Nancy Bent, left, and Meg Macleish are substitute librarians, traveling to libraries wherever help is needed.

With over two dozen branches, 500 staff members and a responsibility to serve nearly 1 million people, it’s no surprise that a system like the Pima County Public Library sometimes needs help.

Substitute librarians are a lot like substitute teachers — filling vacancies at individual libraries on an “as needed” basis when full-time staff are not available.

In a system as large as Pima County’s, there are almost always times when libraries are short of personnel, and we subs come riding to the rescue. We are responsible for virtually all the same duties as full-time staff, namely to meet our customers’ needs.

We assist library customers in whatever way they need. We recommend books, reserve materials, find information for homework assignments, create displays, assist with story times, sign up new cardholders, answer telephones and circulate library materials.

We use new technology and software and teach basic computer skills. We learn and show customers how to use many services that may not be familiar to them, including self-checkout computers, photocopying, faxing, scanning, online resources, e-book devices and audio and visual streaming materials. The 21st century library is always evolving and it’s our job to help customers understand and use the library.

With new technology and ever-growing resources, substitute librarians working even in the smallest library can answer our customers’ toughest questions.

Recently, substitute librarian Meg Macleish received a question — how many firefighters were working the Ferguson Fire and how current was the statistic? Within five minutes, Meg found credible sources and returned the customer’s call. The customer was grateful. She had a son on the fire lines and was worried for his safety. It may have been a small and brief interaction, but Meg was pleased to have found what this small-town customer was looking for.

Since substitutes work at lots of libraries, we get to meet different people, both staff and customers. We get to know how each individual neighborhood and its library work together. What materials are popular? Which have heavy use of public computers? Which neighborhood has active reading groups? And finally, how can we help meet customers’ needs? Each library teaches us different ways of doing things that make that location special, and successful. It’s truly an eye-opening experience.

We love answering questions, assisting with job searches, watching happy children during story time, seeing the wealth of knowledge on the shelves and finally, we love books! We love talking about them, helping people find them, suggesting the right order to read them in, discussing them and learning about new books and authors from our customers.

So, the next time you are in one of Pima County’s 26 libraries. don’t be surprised if you note a face you haven’t seen before. It’s probably one of us substitute librarians! Just like the folks you see every day at your local library, we’re here to help you … so come on over and say hi.

Nancy Bent previously worked as a zoo librarian and a public librarian in Illinois. She has been a substitute librarian at Pima County Public Library since 2013. Meg Macleish has worked at Pima County Public Library since 1989 and, in retirement, works as a substitute librarian.