Monday, May 13, 2013

Booktalking with a side of onions: How waiting tables made me a better librarian

I was 15-years old when I landed my first job as a waitress. I worked at a family salad bar and grill restaurant in Roanoke, VA. Over the next five years, I would work at several other restaurants an Italian restaurant, an Aussie steakhouse chain, and even one crazy-interesting study in catty female behavior at a certain owl-themed oceanside sports bar.

I am just about to finish up my ninth year as a public school librarian, and barely a day goes by that I don't benefit from my years as a restaurant server. Being a waitress for five years, followed by another four years in retail cosmetics sales, did more to prepare me for a career as a teacher and librarian than any of my graduate and undergraduate coursework ever did.

As an homage to my waitressing days, here's a short list of things I learned by serving up Liver N' Onions to senior citizens and 3-Mile Island hot wings to hormonal wannabe surfer boys.

  1. Talking to strangers. I can make conversation with literally anyone, something I could not do at all before waitressing. No one scares me anymore, no matter what kind of sour mood they might be in. You catch more flies with honey, right? As a librarian, I'd better be comfortable talking--I talk and talk and talk all day long. I'm sure there are timid librarians out there, but I sure don't know any.

  2. Reading nonverbal cues. As a restaurant server who relied solely on tips, I quickly learned to read and respond to the needs of total strangers. As in restaurants, some library visitors prefer peace and quiet; others want playful banter. Some want to interact with restaurant/library staff; others don't. Learning the difference means balancing that fine line between being attentive and being annoying.

  3. How to hold lots of information in my head at once. The best restaurant servers remember their customers' drink orders when they need a refill. They remember the names and interests of regular customers. They make menu recommendations based on what they know about people--even if it's just as simple as they prefer red wine over white. Likewise, the best librarians remember their patrons' names and personal interests. People feel special when you remember them, which encourages them to return again and again.

  4. Performing a reference interview. I didn't call it a reference interview then, but that's essentially what I was doing when customers asked me for menu recommendations. Ditto when I worked in retail cosmetics for Merle Norman and Clarins. The more you know about client preferences, the more spot-on your recommendations will be. Recommend the wrong item for that person, and they may not return (or at least won't trust your recommendations). In the library world, we call questioning clients about their wants/likes/needs a "reference interview."

  5. Multitasking! If you've ever been a server or a school librarian, you know what I mean. If you've ever done both, you REALLY know what I mean. If you've never been a librarian, check out my Laura Numeroff parody, "If You Give A Librarian A Barcode" for an example of 30 minutes in the life of a busy school librarian.

  6. How to smile--a lot! Even when you really don't feel like smiling. Even when the fit has just hit the shan. No one likes a sourface, and you never know when your smile is the only one that person has seen that day. Smiling will help you feel better, too.

  7. How to laugh at myself and at others. Okay, laughing at others sounds really bad, I get that. But people are seriously just funny to watch and listen to! I'm sure all library environments have funny patrons, but if you work in a middle school, you are especially lucky. Middle schoolers have a special market on quirky and fun; take a few moments to appreciate them.

I'm sure other early jobs would help prepare librarians and teachers. I've never bagged groceries, but my mom did that as a second job when I was in middle school. I would imagine you get the same types of experiences in any people-oriented job, whether it be in a grocery store, a mall, or a daycare. For you teens and adults working in the service industry right now, my hat's off to you. It's tough work--some of the toughest I've ever done--but I wouldn't trade that experience for anything!

How have your early service jobs prepared you for teaching or librarianship?

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