I realized that I’ve never really explained what being a librarian is like – after I tell people I am one, the two most frequent questions/comments I get are “I didn’t know there were still librarians” and “What do librarians do?”
Yes there still are librarians, and as any professional in their field will tell you, it’s not an easy answer to explain what you do – first you have to realize that there are many different types of libraries, many of which you will (or won’t) encounter depending on your stage of life. There are school librarians (that work with students from kinder up to high school), public librarians, academic librarians (working with college level students), law librarians, medical librarians, archivists, digital librarians, just to name a few. I have had a chance to work in libraries at the school, college, and public levels! So I can only speak for those that I have personally experienced.
I will explain mostly what public librarians typically do, since it is the type of library I have the most experience in and where I’m planning my career towards. Even within the public library itself, there are so many categories you can work under that it gets a little confusing for people to understand (here I have to explain there is a difference between librarians and assistants/clerks, they’re not the same thing. There are many assistants that are awesome and can practically do the job of a librarian – but you have to get your Masters to become a librarian, so this title includes responsibilities like being a manager, budgeting, and event planning/coordination) – the patron categories are typically broken up into adults, young adults, and children/families, because that’s how the books are grouped together. Sometimes when a library is smaller, there may be one or two people that do it all!
A core service libraries provide is answering reference questions – if you walk up to a librarian or they come up to you when you need help (if you look like you need help, we will in fact try to come up to you) and ask a question about ANYTHING you are looking for, that is a reference question. If you need to know where books on bunnies are, we show you. If you need to locate something on the website, we show you. If you remember the plot of a story, but not the author or the title, we help you. If you need to find a restaurant in your city, we help you with that too. If you call on the phone with a question, we help you the best we can! A little known tip, if you need help looking for something and you’re not near a computer or internet, you can call your library and the librarian that picks up will help you find what you’re looking for! If we don’t have what you need in stock, we have ways of finding you the item somewhere else (at another library or online) or something similar.
Another VERY big job libraries and librarians do is provide computer, internet, and technology access – basically free and equal access to information. Most people (especially if you’re reading this online and don’t know many people that don’t own a computer), fail to realize that some people do not have computers, internet, printers, etc at home. Or if they do, it’s old and/or slow. Libraries provide those services whenever a person needs it. Just the other day, I helped an older patron learn how to save a resume to his flashdrive and then upload it as an attachment in an email to send to a job prospect. I’ve helped numerous students learn to navigate the Office suite so that they can finish their homework! This also includes providing digital content, like FREE ebooks. I’ve praised the Overdrive app for you guys on all my social media outlets before. Download it now on your smartphone or tablet! Even if you say you’ll never need to come into the library to use the internet or print, never say never – I’ve frequently had to assist people whose computer or printer at home went kaput, maybe their internet went down, or perhaps they couldn’t afford to buy ink or pay the internet anymore.
What we call “collection development” is a fun and interesting element of being a librarian. It means using tools to decide what materials you will buy for the library collection. There are several ways librarians do this. Libraries subscribe to many different types of magazines or books that provide snippets and recommendations on what to buy. Most librarians also scour websites and social media to look for new or up and coming books. Librarians sometimes attend conferences where they can see advanced copies of books straight from the publishers or authors themselves. They sometimes get advanced reads sent to them – but it’s impossible to read everything : so a large part of what’s purchased can also come from patron recommendations! I always hear about people complaining about a library doesn’t have, and I keep telling them if you want it, tell the librarian to buy it! If they can’t find it for you at another library, and it can be purchased, they probably will try to get what you want! Even if it’s in another language, even if it’s weird, even if it’s old – they will see if they can get it!
Creating, planning, and running events is an often underappreciated service libraries provide. We take the time to learn what our surrounding communities need and try to create events and programs that can benefit the community. Storytime for children and families is a perfect example of this, because it brings literacy to young children. But this can include author visits, resume workshops, how to you use your tablet trainings, movie nights, craft time, a yearly Summer Reading Program, homework center, anime/manga club, you name it! The library can cater to many different tastes and needs and provide a place for people with similar interests to gather. Last year, at my public library I got to see author Lois Lowry talk about her new book and how it connects with her past books, she was such a wise and inspiring author to see!
I frequently get asked about issues and problems that are typically associated with libraries. Yes, sometimes it can become quite a zoo – depending on how urban or centralized your library is, you’ll get all different types of things happen. People vomiting violently, finding a piece of poop on the carpet (happened to me once), finding an egg smashed in a Harry Potter book, people that will fight you over a 25 cent fine, lots of crying children, people that want to get a library card when they already have one and owe hundreds of dollars on it, an event that gets zero attendance, power or internet outages in the building, finding a roach inside a book, a coworker that doesn’t quite understand what they’re doing, not having enough money to get what you really want to buy, a smelly homeless person, an unruly homeless person, patrons that don’t leave until the library is already closed, the random person compelled to look at porn in public. Yeah it’s a lot of crap to deal with, but like any job, you deal with it one moment at a time. You ask yourself if there’s a way to work around the issue. But I’ll put it into perspective – the great and rewarding moments far outweigh the crappy ones. Plus, having worked other jobs that aren’t so great, I’d rather do this for a million years and occasionally encounter these problems than to ever go back to a crappy job.
Something I constantly battle with are librarian stereotypes. To this damn day I see the librarian stereotype on television or in movies of the librarian with the bun on her head shushing people with a scowl on her face. It’s always a female, usually older, sometimes wearing glasses, putting her finger to her mouth telling someone to be quiet. That’s totally a stereotype. I feel like the people who have created those images haven’t stepped in a library since the 70’s or maybe ever. The environment of a library is very different now – we don’t mind people talking, we don’t get mad at kids laughing. As long as you’re not practicing for the Olympic sprints, yelling madly at someone, or yapping away on your cell phone bothering others, you’re totally okay. Libraries are community places, we encourage interaction with library staff and each other. That’s why I have loved working in the children’s areas of libraries – they’re much more vibrant areas where kids are talking and playing on the computer together, parents are reading, and babies are playing.
There are probably so many services you don’t even realize your library provides for you at no cost – many libraries now have free local museum passes. You know how the NY Times now makes you pay to read some articles? Yeah, my library lets me access those articles for free through a database on their website after I login. Tons of free new ebooks. Subscriptions to digital music websites. Some libraries are even playing with concepts like lending videogames, seeds (yes seeds!), telescopes, tools, all you have to do is ask what they have to offer and if you have an idea, suggest it.
What else can I tell you? Other than to go get your library card, it’s free! I’d love to hear about anything you have to share about libraries and how you feel about them. Do you never visit the library? Do you have a funny or memorable story? Does your library have anything weird to borrow? Have you ever had a bad experience? Thanks for making it to the bottom of this story!