Monday, 11 August 2014

All about the books...sort of

by Michelle Helliwell

I am a librarian. For some, this is a profession steeped in nostalgia and misconception. There seems to be two predominant images - the public librarian, who helps instill the love of reading into the hearts and minds of the public; the other is the academic librarian, who work in the dusty halls of an academic library, with access to some of the great tomes and mysteries waiting to be unlocked (even that image of an academic library is seriously dated). Librarianship is one of the most misunderstood professions because we equate the librarian with the book, the database – the thing – and not the services they provide. The best work librarians, many of whom I am privileged to know, focus not on books or databases, but people and the information they need to be fulfilled in some way.  (I could blog all day on this subject, because I’m passionate about it…but I’ll move on). 

So, I’m a writer and a librarian, and when people hear this, their eyes light up and think that this is a match made in heaven. Librarians are all about the books, right? Well, here is my big dirty secret – except for my first year out of library school, when I worked in a non-profit resource library for people with autism, I have never circulated a book. I have never run a story time. I still get the Carr McLean and Brodart catalogues and I loooove them because they are full of library paraphenalia and cool posters and booktape but it's full of stuff I don't use. 

I work in healthcare, in an office. There is no room with books—in a hospital, the healthcare staff want (and need) the information in the palm of their hands. Before I left work last week, I was asking for advice from some nurses I work with on the most useful way to format a policy to make it easy for front line healthcare workers to read quickly. I do searches on the staging of pressure ulcers and patient flow in overcrowded emergency rooms. Friday I got really excited about a form I created and then even more excited when I realized I could just collect the information digitally using Sharepoint so I could track the information flow better. This is my life as a librarian. 

But I write historical romances. I looooove historical things. My day job is about clinical practice guidelines and health systems research, and my writing life is about swords and corsets and how long it takes to get from point A to point B on the back of a horse.  My search skills certainly come in handy when I’m trying to find an answer to a question I have when writing a book, and when it comes to tagging books, I’ve known about meta-data since before it was sexy. (It was called “cataloguing”). I can’t imagine I’d ever want to write a book set in a hospital. I started working in one in 1990, as a ward clerk, and when I finished Library School, I ended up right back in healthcare. I spend the majority of my waking hours in hospitals. When I drive away from work, that entire universe needs to stay in my rear view mirror. I need the escape of something different.  

Like many writers, however, every experience, no matter how dramatic or mundane, can translate into your stories. Years ago I worked in retail, and I can remember how my calves ached from standing on concrete floors for 10 hours a day. That will definitely make it into a book. I also worked at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic many moons ago, and maybe I’ll use my familiarity with the CSS Acadia or the RobertsonStore to inspire a setting.  I was in the Army Reserves for a few years, and maybe one day I’ll draw on my experience being tear-gassed or throwing a grenade or being on a field exercise for a week to translate to an experience where a character is bone wearily tired, in a riot, is publicly set down showing up for work in a wrinkled garment, or handling something potentially lethal.  All of it goes in the writing well.

When I go on vacation, we often go to historical re-enactment parks, and when I watch TV, it’s often historical or otherwise fantastical. I am a Jane Austen freak. If it involves chain mail, muslin, muskets or a shift, I’m there.  My undergrad is in history, and I’ve never lost my love of it, and it finds my way into what I write.  Contemporary is where I live...historical is where I want to visit, and my writing takes me there.

I read to escape. I write to escape. And I’m quite happy to keep the spheres of my life – the writing and the day job – as separate as I can. My life long ambition—which I think I probably first articulated when I was in my 20’s – is to write novels in the morning and make jam in the afternoon. When that happens, and my day job is my writing life...then those spheres will happily collide. 

Who knows? Maybe then I'll write a book about a librarian. :)

Michelle Helliwell is a health sciences librarian extraordinaire, lego video game wizard, and historical romance writer. She blogs regularly at her website, is exploring tumblr, and pins often but seems to be getting that under control. You can see some of her day job pins here. 


  1. Didn't realize what a modern day librarian did. Also good to see that just like me you live in parallel worlds--your real life and your writing life.

  2. thank you for raising the concept that librarians are in places we'd never think about. I have a daughter who is a community outreach librarian and I'm amazed at the events she's involved in. It is about information and getting it into the right hands as well as providing access to good stories. And interesting to hear that your "get away" involves history and story and is a parallel universe for you as writing is for many especially in the beginning.