interpretive librarian

I had a job that I loved so much that I did it twice within a ten year period; I had other jobs in the meantime. I was as an historical interpreter. It was my first job, ever. That is, other than babysitting gigs, that most teenaged girls cut their teeth on, that don’t really count on your resume. So girls, don’t get suckered into babysitting gigs when adults tell you that it’s good experience for your resume. Babysitting jobs don’t really count unless you’re applying for a job as a Jane Eyre.

Who knew what an historical interpreter was? Not I. A  living history site ran an ad in the paper. I always wanted to work at a museum. I applied. After being hired my heart sank into my Keds and bits oozed out through the shoe lace holes when I realized that historical interpreter is a fancy word for your guide.

Me, shy, retiring, introverted me, leading tours and talking to strangers?

Only, I’d be doing it first-person, which is a rarity at historic sites.  I took on the identity of an indentured servant called Rebecca. It was a bit like acting. I developed a persona and hid behind her. Later, I moved up in the world and decided I’d be the matriarch’s granddaughter, Susannah, visiting from another part of the region. And then during my second stint there, I was a Catholic woman from Baltimore who somehow landed in that rough and tumble part of the world.

I loved the job because I learned so much from it. The people I worked with were fascinating and similarly interested in learning as much as they could about the period in order to interpret it authentically and share it with others. I didn’t appreciate the job then as much as I do now.

I learned history of the Territorial Capital of the United States in 1791. I learned cultural history, like what books and songs were popular at the turn of THAT century. I learned botanical history such as why they planted so much lamb’s ear–because it’s softer than a corn cob when you reach down for something to wipe with in the outhouse. I learned how to cook in a dutch oven over coals in an open fireplace. And I could have learned more about knitting, spinning, and dyeing. But I didn’t. I was mostly into weaving at that time.

Earlier this morning I showed a colleague from another academic library around our library. It was a welcome diversion from being glued to my pc. I showed her the library’s features and told her about our services. She shared how they did things at her library. There are a few things that I’d improve upon for next time. It’s been ages since I’ve given library tours, and I should have prepared rather than doing it on the fly–though sometimes I think we’re at our best when we’re on the fly.

My tips for better library tours:

  • Know your history. Begin at the beginning. This library building opened in 1999. This also means knowing a bit about areas named for former Directors, Deans, Endowers. I knew most of this. I didn’t fumble. But it’s helpful to create a narrative flow while you’re walking people through the building. Like mentioning the wifi plaza outside the library named for a former library Dean. Or that the library is named after the university’s first president. And that your special collections or endowments are named for certain people and the money is earmarked for specific materials.
  • Know your architecture. Every building has its quirks, it’s architectural elements. Even if it’s what someone called “abortion buildings”–meaning that they were so ugly and dull that you wished you were never born–those disgusting things built in the 1970s that we’re all still aesthetically traumatized by on a daily basis. You can say “Hey it’s not in the Federal style, but it does reflect the psychosis of the 1970s.” Mention the clerestory, since it’s the only unusual bit about your space. Or that the construction materials are made from sustainable and/or recycled woods. Likewise, point out other green efforts like reduced printing and photocopying in the library and the ample recycling bins for empty beverage containers.
  • Carry the appropriate tools. My library may not be that unusual, but we have a replica of Tennessee’s longest-serving congressman’s office on the top floor of the library. It’s the perfect way to end a tour. Always point out the Dolly wall. It features framed portraits of Dolly Parton with said congressman. You show them the office, and then you point to the lavatory, open the door, and show them a facsimile of the commode, sink, etc. Except for this time. The door is locked. You don’t have a key. It’s one of those weird locks that needs a regular head screw-driver to open it. Carry your leatherman tool or a swiss army knife with appropriate “library” features. Other things you should carry are your ID and a stack of business cards. Many doors and services at my library open by keycard access. So I didn’t get to take my fine fellow librarian into the late night study area. That was no loss, anyway. The business cards are simply a professional nicety,  an easy way for all parties to follow up. There is some debate about whether business cards are essential today given all the social networking tools we use for promotion. Jessica Santascoy writes that “trees need saving and it’s more efficient to be green. The new business card is adding contacts on smart phones, fb and twitter networks, and blog subscriptions.” I disagree. I consider it a generational divide. People hiring are most likely older, traditional. They expect the paper business card and may be thrilled with your virtual version, but why not impress by supplying both? If dying trees bother you, then first, you ought not become a librarian because there will always be traditional books that cause dwindling forests, and second, there are recycled papers you can choose for your business cards.
  • End on a positive note. For general library tours, this means asking the students if they have any questions. Simple. For my one-on-one tour this morning,  I told my new friend that I’d walk her out to her car. Earlier she complained about not being able to find the parking office to get a visitor pass. And then she went into details about how many times she circled the lots looking for someplace to park, illegally. I failed to share those instructions in our email correspondence yesterday. It was poor of me. As we said our goodbyes,  I walked her to her car and told her if she had a ticket, that I’d take care of it. Remember when I mentioned sharing insider information with people? Here’s the scoop about parking on campus if you’re a visitor: If you get a ticket, throw it away. They won’t track you down. They have no way of encumbering you. But if, after running your license tag, they can connect you to staff, faculty, or student who is affiliated with the university, then your ticket is encumbered to your relative or roomate. The other option is to write a letter of appeal to the Parking Appeals committee  (PAC) explaining that you’re a visitor to campus. Visitor violations are excused 100% of the time. I know this because I’m on the PAC. So I could have kept this secret a secret and just let her think that I’m magnanimous enough to eat the expense of her parking ticket. And that may work for some people in certain types of environments. But I gave her the inside scoop because transparency is the new black, right?

If I think of any other tips for touring or interpretation, I’ll surely share them. And, as always, I’d appreciate yours.

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