‘They Didn’t Teach This In Library School’

Librarian Brittany Drehobl helped move services online and learned just how essential her work is to the community.

Brittany Drehobl
Courtesy of Brittany Drehobl. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.
Brittany Drehobl
Courtesy of Brittany Drehobl. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.

‘They Didn’t Teach This In Library School’

Librarian Brittany Drehobl helped move services online and learned just how essential her work is to the community.

Travel back to 2013 when my master’s degree was freshly printed. Ask me what it would take to find a job as a librarian that boasts remote work and flexible hours. I likely would have laughed and good-naturedly asked whether an option in this theoretical quiz was the end of the world.

But that’s exactly what seemed to happen last March.

It was almost like any other Friday sitting at the public service desk in the children’s department of the public library where I work. Smiling at patrons who passed, I answered questions they had about all the recent changes.

The past week had been a whirlwind of “other duties as assigned”: pulling toys off the department floor Monday, strategically cleaning high-touch areas by Tuesday, postponing large programs and school outreach on Wednesday, wondering “what next” come Thursday.

But I remained dutifully cheerful as regular patrons offhandedly mentioned they were grabbing books and movies because they wanted to be prepared for all the time they might be spending at home in the coming days. I leaned in close and in a low voice told them to grab as much as they could, that I felt we would be closing, probably for a while.

The official announcement came that afternoon, and Friday the 13th lived up to its reputation.

The next day at my regularly scheduled Saturday shift, I sat again in the library — maskless and within 6 feet of my coworker, not yet aware the virus was airborne — in a public library closed to the public.

To fill the spaces where our patrons once roamed, we blasted music on my portable speaker while we waited for the phone to ring. We waited to help our patrons, to answer questions that never came.

By Monday, the library building was closed to patrons and staff alike. And the state followed suit come Saturday.

And then, the librarians — the masters of information who answer the questions — had questions of our own: Are our services not essential? How can we work from home? Can we find a way to safely serve our patrons? Will we continue to be paid if not? What is going to happen to our jobs, to our community, to us all?

We quickly learned the answer to all of this was simple: that the library is essential, and that it is more than a building.

A librarian holds a picture book.
Public librarian Brittany Drehobl records herself reading a book for school children in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago Jan. 6, 2021.

Like the rest of the country and world, we took our services online and learned to work remotely. We forwarded library phone extensions to our homes and answered questions as they came.

We pivoted our programming and met our patrons where they were: sick of screens and unable to gather. We quarantined returned books and offered contactless curbside pickup of materials. We made plans to safely reopen and researched what circumstances could make us close again.

They didn’t teach this in library school.

But in doing what we had been taught, by answering our own questions, we came to another conclusion: The world didn’t end, it merely changed, just like it always does.

Now there is a light at the end of this tunnel in the form of vaccinations, even as cases rise worldwide and variants emerge and mutate. Though, many librarians have a new question: If we are essential, when will it be our turn?

But through all of these changes and questions, here is an answer to the question that nobody asked: One thing I know won’t change is that librarians will find a way to answer questions and provide information no matter how the world continues to change around us.

About the author: Brittany Drehobl is a youth services librarian in the northwest suburbs. She lives in Chicago with her husband and rescue dog.

Mariah Woelfel produced this story for audio. Follow her @MariahWoelfel. Jessica Martinaitis and Mary Hall produced this for digital. Follow them @jess_morgan and @hall_marye.