The Somerville Switchboard

Operator Norma DouglasNorma Douglas has answered the City of Somerville's phones for 32 years.

I almost always do interviews for print articles in person. But this time, I decided to make an exception.
“City of Somerville, how may I help you?”
Norma Douglas has been a phone operator for the city for 32 years. She’s one of two people who answer the approximately 100,000 calls that come into the city’s main line annually. If you’ve ever dialed 617-625-6600 and asked for the operator, there’s a good chance you’ve spoken to her.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up at this job.
Well, that was a long time ago. I came for an interview and I started as a fill-in, so I was on a day-to-day basis, if they needed me I would come in, if they didn’t need me, I wouldn’t come in. I worked here and I worked down at the police station. A year later, or maybe two years later, I was made permanent.

What about this job appealed to you?
I like dealing with the people. I’ve always been working with the people on the phone—I used to have another job, I was a telephone operator. I like talking to people.

What does a typical call look like?
They call up and they ask for the extension, or if they don’t know where they want they ask, “Where can I get a birth certificate?” or “Can I talk to somebody about my taxes?” We can connect them to the certain different departments.
The most is the schools, and a lot of DPW calls. A lot of tax calls, birth certificates, we handle all those, put them in to the departments.

How have things at this job changed—or not changed—over the decades?
When I first started there were three of us here, because there was no automation and then automation came in and it went down to two of us.
Some people, like [the] elderly, they don’t know what they’re looking for. We try to figure out what they need and where we can connect them to get them the help that they need. And then the schools, the parents that are signing their children up for school, we give them the parent information center. When I first started, they didn’t have that. A lot of things have changed from when I first started here, because that was back in 1986, so a lot has changed. I’ve seen a lot of different people.

Thirty-two years is a long time to stay at a job. What has kept you here this long?
I like my job. I like the people that I work for, I enjoy what I do, helping people if they don’t know what they’re looking for. That’s really what kept me here. And I like the people I work with.
I like that I’m helping people. If they don’t know where they’re going, I’m able to help. If somebody calls up and they’re looking for something, they don’t know who to ask or who [can] help them, I try to see who I can get to help them. I do try to help people as much as I can.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.

This story appears in the July/August print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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