A Day in the Life of a Public Librarian

Abby Hargreaves

Staff Writer

Abby Hargreaves is a New Hampshire native living and working as a Children’s Librarian in Washington, D.C. She fulfills the gamut of the librarian stereotype with a love of cats, coffee, and crocheting (and likes a good run of alliteration). Her MLIS degree enjoys the company of a BA in English from Hollins University, making Abby an advocate of women's universities. Her favorite color is yellow.

This post on a day in the life of a librarian is sponsored by Get Booked: The Handsell.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, as much as we’d like to, librarians do not get to read all day. As far as I’m aware, there is not a job out there that pays a living wage for people to read material of their choice 40 hours a week (if you know of one, hit me up). So that may leave the question “What do librarians do all day?” Well, I’m here to tell you. I’ve sampled from pieces of my workdays to create an average day in the life of a public librarian. I’m hopeful that with this information, you’ll feel more empowered to visit your library and know what kinds of services and materials they may be able to offer you. But remember, no two libraries or librarians are exactly the same and my experience may not (and probably won’t) match that of another librarian’s.

A Day in the Life of a Librarian for a Public Library

8:45 AM

I’m someone who likes to enjoy a work space empty of coworkers and utterly silent for five or ten minutes before starting my day, so while my shift starts at 9:00, I do my best to arrive a little early (DC traffic sometimes thwarts these efforts, though). Once I’ve let myself into the building and settled in, I make coffee and wait for the day to officially start.

9:00 AM

The day has officially begun! My manager publishes an internal desk schedule for the week that tells staff who is expected on desks at what time. The day is divided into two-hour periods so no one is stranded dealing with the public for extended periods of time (with the exception that occasionally someone will be scheduled for two “desk shifts” in a row for whatever reason). Here’s where my day has the potential to split.

There are a number of tasks that are assigned to the first desk shift at my branch. These include emptying and checking in the external book drop for materials that were returned there overnight, ensuring the printer/copier/scanner has sufficient resources (i.e. paper), printing tickets for guests to use the express computers, processing materials that arrived via our transit system (either materials that belong to our branch and are being returned for shelving or materials that patrons of our branch have requested and will be processed and put on our holds shelf), and check that the room is generally ready for the public (chairs pushed in, tidied room, lights on, that sort of thing). I also like to update our whiteboard easel with a message of welcome, the date, and the schedule of programs for the day. Ideally, all of this is done before we open to the public at 9:30 AM, except on Sundays when we open at 1:00 PM. Ready or not, we open at 9:30 AM, unlocking the doors and welcoming in the inevitable folks waiting to enter the library.

In the case I’m not scheduled to be on desk (or, once I complete the tasks above), I get to work on checking my email. Because our library system is open, on weekdays, until 9:00 PM, a lot can happen after business hours and it’s important to be up-to-date on what’s going on throughout the system. There may be fun, new initiatives to be aware of or a potential threat to watch out for. Or any other number of things.

Depending on the day of the week, I may be scheduled to perform story time, like on Mondays, or visit a classroom with a story time or activity. In either of these scenarios, I spend the rest of the earlier morning hours preparing—selecting books to read, getting promotional materials together to share with my audience, and looking over our calendar to see if there are any events I might highlight for the group.

10:00 AM

By now, the coffee has kicked in and I’m ready to go. If I’m still off desk, I may be heading to our storytime, which is currently held off-site while we wait for our new building. In order to arrive ahead of the audience, I like to leave at 10:00 so I can be ready to sing, read, and play at 10:30. Story time typically lasts about half an hour, and then I spend some time chatting with the adults and visiting with the kids. Sometimes, adults want information about upcoming programs or recommendations of books to read with their kids. Other times, I spend a little extra time with the kid who seemed to be having a rough day, either because they were struggling emotionally, were extra shy, or are dealing with something else. The extra attention is helpful to build relationships with individuals, which is crucial to a successful library operation.

Otherwise, if I’m still scheduled on-desk, I’m doing just that—interacting with the public as they enter, welcoming them to the space, responding to reference questions, and helping however I can. If we aren’t particularly busy, I might take that time to straighten shelves, do some research for an upcoming program, or read around to keep up on any number of topics. While it may appear that I’m just sitting around browsing the internet, the reality is it’s important to have a toe in every possible body of water—you never know when a patron might ask you about the latest research on colon cancer, then ask about a recent celebrity marriage, and then inquire whether you have recommendations for a good, cozy mystery. The public library is a wild and unpredictable place.

12:00 PM

The desk schedule hands off to the next pair of staff at 11:30, so if I wasn’t on first thing, I may be at this point. The second group is responsible for printing the list of books folks across the system have put on hold, locating those books, and processing them to get them ready for our transit bins. We also use this time to remove any holds on our own shelves that have been waiting to be picked up for more than ten days, so that other customers can enjoy them.

Like the earlier shift, time on desk is mostly spent doing some kind of casual research that can be easily interrupted and helping customers meet their needs. This part of the day, we often see folks who need assistance filling out job applications or doing other job search activities, occasional students requiring research materials, and people who want help with technology. This last thing is a huge piece of what I do on a daily basis. Some patrons make an appointment ahead of time to ensure I have a decent chunk of an hour available to them, and others come up spontaneously. Mostly, anecdotally, I’d list account access (to whichever website they have an account), email (responding, opening, adding attachments, sending), and device tutorials to be the most common in technology requests. Many folks see the library as a safe, nonjudgmental place to learn how to use their devices, so I frequently help folks figure out how to download and use apps, what a lot of the jargon means, and the basics of navigating their device.

1:30 PM

With another change of the desk shift, there are again a few things that may be happening at this time. Some days, I’m hosting or facilitating a program. These are generally intended for adults, which is why they’re scheduled during the day, before kids are out of school. These see varying and fluctuating degrees of success and are ever-evolving to fill the interests and needs of our community. Recently, these programs have included a knitting/crochet hour, a time to converse about current events and other topics of interests, and one-off crafts. Library life is often about trial and error, and this has been a prime example of that.

Once I’m no longer engaged, either with the desk or a program or whatever other task I might be up to, it’s lunch time! I’m fortunate to work next to a grocery store with a salad and hot bar, so I often end up over there, but I may also venture to the nearby shopping/restaurant area to shell out for something a little fancier. Most days, however, I try to pack my lunch.

2:30 PM

After lunch, I continue to do various kinds of research. Sometimes I work on one of my annual work goals, selected from a catalog provided by the administration in my library. One of these—my favorite—involves putting together lists of books around a topic of my choice and getting them published on the library website. Other things I might do: connect with community organizations to see about collaborating on an event or service, do research around best practices in libraries, chat with my manager and coworkers (because I believe in the importance of personal relationships—to an extent—with coworkers, particularly when you’re working in an environment as unpredictable as the public library; many times, my coworkers have helped me out of sticky situations with patrons and protected me in one form or another—including from potential physical harm), or perhaps do some cleaning up around the branch. Throughout the day, it’s important to push in chairs, pick slips of paper off the floor, make sure there aren’t food wrappers or paper cups left around, and straighten the shelves.

It’s also not uncommon for meetings and trainings to be scheduled this time during the day. In that case, I might be off to another branch to meet with coworkers from across my library system to learn about new resources, new best practices, or other pertinent information.

3:30 PM

This is when those few quiet minutes in the morning become so crucial for me. The kids in my neighborhood get out of school around this time and race to the library. We generally have a core group of kids that morphs into another slowly. When the kids arrive, even if I’m not scheduled on the desk, I try to pop in and out of our one-room library to help keep the peace. Since we’ve moved into our interim location, the adults have generally preferred to leave the library before the kids and teens arrive, but some still want to use the space and it’s difficult to find a balance between the two groups when the kids and teens are ready to blow off some steam and energy from being in school all day. Most afternoons, we also offer some kind of activity for school aged kids or the teens—sometimes these are successful, sometimes they’re completely overlooked. While I personally don’t always run these programs, I make myself available to the staff who do, because it’s always helpful to have an extra body available when the crowd gets overwhelming.

This is also the part of my day where I see myself doing the most policy enforcement. It’s a tough part of the job—no one wants to sit around telling folks what they can’t do. But in order to make the library space as comfortable as possible for as many people as possible, it’s necessary. Generally, I try to be a person of yes rather than no, but it’s just not practical 100% of the time.

5:45 PM

Quittin’ time! Unless I’m working the evening shift, in which case I came in at 12:30 and won’t leave until 9:00. At this point, I check in with the remaining staff to be sure they are set for the rest of the day, pack up my things, and head off to snuggle my cat.

The great thing about working at a public library is I get the best of both worlds in terms of routine and novelty. While many of the core activities remain the same day-to-day, I encounter lots of new and interesting questions (well, okay, I do get a lot of “Where’s the bathroom?”) every day. I love hunting down information for folks. I love being a crucial part of a community—something bigger than myself. I love reexamining services to see how they can be improved and better evolve with the service population. And I love being a librarian.