Jan 13, 2013

Thoughts on my first month in public libraries

Library stacks
Photo Credit.
  • The bookish Internet and my library (perhaps most libraries) are separate worlds when it comes to what’s popular. There’s of course a certain degree of overlap, but more and more I realise the importance of not mistaking my online bubble (valuable though it is) for everything that exists out there.

  • For example, crime is hugely popular. I feel like I’m always shelving books by the same ten or fifteen authors, most of whom I wasn’t familiar with before. Which leads to the question: are there any contemporary crime/mystery/thriller blogs that you’d like to recommend? I’m fine when it comes to the classics, but not so much the recent stuff, and I’d feel better equipped to deal with possible future queries if I had a more in-depth knowledge of what’s out there. Reading a genre-specific blog or two would definitely help. I know what the big romance or SFF blogs are, but I’m clueless about the crime and mystery ones.
  • Knowledge matters: despite what I said above, I’m incredibly grateful for the specialist bookish knowledge I’ve developed over the past few years, in part thanks to book blogging. The other day I got a question about YA set in Sri Lanka, from a father who was going to travel there with his fifteen-year-old daughter later in the year. The book I immediately thought of, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, is not one I’d be likely to be aware of if not for my involvement with the book blogging community. It turns out that we didn’t have it in stock, but this father seemed more interested in getting a recommendation than in taking the book home with him right there and then, and that’s a valuable service too. And sure, you can google the question, but you can’t get a clear answer quickly, and people come to the library because they want to talk to another human being who might be well-informed rather than rely exclusively on search engines. The same goes for the teacher looking for science fiction titles for kids, who quickly realised that just browsing the science fiction or the kid lit sections wasn’t going to be enough and who didn’t know where to start – thankfully there was someone there who could immediately tell him about Patrick Ness, Philip Reeve, or Lois Lowry. I’m really glad I have this knowledge, and I love being able to share it with others.

  • The human element of libraries matters: when I was in library school, the head of a large library service whose location I will not disclose gave a talk to my class, and she managed to shock us all into silence by saying that as more and more services are automated or done remotely, she could easily envision a functional, high-quality library service almost entirely free of both costumer-facing and professional staff in about five year’s time. None of us were exactly thrilled to hear this, but it can be hard to separate the immediate emotional response to being told the profession you’re training for will soon be obsolete from the actual cogent reasons why there’s something wrong with this picture. I know there are a lot of complex questions involved in library budgets, and that a lot of people with far more knowledge and experience than me don’t have simple solutions for the challenges raised by constant cuts. I’ve explained above why I think specialist knowledge in staff matters, but this bullet point is supposed to be about something else. The Head of Libraries I mentioned above also said she had no patience for the argument that the automatisation of services is bad because people go to the library for a little human contact. Libraries, she said, are not in the business of making people less lonely, nor should they be expected to be. Again, there are complicated questions involved here, and it’s certainly true that you can’t expect library staff to be everything for everyone all the time while still doing everything else that is involved in keeping a large library running smoothly. However, so far I’ve found the human element of my job very rewarding. I’ve not yet dealt with any really difficult situations that have made my feel out of my depth, but for as long as there’s scope in my work to provide the everyday human contact that some users are clearly seeking, this is something I’ll be very happy to do. And I want to live in a world where doing that on a small scale is not only possible but seen as valuable.

  • A well answered reader’s advisory or reference question can be extremely satisfying and is often enough to make my day.

  • This happened when I first went to library school and it’s happening again now: Unshelved makes more sense than ever. For example, who knew that this was a thing that actually happened?

  • Tidying the library and shelving book returns can make you feel a bit like Sisyphus – turn your back for five minutes once you’re done and you’ll be back at the bottom of the hill. But then again, this means the library is used and loved, so I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • I love my job. I love frontline services. I love the fact that my work doesn’t feel like something that exists apart from my identity or my real life, which is something I couldn’t help but feel with my previous occupations. I really, really liked my museum job, for example, but I didn’t feel the same sense of involvement that I feel now. My professional situation is still not perfect in some ways (I’d love to eventually get more hours), but I feel truly blessed for the fact that going to work is more than just something I do so I can pay rent and afford food at the end of the month. It gives me the chance to contribute to something I believe in, something that would definitely be a part of my ideal world, and I know that’s an increasingly rare thing these days.

41 comments:

  1. When I'm in my hometown, I volunteer a great deal at my local library, and I've seen (on a smaller scale, obviously), a lot of what you're talking about here. While I personally prefer genre-blind shelving, my hometown library has a free-standing mystery section, as well as a free-standing sf section. It's such a fascinating look into communities, and I love that you're going to investigate the genre more to be more helpful to patrons.

    And the human element is perhaps my favorite part of volunteering and, if I get my MLS, my favorite part of library stewardship, asking people muttering to themselves deep in fiction what they're looking for.

    I find the idea of people-free libraries not only emotionally disturbing, but a little… off. Libraries are not in the business of solely distributing material. Libraries are in the business of connecting patrons with information, hence the common "people's university" metaphor. And you need people for the later.

    And your last point just makes me smile. I'm so happy you love your new job, and here's hoping for more hours!

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  2. I know that one reason both my husband and I occasionally (often, in fact) turn to crime is that it is a good go-to genre for those times when one doesn't WANT "great" literature, but rather, something quick and diverting enough to take one's mind off deeper questions so that there is really nothing more important to think about than who killed whom and whether the detective or cop can win his or her struggle with alcohol and will he or she get together with his or her opposite sex counterpart! In spite of that motivation for reading crime, there are those authors who do transcend the simple questions and leap into the existential fray, Jo Nesbo being one of them. I lurk on a couple of mystery blogs, but since I prefer eclectic blogs, I don't have any to recommend! They spend too much time with books of only that ilk for my personal taste!

    I agree with you very much about the importance of the human element in libraries, but I see it from the opposite perspective; that is, not from the good effects of positive interactions, but from the deleterious effects of negative ones. I think a crabby librarian can deter even a library-lover like me from frequenting a place. And I highly concur that knowledge matters, both in the library and in the hardware store! :--)

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  3. I worked for my university library as part of financial aid. I LOVED it. I loved being around books. I loved sorting the books and seeing what people read. I loved shelving the books and making sure they were all organized so they were easy to access (college students are the worst for putting a book back in the completely wrong section.) I would love to work in a library again. I am sure you will have enough adventures there to make regular posts about it! I am so happy you are enjoying it and getting to help people.

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  4. Crime blogs: try Cathy @Kittling_Books and Jen at @jenforbus (I thought twitter handles were better for comments than links, and should still get you there).

    I'm glad you're enjoying your job!

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  5. My library is not all that friendly. I can put a book on hold at home, go to the library, pick it up, and check it out without interacting with another human being. I find it a cold process.

    You need to check out Jen's Book Thoughts for contemporary mysteries/thrillers.

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  6. Oh, ANa. I'm so happy for you that your job is working out so well. And I love how you can work with the knowledge you gained through bookblogging, and that it challenges you to extent it beyond your circle. You are such a reflective worked, and again, I feel any library is blessed to have you. I'm not exactly sure about crime fiction. I think boofsbooks.wordpress.com used to review quite some books, and I remember her linking to other blogs that were solely devoted to crime a few times, but it seems her domain doesn't work anymore :/

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  7. It's awesome that you're enjoying your job! It is the best when you find a job that you enjoy and are good at. I volunteered in my school libraries when I was in grade school -- which I know is nothing like the same thing as having a proper job! -- and it was maybe my favorite thing I ever did.

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  8. I'm about to leave and don't have much time, but I wanted to leave a quick comment as I saw that you're looking for crime / mystery blogs.

    Lesa's Book Critiques is really well-known ( http://lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com/ ), same goes for Jen ( http://www.jensbookthoughts.com/ ). I read both their blogs and I just love them. Lesa just moved across the country, so you might have to scroll down a bit for the last review, as she also keeps people up to date on her moving process etc.

    I hope this helps! (I'm sure I know more blogs with an emphasis on mysteries, so if you would like to get more, let me know.)

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  9. Glad to hear you are enjoying the job at the library so much! Hope it continues to go well!

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  10. Oh Ana, this post left me all teary-eyed...for a lot of reasons. But mostly because I'm so happy that you love your job!!! It makes such a difference in the quality of life. Rich is blessed to be doing what he loves, too. But my Dad, I think his job about killed him before he finally retired. And the icing on the cake is that so. many. people. are benefiting by the fact that you work there!

    The idea that libraries won't have real people to interact with is such a depressing thought. I love the fact that our library prides itself on having staff that are truly helpful and friendly, and that the library itself focuses so much on community aspects. It's so much more than a place to find a piece of information or pick up a stack of books to read. Those things are, of course, wonderful. But there are so many other tangible and intangible things that make libraries vitally important.

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  11. This reminds me - I really MUST respond to your email! Sorry for the delay. You bring up completely different points here, of course, than you did in your email.

    I am very interested to hear that what is popular in libraries is not always what is popular with blogosphere or newspaper book reviews. Hmm - I wonder why that is the case? And I wonder if it's ONLY mysteries/crime and perhaps romance that are like that...

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  12. My favorite job was working in a bookstore, surrounded by books, so think working in a library would be even better as you don't have sales quotas! So glad to hear you love it! I'd hate to see libraries without librarians, as nothing beats a personalized book recommendation!

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  13. Not really a blog suggestion, per se, but you should check out the International Thriller Writers (thrillerwriters.org). They put out a monthly newsletter that might be helpful to you, although it's more of a "here's what's out there" than reviews and suggestions.

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  14. I have noticed at my library that most of the items waiting to be shelved are crime and children's books. Also, our librarians are not very friendly, so I tend to put things on hols and pick them up. However, I know as a child how important libraries/librarians were to me, and I have several friends who work in public libraries and I KNOW how dedicated they are to their jobs and how much they love them.

    My favorite crime blogger was Sarah Weinman, when she had her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Now I follow her on Twitter to see when/where she's posted articles. She reads a lot of mid-twentieth century works by women, and has a great feminist slant I think you'd enjoy. She also has a Tumblr: http://offonatangent.tumblr.com/

    Have a lovely Sunday!

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  15. Crime: Jen's Book Thoughts http://www.jensbookthoughts.com/ and Kittling: Books http://www.kittlingbooks.com/ are two great ones.

    Unshelved: my mom ran a small library for a lot of years. I would sometimes work for her. Yes. Unshelved is so true.

    Isn't it grand when you've discovered your calling?

    I hope you share these kinds of updates every once in a while.

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  16. My favorite libraries are the one with the happy human vibe. Just sayin'.
    And I instantly thought of Kerrie, we met in the early WeeklyGeek days: http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/

    BESTestestests to you.

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  17. Yayy!! That's awesome that you love your new job. :) I'm a 1/3 of the way done my MLIS right now and I'm 99% sure I want to work in public libraries. A lot of the things you listed here are actually reasons that I'm attracted to that field of librarianship and are things I hope to be/accomplish when I become a librarian myself.

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  18. I am so glad you're enjoying your job! And getting the opportunity to help people find the right books while you're at it, too. I hope it continues to go well and you do get more hours!

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  19. I love my library. I've been going as long as I can remember. There's nothing quite like the smell of books when you walk into the door. It pains me greatly that so many libraries are suffering from budget cuts and I fear that if it comes to choices that libraries will draw the short straw.

    As for crime recommendations I would suggest David Baldacci, Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, Faye Kellerman, J.D. Robb, Janet Evanovich and Richard Castle.

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  20. Clare: " Libraries are in the business of connecting patrons with information, hence the common "people's university" metaphor. And you need people for the later." Yes, absolutely. Perfectly put!

    Jill: We have a fair amount of Nesbo, and I always think of you and Sandy when I shelf those books :D I definitely get the appeal of crime, but for some reason my reading so far has led me more to classic stuff than contemporary crime writers. Never too late to fix that, though! And yes, that's such an excellent point about the possible negative impact of an unpleasant interaction.

    Becca: I think people pretty much everyone are absolutely terrible when it comes to just sticking a book in any random shelf :P I'm sure I'll have more than enough material for future updates, so if you guys are interested I'll keep them coming :D

    Hannah: Thank you so much!

    Kathy: Added Jen to my reader! I saw on her blog that she's just celebrated her 5th blogging anniversary - I can't believe we hadn't crossed paths before.

    Iris: Thank you so much for the kind words <3 And you know, I was thinking about Boof just the other day. I haven't seen her around online in so long.

    Jenny: Yes, it's a wonderful feeling :D

    Kathrin: It definitely does help - thank you so much!

    Kelly: Thank you and fingers crossed!

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  21. I'm so glad to hear that you love your job and that you've been able to draw on your book blogging for helping to answer questions from patrons.

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  22. Debi: Yes, you're absolutely right about quality of life, and I feel so, so lucky. The library service I work for also values community involvement and knowledgeable, competent, enthusiastic staff, and I really think it makes a world of difference. It makes me sad that the same isn't true everywhere.

    Aarti: Absolutely no sorry; I know you were travelling until recently. I look forward to your reply, and there's no rush. And I wonder too - I'm sure I'll come up with more theories as time passes and I get to make more observations.

    Alexia561: I worked in a bookshop before too, but I definitely like libraries better. Like you say, I like that there's no pressure to sell a particular title - instead, you get to introduce people to a whole world and equip them to explore it for themselves.

    Charleen: Definitely sounds helpful - thank you so much!

    Priscilla: Yes, the children's books are also very popular, especially picture books. I'm not very knowledgeable about those either, but I have a better idea of where to do to find out about them. Thank you for telling me about Weinman - I've come across her on Twitter but not on tumblr. Definitely adding her to my reader.

    Beth F: It really is :D And I definitely will!

    Care: Oh yes, Kerrie! I remember her from back in the day but had sort of lost track of her blog - fixing that now. And thank you! #luvcare

    Michelle: Good luck with the rest of your MLIS and finding a great library afterwards! I wavered between public and school libraries, but this was where I found a job in the end and I really think it was the right choice for me.

    Meghan: Thank you so much!

    Kat: Thank you for the recommendations, and yes, I share your fears.

    Christy: It's a great feeling, and it makes me appreciate you all more than ever :D

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  23. Yay for loving your job! I am so so happy for you. :)

    I would also recommend (in addition to the ones mentioned here) Mrs. Peabody Investigates, a blog I stumbled across when looking for writing about The Bridge. http://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com

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  24. Wow Ana, thanks so much for catching us up on your work and how you feel about working in a library. I was hoping it was going well, and it's so good to hear it is. I agree with how you put it that it's so good to have a job that's not separate from your real self and interests. Isn't it fabulous that blogging has helped you recommend books that you otherwise wouldn't have known about?

    I know in England it's a real fight now to keep the libraries open. I've been following it online as best I can here. Some day we might face the same fight here in Canada,and I want to be prepared if we do. Libraries are necessary to quality of life in a community, and staff are needed in the libraries - for the reasons you explain, to answer questions, direct people to areas that don't know about. A computer can't. Even library computers are limited in the book knowledge they can express. I really hope that libraries can evolve and keep their staff there.

    And for you, dear Ana, that you get more hours at work - it certainly sounds like you are doing well at fitting in and finding your way, and how lovely that it's among books. I think librarian would have been my dream job too, though I did love working in bookstores also.

    Here's some other crime fiction site: http://scandinaviancrimefiction.wordpress.com/ (Scandinavian Crime Fiction), Crime Watch at http://kiwicrime.blogspot.ca/ (New Zealand orientation), and Detectives Beyond Borders at http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.ca/ (US site, good discussions and thoughts). All the other ones mentioned above by your commentators I also go to and they are all good sources. As you're there in the UK, I'd recommend reading Ian Rankin, SJ Bolton, Jacqueline Winspeare, Martin Edwards, Charles Todd, C.J. Sansom, to get an idea of different kinds of mysteries that are popular right now there.

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  25. I'm so glad to hear you're enjoying the job. They're so lucky to have someone like you helping to match books with readers. :)

    I've heard that argument about libraries becoming completely automated and devoid of human interaction. I know it's possible, I just don't like the idea. Sadly, so many things are turning into this electronic experience. I want the library to remain untouched but I do see it happening even at my own library. I can login, reserve a book, I get an email when it's ready to be picked up, and I can check out without talking to a single person. I used to think it was a great way to get the books I wanted, but it's so impersonal. Not the way a library should be at all.

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  26. It's good to hear you're enjoying your job! I've noticed the book blogger world and the library world don't necessarily match up, either. Like when everyone was all cray-cray about The Hunger Games on the internet, my library had tons of the books and none of them were ever checked out (this changed when the movie came out). Also, I've only seen Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore mentioned a few times on FaceBook, and I've been on hold for that book for 2 months at the library! And there are 14 copies!

    The only dedicated crime blog I follow is Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog: http://avidmysteryreader.com/

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  27. Sarah at Crimepieces (http://crimepieces.wordpress.com/) writes excellent reviews of that genre. Smart and succinct!

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  28. I'm really glad you're enjoying your job Ana!

    I often think about that talk at Library School - like you, I am sure there are people who know more about this than I do, but it does make me feel sad to think of libraries as these impersonal, automated places. I definitely see the role of librarian as something involving interaction with people in some way. However, some people I know who are librarians consider the work to be more about being an "information professional"; as such, any interaction is secondary.

    In my opinion, public libraries cannot operate without the interaction. Same with school libraries.

    Sarah

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  29. Glad you're enjoying your job. I haven't been to my library for a while (they "updated" it, in other words took the vast majority of books away), but I remember that there were a lot of crime novels there, more books than other sections. I've found bookshops in keeping, so to speak, with blogging, but that makes sense. Libraries do seem different.

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  30. There is so much in this post that I resonate with, Ana!

    I totally agree with this:
    "And I want to live in a world where doing that on a small scale is not only possible but seen as valuable."

    And I actually think that the people who think that everything will be automated soon are wrong. I think the world is going in the opposite direction, just not as visibly. All over the world are people like you, who believe in the power of doing something small but meaningful. And there are more and more people who want to live in a world like that, where there is a sense of connection and community. I believe that these small acts and small changes is the world will eventually change and reclaim what is truly important.

    I also completely resonate with this:
    "I love the fact that my work doesn’t feel like something that exists apart from my identity or my real life"

    I went through this process recently too and ended up in a job that is more in tune with me, less of a money-maker separate from everything I love. This is also a trend, I think, more and more people are blurring the lines between private and professional. It is only the ones who cling to the old patriarchal systems who resist doing so. From what I'm seeing at least.

    So glad you love your job, Ana, that library is so lycky to have you! Who else would be able to recommend YA set in Sri Lanka? Seriously! :-)

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  31. So glad everything is working out well for you. Thanks for the link to Unshelved - so funny! Have you ever had to play babysitter while a parent went to yoga class?

    I remember when I was a kid my parents used to leave me and my brother in the book section of the big supermarket while they shopped. Now it would be unthinkable.

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  32. The human element in libraries is essential -as is automation by the way, but without professional staff some rooms with books & other materials are not a library, they are just rooms with books. Libraries are not going to be obsolete in any time soon. We just have to move with the times, or preferably be ahead. :) Media education, equal access to information, internet literacy & source critisism, teaching information retrieval skills + all the things you mentioned & much more keep libraries & us librarians very relevent also in the future.

    And yes, crime fiction is hugely popular! :)

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  33. Susan beat me to it, but I swear by Detectives Beyond Borders.

    Can I just say how jealous I am of your new job.

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  34. Beautiful post, Ana! I loved every word of it! I am so glad that you are working in a library now and you are loving every minute of it! I certainly wouldn't agree with what that librarian said - that she could imagine seeing a fully functioning library with just technology. I think the human touch is definitely important as you have said. I loved reading about the your experience in helping a father find out about YA literature set in Sri Lanka. Your observation about the 'online bubble' made me smile :) One of my complaints about libraries in my place is that they mostly stock crime fiction, murder mysteries, romance, classics and comics with the occasional Booker prize winner. If I want to read a something which doesn't come under these genres, I have to buy that book. But if this is what everyone reads, I can't really blame the library because the library can stock only what people want. These days Scandinavian crime fiction is the one which seems to be the most popular. Thanks for this wonderful post!

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  35. I miss friendly librarians *so* much right now as we have issues here in Leeds with that after swathes of cuts. Am so glad you're fighting the good fight - and enjoying it!

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  36. So glad to hear that things are wonderful with your job. I am very lucky to live in a city that truly supports its library system. When things started to get tight and some branches had to cut hours we voted on a public levy to bring in funds to get those hours back!

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  37. That talk at your library school sounds incredibly depressing. I disagree completely. People will ALWAYS need help finding things, whether it be books, information, or guidance on how to use a computer. People are rushing to buy and use new technology but they can't figure out how to use it -- they'd rather ask a real person for help than try to muddle through the directions alone (yes, I'm talking about you, e-readers!!!)

    And for great crime fiction you can't beat Ruth Rendell or her alter ego, Barbara Vine.

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  38. Oh Ana, I am so glad your job is going well and that you are learning lots and really enjoying it!

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  39. Oh, Ana, I'm so glad you're working in a library! That is right where you belong.

    I completely relate to your first bullet point. When I first started working at the library, I felt like I had been living under a rock. I read! I read book blogs! And yet there are so many really prolific, popular authors I had never heard of before I worked at the library. And wow, is crime popular. (Do you have endless piles of James Patterson books? We do, and it makes me nuts.) I don't read a lot of mysteries, but I recently (thanks to Jennifer over at the Literate Housewife) have fallen in love with Tana French. She writes gripping mysteries that are also really well told. Each of her four books features a different narrator, and she's managed to create a distinctive voice for each of them.

    I also think the human element in library services matters. Some of our patrons would be so lost without us, especially the older ones.

    Final thought: loved that last bullet point! I feel the same way.

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  40. Ana, I love this post. I grew up in the library, as I'm sure many readers did. I kind of took things a step further - I had a year in primary school during which I played hooky a lot. But instead of hanging out at the mall, I went to the library. I just felt so at home there.

    I agree absolutely about the human element. The recommendations you're able to give to your library patrons couldn't be matched by an automated service - and I'm saying that as someone who embraces the wonders of technology. It's like you said - sure, you could Google your question, but there's a lot to sift through before you get the answer you're really looking for.

    For a good mystery/crime blog, I highly recommend Bernadette's Reactions to Reading (http://reactionstoreading.com/). Bernadette is located in Australia, so she covers a lot of international titles, as well as the standard crime thrillers we're more familiar with in North America. Her reviews are top-notch: in-depth, well-written and succinct. Definitely a blog worth checking out.

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  41. I'll come back tomorrow and leave a comment when I am not falling asleep but this is a blog BY authors of modern crime fiction, all women :)

    http://www.jungleredwriters.com/

    They talk about all sorts of stuff but I like that.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.