be able to make recommendations from among the limited book stock available at each stop on the road. Readers at different locations around the county had different interests, so you “customized” the collections every day before you rolled out.

The Bookmobile was a wonderful training ground for working in the library. I eventually transferred to Main to work in Ready Reference and the Popular Library, went to Pitt’s Library School at night, and got my Master’s of Library Science degree. I have spent the rest of my library career at Main, forty years to be precise. Over the years, I was Young Adult librarian, Head of Social Sciences, Director of Main Library Redesign and Assistant Director of Main Library.

In all of these roles, being a librarian, serving the public, building collections, selecting and training and mentoring library staff and managers have given me great personal satisfaction. During this time, approximately every ten years, I was in-charge of “restructuring,” “renovating,” “redesigning” and now “reimagining” the way the Main Library is organized — collections, department services and staff. Each step along the way has shifted the focus away from what is most convenient for the staff to what our customers want or need. That’s a good thing.

Librarians love to be asked questions, especially about books and reading and recommendations. If you ask us questions, you are NOT bothering us! We love it.

Ralph Munn, an early CLP director, wrote, “The librarian thinks of himself as a member of a professional group whose work is important to society. His interest is automatically extended far beyond his own daily duties; all of the factors which influence library service as a whole are of concern to him…”

I have interviewed hundreds of potential CLP librarians over this time and almost every one of them has said that they became a librarian because they wanted to “help people.” But librarians are not social workers, even though they do help folks navigate the difficult periods of their lives.

Librarians are not educators, but we provide learning experiences and foster reading every day through the materials we provide or programs we offer for all ages. Librarians are not baby sitters, but parents trust librarians to provide a safe place for their children. Librarians are not warehouse keepers, with shelves stocked just in case somebody needs a particular item one day, but thoughtful keepers and sharers of information, always working to safeguard valued historical knowledge of the past while providing the most excellent, current information and books for reading edification and enjoyment for today. Librarians are not arbitrators of what is right and what is wrong, but are vigilantly neutral so that all sides of issues can be freely and fairly presented. Librarians are not computer technicians or IT specialists but are able to use computers and related equipment, software, databases and the Internet so that customers have access to all that the Library and the world have to offer.

Librarians love to be asked questions, especially about books and reading and recommendations. If you ask us questions, you are NOT bothering us! We love it.

Librarians are little understood in society. We constantly surprise people because we do so many things that people value in their lives. In 2009, Pittsburgh’s citizens recognized this value and voted in a referendum to pay to support Carnegie Library. A Library that we all can be proud of.

And as I look forward to my retirement, I can look back and say that I am one of those rare people who have been lucky in finding her life’s work. I am a librarian.


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Sheila is the Assistant Director for Main library services, and a voracious reader who reads at least 100 books a year, many of which are romances. She also enjoys swimming, sewing and cooking, though not necessarily in that order.

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