Being a Librarian: Expectations vs. Reality
Libraries are magical and sometimes mysterious places. As a librarian, I am frequently met with ideas that libraries are no longer relevant, particularly from people who don’t use their libraries. This is just one of the myths that librarians face. What’s more, the role of the librarian is frequently misunderstood. When I speak with people who are non-library users, who aren’t librarians themselves, or who don’t have a librarian in their social or family lives, I often hear notions about what it’s like to be a librarian that are simply incorrect. Folks who use their libraries frequently and speak with the staff often have a more accurate grasp of what librarians are and what they do.
Gathered from a casual, very unscientific open poll on Facebook as well as through my own experiences speaking with people out in the world, below are some of the assumptions about what it’s like to be a librarian. Which of these expectations are true to reality and which are fiction? Read on to find out.
Disclaimer: Because public librarians are often what we think of when discussing libraries and because I’m a public librarian, many of these ideas will be addressed with that perspective. Remember that there are always exceptions!
There’s Only One Type of Librarian
False! While we often think of public libraries and public librarians when discussing libraries, there are so many more types of libraries and librarians than just that type. In fact, even within public libraries, you’re likely to find several different kinds of librarians. These might include the children’s librarian, young adult or teen librarian, adult services librarian, outreach librarian, business librarian, makerspace librarian, and others. Outside of public libraries there are even more types of librarians! This list is not exhaustive, but other kinds of librarians include academic librarians, school librarians, medical librarians, law librarians, meme librarians (well, at least one), archivists and museum librarians, Reese Witherspoon librarians, and more. The duties and day-to-day lives of these librarians vary according to their jobs. As a public librarian, I’m no expert on other types of librarians, so should one of these titles pique your interest, I would highly encourage you to find such a librarian and ask them about their work. Don’t be shy; most of us love talking about what we do!
Everyone Who Works in a Library Is a Librarian
False! While everyone who works in a library does important and valuable work, not everyone who works in a library is a librarian. Just like any workplace, libraries have roles that accomplish tasks specific to those roles. Titles vary by library, but as an example, in my public library experience, you’ll often have positions such as Library Pages, who are typically responsible for shelving books and ensuring materials are in the correct location and order; Library Assistants, who often staff the check-out desk and do related functions; Library Associates, who might do things like staff the reference desk and answer basic questions and offer library programs; Librarians, whose duties we’ll get into in detail later; and Branch Managers, who take care of day-to-day operations like supervision, schedules, and other activities typical of managers in other environments. And that’s just front of the house! Lots of public libraries also have cataloging staff, social media managers, outreach specialists, and other roles according to what their community needs. Some of these may be librarian positions, but many of them are not and are vital to keeping the library running.
“[Librarians] Are Paid Far Worse Than the Millions [They] Deserve”
True! I had to quote this one directly, because it was just too funny not to. I may be biased, but I tend to agree with this statement — or, at least the sentiment. Hop into any online librarian group, and you’re likely to find frustration about how the pay just doesn’t match the work. Salary.com reports that the average salary for librarians in the United States is $67,428 as of this writing. This sounds pretty decent, but based on the many hours I’ve spent looking through job ads, that number is fairly misleading. First, while cost of living will vary throughout the U.S. and salaries will reflect that to some degree, not all jobs pay equally. Second, starting salaries are much lower than $67,000. In some areas, it’s not unusual to see even library director jobs that pay in the range of $40,000. (Ouch, right?) Salary.com offers data on some specific types of librarians, like film and law librarians, so I think it’s also fair to note that the data for generic librarian may not paint the most accurate picture. What’s worse is that despite the relatively low wages overall for librarians (and it’s certainly even worse for pages, assistants, and associates), these types of positions typically require a master’s degree. On top of that, it’s a regular refrain amongst librarians that their communities expect them to “do more with less” and fill the gaps left in community and social services, which leads to issues like vocational awe, compassion fatigue, and burnout. Wages disproportionate to the jobs, expectations, and challenges that come with librarianship make these issues all the more difficult.
Librarians Have Relaxing Jobs
False! Especially if you haven’t visited a librarian in a long time, you might have the notion that libraries are quiet, peaceful places. While there are always exceptions, this is generally not an accurate idea of what modern libraries are like, particularly public libraries. Over the years, public libraries have pivoted to position themselves as “community hubs.” As a result, spaces we’ve traditionally known to be pin-drop silent now host noisy story times, active study groups, and other programs and services incompatible with the idea of “shhh!” As public spaces, libraries also are not unfamiliar with responding to all sorts of incidents. From more trivial mischief like kids treating library furniture like playground equipment, to more serious things like teens using the bathroom as a bedroom (yes, really), to even more serious things like threats of violence, active mental health crises, and overdoses, chances are your librarian has Seen Some Things. Librarians are in a position that requires them to respond to these events and the expectations around patron privacy can sometimes make these responses even more difficult to manage. For example, unsupervised children behaving inappropriately does not automatically result in a call to parents because that inherently means divulging the child’s presence at the library — a breach of patron privacy. Of course, all of these library-specific stressors are layered on top of the stressors that come with other typical jobs: office politics, customer service relations, and the usual wear and tear that comes with contributing to a capitalist society are all things librarians must contend with, too.
Librarians Get to Read All Day and Have Read (or at Least Know) All the Books
False! It’s rare that I get to read on the job. There are so many other things that need to be done. Depending on their role in the library and how work is divided, librarians may process new or returned materials, research materials to add to the collection, maintain the collection by assessing materials and weeding (or removing) as appropriate, research and apply for grant opportunities, register people for library cards, check out materials, respond to reference questions (sometimes these are fast and sometimes they’re much more involved!), research/plan/host/evaluate programs and events, perform outreach activities, chat with customers to build relationships and rapport, train other staff, enforce policies, do research…I could probably go on for several more pages, but I’ll refrain — you get the idea. Librarians are busy people! It’s true that I often have a news site, blog, or some other kind of digital reading material up when I’m at the desk, especially if whatever other projects I have going on aren’t compatible with being available to help with finding materials, research, or other questions at the information desk. (Important aside: Always “interrupt” library staff at the desk! Our primary function there is to serve customers; we only look as if we are “busy” with other things because it’s not a good use of time for us to stare at the wall while we wait for someone to need us.)
In the very rare event that I am reading a book on the job, I’m doing so for the job. Most often, this means reading for an upcoming book club I’m hosting or flipping through something to determine whether it’s a good fit for the collection, a list of books around a subject I’m creating, or some other similar project. That said, with just about as much time to read books as anyone else in the world, you can probably imagine librarians have not read every book in their library. Most librarians, also like anyone else, have their reading preferences and wouldn’t even want to read everything in the library. Librarians who are good at their job may create the illusion that they know every book in the library, but I assure you, it’s something like professional smoke and mirrors, made possible by things like great readers’ advisory databases, repeatedly responding to questions about the same subjects (communities have their trends!), simply spending eight hours around the same books every day, being trained in good research strategies, and engaging with the book world (like writing for Book Riot!) outside of work. We may know more about books and our particular collection than the average reader, but we don’t know each book intimately.
Librarians Have an Exponentially Growing TBR
True! At least, in my case, working at a library can be dangerous for my to-be-read list. Especially if I’m filling in at the circulation desk, lots of books pass through my hands every day. Anytime a cover intrigues me, I make a note to investigate it further. You can imagine being exposed to so many books naturally leads to a larger list of books to read. It’s truly a blessing and a curse.
Librarians Are Obsessed With Order
True-ish! The stereotype of interest to the point of genuine obsession with organization and order is exaggerated, but it’s true that a library is not much of a library without some sort of system. Even with a system, items go missing or are misplaced. Without a system? I can’t even begin to imagine trying to find anything for anyone or anyone being able to navigate the library independently. A good amount of what we learn in library school has to do with the organization and finding of information. Dewey Decimal isn’t the only way to organize materials in the U.S., though. In addition to the Library of Congress system, librarians are urging their peers to try new methods and it looks like some folks are really gaining momentum with this. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movement caused a real shift in how we see order in libraries going forward. While organization and order are important in our jobs, it’s important to remember all of the other things we do throughout the day as well — our whole day isn’t about sorting books.
Librarians Are Helpers
True! In addition to some of the things listed above, librarians spend a lot of their day helping others. Sometimes, that looks like helping someone set up their ebook database account. Frequently, we’re helping people get into their email (it is a myth that I know your password — I know a lot of things, but that’s not one of them). Technology assistance is a big part of the work we do, emphasis on the assistance. In my experience, plenty of folks come in feeling totally helpless and expecting or desiring for us to complete whatever task they need done for them. While we’re happy to walk people through various processes, and I’ll even jump on the computer myself if I need to poke around to find a solution to begin with, our job isn’t to do things for people. We’re sympathetic — many of the government documents, for example, can be very difficult to navigate! But we’re here to help, not to assume total responsibility.
Librarians Can Find Answers to Any Question
False! I wish we were capable of this, but we’re just not. Often, it comes down to simply being human. This is why I love being able to pull in coworkers on questions that I don’t have the skills or knowledge to find the answers to. But sometimes, there just won’t be someone on the staff who can find the answer to your question, no matter how much effort we put in. Beyond that, it’s just sometimes the case that there simply isn’t an answer. I once received a question about whether the general public knew Martin Luther King Jr.’s family’s beliefs regarding his death and who was responsible for it. I haven’t read every single piece of information in the world, but I was fairly certain this very specific question had not been employed as a national poll. I suggested it was possible the public had been polled about their own beliefs of the event, but that no one had researched if the public knew what the family’s beliefs were. Still, I directed the patron to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, emphasizing that based on my experience with research in general, it was very unlikely this specific information existed at all. All that said, plenty of people underestimate our ability to answer questions and, as a result, often ask for less than what they actually want. Don’t be afraid to challenge us! Many of us love the thrill of the hunt and consider ourselves detectives of information.
Librarians Are Prudes
False! Listen, I’m not going to go into sordid details here, but librarians are people. There are all types of us across the field. And it’s been more than once that I’ve heard DJs and other event people at library conferences comment on how the librarians are inevitably the wildest crowds they attend to.
So, What’s It Really Like to Be a Librarian?
It’s all sorts of things. The best way to know is to be one yourself. The next best thing is to check a librarian out. By this, I mean talk to your librarian. Listen to their stories. Ask them questions about their work. Support your libraries so they can offer all those cool things we’ve described and more. And, in this case, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Learn more about how you can get involved at your library and one of the most important tasks for librarians: weeding.