The Know-Nothing, or: How to be a Library Novice

The Reference Desk can be an intimidating place when you know nothing.

Three weeks into my first semester of library school, I started working at a public library. I knew for a few months about my hire and had been working for two years in the same city. I felt somewhat prepared in that sense: I was familiar with the population to an extent, and with library school on my radar for over a year, I thought I had a fairly realistic sense of what to expect at the Reference Desk. Of course, this wouldn’t be very helpful if I had been right.

I was a know-nothing. I found myself coming into a world of establishments and ritual. After only three days I knew names, faces, and preferred computers and newspapers: nearly everyone in Reference was a regular. I was the new face in the room, and what’s more, I was the only woman and the youngest staff member working in the department. Whatever is the opposite of a triple-threat — that was me.

With only three weeks of schooling and no previous library experience, I felt like I knew way less than I should about the way reference and libraries work in general. It was easy to become discouraged and shut down. But who was I helping that way? What was I learning?

Now my first semester is almost over, and this week was my two month-aversary with the library! And here is what I’ve learned so far:

  1.  I should never say “I don’t know.” There is an answer to every question, no matter how strange or difficult, and I’m going to find it! This is insanely motivating for me, and also puts it all into perspective. Sometimes finding the answer means looking it up, remembering from past experience, taking a chance, making an educated guess, or asking for help. I continue to learn more and more every day, and it’s not by pretending like I know it all. I learn by observing, trying, and asking. Most of the time, I learn by finding answers. I have made a commitment to be the best damn reference associate I can be. I do that by challenging myself to never say “I don’t know.”
  2.  However, my job is not to know everything. There is so much that happens in and around the Reference Department and focusing too much on the one area in which I feel least adequate is not doing anybody any favors. My job is to listen to our patrons, respect them, and help them. My job is to process inter-library loans. My job is to be reliable, willing, and enthusiastic. My job involves stamping and shelving newspapers. My job is to make sure our patrons have the best library experience possible. Sometimes my job is to re-shelve books. My job is not to be a human encyclopedia. My job is to provide information and resources to library-goers. In fact, my job has a lot more to do with other people than it does with me. And that was an important lesson to learn.
  3.  All experience is valuable. So, someone obtaining their MLIS after ten years as a paraprofessional in a library probably has more valuable experience than a twenty-two year old fresh out of college. Yet however less, that twenty-two year old’s experience can still be meaningful and translatable. I think the incredible thing about library school is that it’s somewhat of an equalizer. We are all here to learn the same material and leave with the same degree, regardless of background, experience, age, or any other qualifying factor. We all have something to bring to the proverbial table, even if it’s just curiosity.
  4.  IT’S OKAY. I’m one of those people who has to be told this on a near-daily basis. So, here it is. I say this to anyone beginning library school, beginning a library job, beginning anything — it’s okay. You wouldn’t be there if somebody didn’t think you were qualified. But more importantly if you didn’t think you were qualified.

Not too long after I started working, my incredible co-worker Andy Luck came to speak about serving the homeless population in my Planning Outreach Services class. He said something to the effect of: “When you begin to know it all, that’s when you hit a road block. When you don’t know everything, you leave room for potential.”

Mistakes will slip in slow motion from your outstretched hands. Cluelessness will begin to feel like a state of being. A perpetual laugh track will play in the most self-damning parts of your mind. There will be doubt, frustration, and, if you’re dopey like me, plenty of humiliation. But it’ll get better. You’ll learn, by barraging your tireless supervisor with more questions than your patrons. You’ll learn, by seeing what needs to be done right as it makes itself known in the gap left by what was done wrong. You’ll learn, because you are meant to learn; that’s why you made the admirable decision to go back to school, why you made the courageous choice to embark on a new career.

We are not know-nothings. We are potential.

9 replies

  1. Thank you thank you for this! Really reassuring to hear as I feel that I’m still giving myself a hard time about how much I still don’t know.


  2. Hi Ally!

    Congrats on getting your first post up and ready! First, I want to say that I read it, I loved it, and its awesome advice.

    It’s funny that you mention the 10-year running paraprofessional getting a library degree (that’s me lol!), because I still completely relate to this post :-). I was also a know-nothing when I started working in a large public library at 18-yrs-old. Everything you mention as a tip is exactly what others told me to do. So kudos that they’ve shared that with you!

    I’m going to steal your co-worker’s quote, because it’s truly timeless and one of the reasons I transitioned to working in other libraries.

    Awesome job fellow hacker!



  3. I love this post, thanks Ally! I would argue that 10 years as a parapro makes you much more than a library no-nothing. I entered library school with eight years of paraprofessional library experience, and I have to say, reference staff could learn a lot from the wisdom and experiences of paraprofessionals in the library.

    It’s reassuring still, to see the progress you’ve made even in two months. I look forward to hearing more reflections!


  4. I would argue that it’s admit you don’t know (especially if you really don’t know.) That doesn’t mean that you’re leaving the patron hanging. My reference philosophy is that even if I personally don’t have the answer, I can guide the patron to someone who hopefully will have the answer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s