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Working In a Library Helped My Social Anxiety

Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

Out of all the side benefits I’ve received from working in a public library (great friends, free books, and an eagle eye for misshelved items), the most unexpected one has been a decrease in my social anxiety.

When you struggle with social anxiety, you live in perpetual fear of other people – fear of being judged, fear of being embarrassed, fear of other people noticing your anxiety. I avoided large groups of people like the plague when I was in high school, and if I was forced to interact with other people, I spent a significant amount of time analyzing everything I had said and done before concluding that I was a hopeless idiot who didn’t know how to be a normal person. I was school smart, but I wasn’t known for quick thinking in social settings. I froze in awkward situations, feeling my entire body go hot and sweaty while I waited for everyone’s attention to be diverted elsewhere.

Now, some people may be saying, “Well, working in a library must have been a perfect job for you! You’re not forced to interact with people all day!” And to that I say, “Oh, how wrong you are.”

Even though many of us library folks may be introverts at heart, I’d say the majority of public libraries have adopted a patron-centered service model, which means that customer service and user satisfaction are of absolute importance. I started my library career in Customer Service, which had me splitting time between the circulation desk and the computer help desk 4 to 6 hours every workday. I worked a lot of evening and weekend shifts, when the line of patrons stretched from the front desk all the way to the middle of the library. I had to answer a staff phone that would not. stop. ringing. I had to call dozens of people a day to let them know their holds were available for pick up. I even had to call a patron one time to tell him that he returned a porn film in one of our DVD cases.

Hundreds of people come through our doors on a daily basis, and although I moved from Customer Service to Reference five years ago, I still spend more than half of my time at the desk assisting patrons. And every time I walk out to the desk, I have no idea what to expect. I may be helping three people create resumes from scratch, at the same time. I may have someone ask for help researching the history of their house because they think it might be haunted. I may have someone pull their shirt up and ask if it’s normal for their belly button to be leaking fluid. (This happened to a coworker of mine – I swear on my mother’s name.)

The point is that I can’t prepare myself for everything that might happen, and I’ve realized that I’m a better library employee because of it. One of the most useful skills I’ve developed is the ability to think on my feet, because it allows me to multitask, come up with creative solutions, and go from one library transaction to another without blinking an eye. To be honest, there hasn’t been time for my social anxiety to take hold at work…even if I’m thrown for a loop by a difficult patron, I can’t dwell on it too much because I have a line of people waiting who need help printing or troubleshooting their eReader. And in the grand scheme of things, I’ve started to realize that my tiny social miscues really aren’t that big a deal after all.

Of course, my social anxiety isn’t gone for good. I require a lot of alone time to recharge after a busy day at work and I still don’t like large social gatherings with people I don’t know, but they don’t terrify me the way they used to. My library experience has taught me that I can handle the unexpected with tact and professionalism, and at the very least, I know I’ll have some great stories to tell at parties.