St. Louis County librarian Gina Sheridan has collected a wide range of stories for her blog, “I Work at a Public Library,” from a single antler found in the book return box, to a patron who bought the staff lunch to thank them for helping him with a job application. One of Sheridan’s favorite submissions she has received from a fellow librarian involves a patron asking about the computer programming language Unix–the librarian on duty mistakenly thought he had asked for an illustrated manual about eunuchs, only to realize his error midway through their conversation. As the blog’s tagline proclaims: “What makes a public library amazing is that we welcome everyone. Everyone!” Sheridan recently published a book collecting her favorite posts alongside new content, available on Amazon. “There’s this whole segment of the community who really thinks, ‘Why are libraries still around? Isn’t the Internet here?’” she says.
Growing up in St. Louis County, Sheridan spent hours at her local public library, located across the street from the high school she would eventually attend. “My mom had her issues, but there were certain things she was really good at. One was taking us to the doctor, and one was taking us to the library.” She remembers spending hours walking in between the shelves, gathering a stack of new titles. “She would let us check out as many books as we wanted, and there were always books at home,” she says. After graduating high school, Sheridan worked full-time in retail to make ends meet, but soon began to feel dissatisfied and turned to the library as a refuge during her time off. One day in her early 20’s, standing in the stacks surrounded by familiar titles, she thought to herself: why don’t I work here?
In the first few months after she started “I Work at a Public Library” in 2010, Sheridan only shared the blog with a few of her colleagues. “Really, I think I just wanted to try out Tumblr,” she says. “It was just something fun.” Her friends began to circulate the link, and soon she was getting submissions from librarians around the world who wanted to share their own bizarre stories. “A lot of the stories that get submitted are really good, but some of them just don’t get the flavor or the tone, or they’re just plain mean,” she says. Recently, someone submitted a story about finding a piece of cake smashed inside the pages of a book in the library’s return box. After searching the book’s checkout history to decide who to fine for the damage, the librarian realized it belonged to a patron who regularly attended Overeaters’ Anonymous meetings at the library. “To me, that’s not funny. That’s like, something’s wrong,” says Sheridan.
Some library regulars are more irksome than others. For instance, Sheridan has received submissions about a patron who requests large-print audiobooks, and another who annotated every meat product mentioned in a novel with an acceptable vegetarian substitution. “It’s about, ‘Can you believe this happened, in a place where everyone is welcome?’ This is what real life is like. That’s what I love about it,” explains Sheridan. “I think I’ve always been honest. This is real life–why are we hiding things?”
Sheridan grew up in West County, the third of five children. “My family was way too big, and my dad was the only one working,” she says. “It was a pretty chaotic family environment growing up.” Her mother struggled with bipolar disorder, and Sheridan often stepped in to take care of her younger brother and sister. “I was like an adult when I was in third grade. But I never thought of it as, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t believe I live like this,’ or ‘Why is mom crying all the time? I just thought, ‘This is how life is.’ Sort of like my blog: this is how life is.”
While still in high school, Sheridan took a job at a local Marshall’s–after graduation, knowing her parents couldn’t afford the cost of college tuition, she decided not to apply. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to burden my parents,’” she remembers. “‘I won’t go to college.’ Which is really stupid. I just didn’t know–I was naive.” She moved in with her boyfriend, while continuing to work full-time to support herself. The two married soon after, when Sheridan was 19. “We were just trying to be a responsible couple of adults in the world, and I was bored. I was like, ‘Why am I working retail? This is stupid.’ I was mad all the time, and I wasn’t good with customers.”
After realizing that she wanted to work in libraries, she enrolled in Webster University to get a degree in English, so she could apply to a master’s program in library studies. While taking a course-load of 18 credit hours per semester, she continued to work in retail full-time, and also started a part-time job as a shelver at the library. “It was so liberating,” she says. After earning her undergraduate degree in 2005, she moved to Georgia with her husband, planning to attend graduate school online at the University of Alabama. Her newfound purpose, however, began to create tension in her relationship with her husband. “When you go to college, your mind’s kind of blown about the stuff that you learn. I think that’s sort of what lead to my marriage collapsing–I was changing, and he wasn’t.”
When the University of Alabama invited her to come to campus instead of attending their online program, she accepted, while her husband chose to stay in Georgia. “I said, I’m going to go to school–I think you should stay here.’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, ok,’” she remembers. The two divorced in 2007–Sheridan describes their separation as “amicable,” although they have since lost touch. She knows he lives in California now, married with several children. “We don’t exactly talk anymore, but it was fine. I mean, we didn’t have kids together or anything like that, so it just kind of ended. That was after–eight years?”
She moved to Alabama and dove into her schoolwork, taking classes year-round and earning her master’s degree in one year. She recounts the small details of her newly independent life with excitement: waking up whenever she wanted in a “little creaky apartment,” doing homework undisturbed, walking to the library at all hours.
Soon after graduation, a library in Fresno, California offered her a job. She hired a giant moving truck with her savings, packing only the essentials in her Mini Cooper: her two cats, laptop, and some new work clothes. She plugged the address into Google Maps–the line stretched across the country from her apartment in Alabama, and she drove for days, stopping at night to crowd into small motel rooms with her cats. When she arrived in Fresno, however, the moving truck was nowhere in sight. The company turned out to be a scam, attempting to extort money from her in exchange for her belongings. “That part was stressful. I felt violated, and it was hard. But I was also starting a new life,” she says. She never recovered the contents of the truck, filling her apartment instead with new furniture. “Getting to California was like truly starting over.”
New to Fresno, Sheridan began attending a local event called Boozestorming, a hybrid happy hour and brainstorming session about community issues. She felt a connection with Travis, the event’s host, and after running into him several times she mentioned that she had recently broken up with a casual boyfriend. The next day, Travis showed up at the library where she worked to get a library card, and asked her out on a date soon afterwards. “We were inseparable since then,” she says. “It was kind of a whirlwind romance.” Several months into their relationship, the economy in Fresno took a sharp downturn, and the library began laying off Sheridan’s colleagues, starting with the newest arrivals. “I want to work in libraries, but I think I have to leave California,” she told Travis. “Just start looking wherever you want, and wherever you go, I’ll come with you,” he said to her.
When a library in St. Louis offered Sheridan a job, she hesitated, unsure what it would be like to live so close to her family again. “When I moved to the South and California, we had a better relationship because it would be phone calls–‘How’s it going? Ok, good.’ Kind of superficial,” she says. “We love each other a lot. We will always be there for each other when there’s a crisis … but the day-to-day stuff can be kind of rough.” Travis has been a helpful source of support when she feels overwhelmed. “I internalize a lot and I try to fix things, like the middle kid. He’s helped me understand that I can’t always do that.”
As Sheridan opens the door to their house in Old North St. Louis, an orange cat named Uncle Fez greets her with a tentative meow, peeking around the corner of a wooden staircase. Upstairs, part of Travis’ collection of Pez dispensers hangs on the wall, organized by color. The entry to their home is framed with a winding installation made from the torn pages of a book–Sheridan explains that she and Travis make a similar sculpture in each house they live in together, with a new book each time.
“My positive attitude is my positive attitude. No one can really affect that, you know? I can affect it,” she says. Sheridan dedicates a section of her blog tagged “Volumes of Gratitude” to gestures of appreciation and heartfelt moments with patrons, including an eighty-five-year-old woman who mailed her library card back to her local branch after moving away from the city, along with a handwritten thank-you note. “People have a special place in their heart for libraries,” says Sheridan.