The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with book-loving librarian Shannon McNeill

Anyone who appreciates books and the people who write them will love this interview with someone whose job it is to share them. Librarian Shannon McNeill is here to give you a little insight as to what it’s like in her world of books in this week’s interview.

Shannon McNeill

Shannon McNeill had what Oprah calls an aha! moment. It happened like this: One day, she woke up and realized she wanted to be a librarian. But she started out as a teacher. After graduating college, Shannon taught preschool for a year, and later earned her certificate in English as a Foreign Language. With that, she spent a year in Greece and taught English—it was the best year of her life. It was after Shannon moved back home and spent three years teaching at a Montessori School when she had the realization that teaching wasn’t quite for her. When she decided to become a librarian, Shannon began volunteering at her local library, applied to get her Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS), and landed a job almost immediately upon graduating.

Working as the Assistant Director in a small Pittsburgh library, Shannon maintains the book collection and purchases books for adults and children. She hosts and plans programs including children’s story times, the book club, and visits to local schools. This is clearly the fun part for her. The enthusiasm and energy Shannon brings to the job is infectious. You can find her on Twitter and at her blog, A Librarian’s Lists & Letters.

Welcome, Shannon!

Book lovers have this way of pinpointing exactly what it was that sparked an interest in reading—what was the catalyst for you?

I actually don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t love books. My mother tells stories  of her walking me to the local library twice a day when I was younger. And though I don’t actually remember this happening, I vividly remember that library. I remember always reading and I kind of remember always knowing how to read. We always had books in our house, I always got books as presents, and the hardest decision growing up was choosing which book I was going to order from the Scholastic catalog on a very meager budget.

Did you always love spending time in the library growing up? What kinds of books and genres did you like to read?

I definitely loved spending time at the library when I was a very young girl. The first neighborhood I grew up in had a library just a block away from our house. But we moved when I was just about to start the first grade to a town without a library. I remember being crushed, but I learned to rely on my school library.

And when I was in middle and high school, I never used the library. I think it’s a time that most students fall out of the habit and I think something librarians are always trying to fix. In college, I only used the library for assignments, but I finally found my way back to libraries as a young adult. And when I did, it just fit.

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What is the library like where you work? Is it an integral part of the community, or is it something you have to actively work toward making sure it stays running?

My library is a medium-sized library in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a great place to be a librarian because we have a huge library system that allows all of these local neighborhood libraries to be connected through a consortium. You get the benefit of having a true community library that really allows you to become an important place in the community, but you get the benefit of a large system and endless books and resources.

Describe some of the day-to-day tasks you do as an Assistant Director. I’m particularly interested in the book purchasing process (how do you make your selections?) and program planning.

Because I work in a smaller library, my role as Assistant Director really means I do a little of everything. I host all of our story times, plan programs for children and adults, take care of tech questions, perform reader’s advisory and reference, and I share the ordering responsibilities with our Director.

In terms of making purchasing decisions, I always keep the patrons in mind. So much of what I order is best-selling material (authors like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich), but it’s also about finding interesting and informative material. One of my favorite things to do is find quirky reads, music, DVDs, etc. that I know other libraries might not have the budget to purchase. I’m always thinking about my own community first, but because we share materials with the greater Pittsburgh area, I find that material that has larger appeal is harder to find. It’s like a puzzle I’m creating and solving each month.

I don’t worry about censoring material because as long as I am following my library’s purchasing policies, the material that I buy will find its proper place within our collection. Instead, my biggest worry is always buget. Sometimes I want to buy ALL of the books, but have to scale back and weigh my priorities.

You seem to especially love planning programs for children. In what ways is interacting with these kids rewarding?

Well, I was a teacher for five years before I went back to school for my MLIS and became a librarian, so I have always enjoyed working with children. For me, the reward in working with children is just to see how excited they are about learning. Children just want soak up as much information as they can, and they have such a love of reading, it’s impossible not to find joy in hosting a storytime or other program.

Plus, how can you not love a bunch of preschoolers shouting your name and telling you how much they love the library? 

It may seem obvious to some, but why is instilling a love for reading in children so important? Have you witnessed any transformations (big or small) in the children you meet when they find a story that resonates with them?

Instilling a love of reading at an early age is a gateway to success. It gives children so much, including self-esteem and awareness. But really, it helps to make life-long learners. It’s the first step in showing children that they have a world of discovery out there and that they have the tools to figure it all out.

As for transformations, I think I see them every week. They are happening around us all of the time, and I’m just thankful that I get to play a part in helping children learn. It never stops warming my heart to have a child come running to me to talk about their newest favorite book, or to tell me about their latest achievement, or to ask me to choose something special for them. Those are all little transformations and if we don’t pay attention to them, we miss out.

What is your take on the hard copy vs. digital book debate? Is there any right or wrong way to enjoy a good book? And does technology affect the library system negatively?

There is absolutely no wrong way to enjoy a good book. If you are reading something that makes you happy, no matter the format, that’s what matters. I want to help people discover the books that speak to them, and if they read them on an eReader or on paper, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the world of publishing is changing, but if anything, I think it’s made libraries more relevant. Chances are your library has free eBooks for you to borrow and my library even offers digital subscriptions to magazines. We’re the place people go to for questions about iPads and Kindles and everything in between. Librarians are tech-savvy. We manage to be on top of trends and respectful of traditional methods, too. Really, I don’t think there is much in terms of technology that a good library couldn’t tackle and for those reasons, I don’t think we’ll be disappearing into the dark anytime soon.

On a similar note, said e-readers, along with academic search engines, make it easy for readers and students to not have to make a trip to the library. Why is the brick-and-mortar “search engine” still needed?

The library is more than just a book depository. It houses informed professionals that can help locate things that even Google can’t manage to find. It’s a place where people can come for free education and entertainment. It’s a place where people go when they need someone to talk to. It’s a community center that hosts speakers and teaches skills. It’s a place to find employment help and someone to show you how to build a resume. It’s where you can send a fax, scan documents, and make copies all for very little money. It’s a place that lets you read newspapers and magazines for all day long for no cost. It’s a warm place to find shelter in the winter and a cool place to relax in the summer. It’s where anyone can go and not be judged for needing assistance. The library is more than just books and computers. It’s whatever is needed, for each unique person who walks in the door, each and every day.

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Clearly you love your job, but are there aspects of it that are tough? Monotonous?

Of course, just like any job librarians have their rough days. I do love my job very much, but sometimes I am so busy it’s hard to come up for air and breathe. It’s not always dealing with demanding or rude patrons. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, and I’ve even had tennis balls thrown at me. And on those days, of course the job is tough. But more often than not, people are good, caring, and kind and that makes up for the small amount of people who are unreasonable or hurtful.

Would you say that library work is your calling? Would you ever want to pursue other paths?

I woke up one day and knew that I was meant to be a librarian. I was feeling lost and lonely in my life, and something had to change, but it took me awhile before I realized that librarian was a profession that I could actually do. And since then, I haven’t looked back. At this point in my life, I am absolutely certain, with every fiber of my being, that I am supposed to be a librarian. Will I think the same in ten years? I don’t really know. I’ve learned that life doesn’t always happen the way you think it will and to just accept the way it may twist and turn. I’m just thankful that I am happy being a librarian now.

I ask every interviewee this question, but it’s especially fitting for you: What books would you recommend to others?

Oh, I always find this so hard to answer. A librarian takes her recommendations very seriously and knows that each reader is different so there can be no blanket answer. I always write a list of my most favorite books I read each year on my blog, and I keep a pretty extensive Goodreads record of what I’m reading, too.

But if you really want to know, I’m recommending Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple to just about everyone these days. It’s snarky, witty satire at its finest. But it also has depth and and heart. A fantastic mother-daughter coming-of-age tale that not enough people are reading.

And for children? One of my all-time favorites is A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead. It’s a Newbery winner and just an adorable tale of a sick zoo keeper and his animal friends. I’m also a huge fan of Jon Klassen. I’d highly recommend anything he’s written and/or illustrated for any level.

 

Thanks so much for sharing your insight and expertise, Shannon! It’s encouraging to read about your thriving library and the kids who relish in it. Have a question or compliment for Shannon? Leave it in the comments! For more of The “Lucky” Ones interview series, click here.

photo credit: annais via photopin cc and Ozyman via photopin cc

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Comments

  1. Great interview AND photos. Few librarians left. I’m so happy that Portland passed a new longer term library levy to protect our books and the people who take care of them for us 🙂

    • Aimee, that is so cool. It’s nice to hear about places that truly value their most important institutions. I would so love to visit Portland sometime.

  2. This is a very interesting interview – I’ve never thought about what goes into being a librarian before! My mom has been volunteering at the library in my hometown for the past year or so, and I’ve never thought to ask her about it, so this should be a good conversational piece for the next time I talk to her.

    • While it’s never something I’ve seriously considered pursuing, I have often daydreamed about what it’d be like to work in a library. Just imagine being surrounded by books all day! That’s really neat your mom volunteers at hers – I’d love to know what she thinks, too!

  3. Thanks so much for the kind words. Glad to hear that Portland loves their libraries and I hope everyone knows that cities all of the country are trying to help their libraries be the best that they can be. We’re more than just books, so if you haven’t stopped in to see us in a few years, make it a point to get a new card in 2013.

    Thanks so much!

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