Beyond books: Using compassion to make a difference at the Pima County Library

This article by Daniel Behrend was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on February 16, 2020.

It’s an understatement to say that having a job at the library is a learning experience. After a dozen years with Pima County Public Library, I can’t exactly remember the first thing I ever learned, but I do remember the first thing that really stuck with me: how to smile at strangers.

Now I have a hard time not smiling at random people, which is pretty big for someone as shy as I am. Having a job helping people has been perfect for me. Interacting with mostly strangers all day has really taken me out of my shell.

Working at a library means always learning new things, which is perfect because I am naturally curious about almost everything. While we don’t get to “read books all day” — contrary to popular belief! — we’re constantly exposed to new information.

Just like any job, we learn things specific to our field, like navigating customers’ needs, providing excellent service, and understanding and communicating all that the library offers.

I also pick up on random things that I never really thought about before my life at the library. For example, I can now expertly navigate Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division website. Many people ask for help with tasks like printing out a three-day temporary plate. And I learned pretty quickly that these folks will usually ask for the scotch tape; you have to get that permit on the car somehow! It’s a small example, but being able to anticipate someone’s needs can help them get back to their busy lives that much faster.

We also learn “big picture” things as we go. We get opportunities to adjust our behavior in response to what works and what doesn’t. We adapt our approach to suit the needs of the people who walk through our doors, which can mean different things at different libraries.

Since I started at the library, I’ve had the good fortune to work at four different branches and do shifts at many others. What they all have in common is that each strives to reflect the community that it serves.

With every position, I’ve been able to use my own sense of empathy as a guide. This is easily the most important lesson for me. I can’t think of many other places where I could do that. We use our compassion to deliver real results to people.

My most rewarding interactions are those that allow me to truly help someone improve their life, like teaching them how to apply for jobs or sign up for healthcare. Even things that may seem minor, like showing someone how to print out pictures of their family, can brighten their day.

What we do strengthens communities, often one individual at a time, and that’s incredibly gratifying. Having a way to channel empathy into action and outcomes is a pretty spectacular job perk. I continue to learn and grow at the Sam Lena-South Tucson Library, where I currently work. In addition to being the young adult services coordinator, page supervisor, Facebook manager, and starting our branch’s Code Club, I’m in charge of running our new Bookbike – essentially a library on three wheels that we take to local organizations to distribute free books. You really never stop learning when you work at a library.

It can be a challenge to constantly adapt and learn, but I’m never alone. There’s an amazing team of people here who are always ready to back me up, provide guidance and support, and, of course, teach me new things. Together, we all do what we can to forge relationships with every individual who comes into our library. And by doing so, we strengthen the community we serve.

Daniel Behrend is a library associate at Sam Lena-South Tucson Library. He is also a musician who has played drums and produced records for numerous local bands. In his spare time, he enjoys eating (and occasionally cooking).