The Reality of Working in a Public Library

I’ve been a working librarian for eight years now. I have had a love-hate relationship with the profession in that time, but I’ve learned tricks, I’ve developed my skill set, and I’ve come to appreciate more aspects of the job that I might not have when I first started. And as someone who more or less stumbled into the profession after working for over three years as a bookseller, I am always willing to share some of the things I’ve learned with people who are exploring the option of getting into public librarianship.

When I was a brand-new librarian at my first job, the local college reached out to me and asked if I could be willing to talk with a student who was interested in becoming a librarian. I was flattered, quickly accepted, and we were put in contact. This student, and the other similar people I have been put in contact with over the years who are interested in becoming librarians, have usually had a stereotypical and traditional sense of libraries and librarians. Quiet, stoic buildings, guarded by bespectacled spinster women with buns in their hair and cardigans on their shoulders who tell you to shush while sitting at a tall desk. (I wear glasses and cardigans on the regular, but at my job we say, “we’re not a shushing library.”)

So much has been written to dispel this image of our public libraries and librarians. I actually kind of hate adding to that narrative, but as a working librarian let me tell you the reality of how this job works, because it’s pretty evident the message still needs to be expressed.

Here are some of the things you end up doing at the library that isn’t reading books from behind a tall and imposing mahogany desk:

  • Planning programs for adults and children alike that can entertain and/or inform. Hopefully they don’t cost too much money. Maybe the presenter even volunteered for that privilege. And you’re hoping patrons actually come to this program. Many times patrons say they want particular programs at the library, but then don’t actually show. This is the case at almost all public libraries, so don’t take it too personally.
  • Ordering books for the collection. You’ll get to read the reviews, but you may or may not have time to read any of those books in your personal time, and you will rarely if ever have the chance to read books while on the clock. Some employers actively discourage it, in fact, unless you’re reading it aloud to children during a storytime program and giving the delivery lots of emotion and vocal changes. Maybe you’ll be given the chance to recommend lesser-known and excellent writers to new readers, but you might also get discouraged by how many copies of James Patterson’s latest releases that you keep having to order to meet the demand.
  • Walking through the floor/the stacks on a constant and regular basis to “customer service” your patrons. This is where my bookselling experience has come in the handiest. You make eye contact with all the patrons, you greet them, you ask if they need assistance. I have worked at three different public libraries at this point, and each has gotten gradually more active when you work the floor. At my current library, we don’t even have chairs at the front desk. We’re always on our feet. We’re helping patrons figure out how to print from their email, hop on the wifi, find that one book that our catalog says is in but isn’t on the shelf, and listening to lonely patrons tell you way too much personal information because suddenly they have a captive audience that is being paid to be polite and helpful.
  • Oh, there will be plenty of opportunities for performing tech help for people. I’ve said that library workers tend to be substitute grandchildren for some older folks — they come in with relatively simple tech questions and we can just fix it for them. In my experience, people with a Yahoo account have the least amount of knowledge about how computers work. A lot of kids can work their phones but struggle with desktop computers. Over the years I’ve helped so many people figure out how to print I essentially have a script I recite each time. Some folks are so technology illiterate that even relatively simple tasks take an inordinate amount of time. You can read about my struggles with patron email here.

I always tell folks interested in pursuing a career in public libraries to volunteer at their local library and even get a part-time job there if they can. You have to see the job in action, and how the job might not align with preconceived notions, so you can enter the field with your eyes wide open. It’s not an easy job. But it can have some wonderful rewards if you allow yourself to see them.

  • Even a not-well attended program benefits those who do come. They get more personalized attention, and information and/or experience they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Sometimes my adult patrons just appreciate the excuse to leave the house. But I’ve had patrons who came and got one piece of useful information and that alone makes the whole experience worth it. And sometimes you plan a program you aren’t sure will go well, and suddenly you’re pulling out more chairs and running to hook up a microphone for the presenter and making more copies of the handout and these are the kinds of problems you look forward to having.
  • Once you get the hang of learning what kinds of books and other materials your community wants, more patrons will recognize how useful their library is. I still don’t get to talk books with many patrons, but when you get to watch someone walk up to one of your book displays and immediately grab a book or two, or see a teenager clutch a book to their chest as they head to checkout, you know you’re on the right track.
  • I learned in my retail days that sometimes the interaction with the cashier or bookseller could be the nicest anyone has treated a customer that day or week or a long while. You greeting a patron, or going to the other side of the building to grab the book they were looking for, or pleasantly guiding them through how the copier works may be the kindness they needed that day. Some patrons have nowhere else to go or be, but the library can be a refuge, at least for a few hours. That’s why I appreciate when libraries don’t mind noise, or allow food — your patrons may really need to be there all day.
  • I cannot stress to you how much of a superhero you feel like when you solve what you see as a simple technology problem but your patron was struggling to fix on their own. Or when you spend a half-hour with a patron guiding them through a government assistance website so they can have heat this winter. Or just when a patron wants to start checking out ebooks and you set up their device because you do it all the time and it’s unfamiliar for them and they check out a digital audiobook every week from then on and whole new avenue of entertainment and information is opened to them.

So no, you’re not going to spend your days quietly reading and telling people to be quiet. As a public librarian you might not even get to do that much research assistance that also seems to be part of the typical librarian narrative. But you will always get to interact with the public in many different ways, and your seemingly small conversations and contributions can have a very large impact on that patron. That’s what you get to focus on. That’s what you need to remember. That’s what makes it worth it.

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