Our Reading Lives

Librarians Don’t Read All Day

Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

I could fill a book with the number of bizarre and/or frustratingly persistent questions I’ve been asked in my nearly 5 years of working in a public library, ranging from “Should I have a doctor look at this rash?” to “Do you work here?” when I’m clearly sitting behind a service desk with a name tag. But the question that irks me the most is an extremely common one: “Wow, you work at a library.  Do you just spend all your time reading?”

This question is a close relative to “Working in a library must be so relaxing!” and it usually comes from casual library users or acquaintances who haven’t been in a library in at least a decade. And my reaction is always the same: “Yeah, right.”

I understand where the question comes from: libraries are still closely associated with books, and the stereotype of the introverted, book-loving librarian is one that refuses to die. But there are a number of reasons why this question is irritating and inaccurate, and because I want all of you readers to have a better understanding of what your friendly public librarian actually does, I’m going to break these reasons down for you.

Reading all day implies that I have free time at work, and 15 years ago, this may have been the case. But over the last decade, many public libraries have transitioned from book repositories to thriving community centers that serve parents, kids, teachers, students, retirees, homeless citizens, immigrants, business owners, adult learners, and researchers, to name a few patron groups. Granted, a lot of libraries serve small communities, but with ever-decreasing budgets and an increasing number of people looking for library services, there’s usually a lot going on at the local library. When I’m at the reference desk, I can usually be found answering technology questions, helping high school students with research papers, showing someone how to create a resume, making book suggestions, notarizing documents, and restarting the public print station for the tenth time in an hour. And when I do have time away from the desk, you can find me planning the summer reading program, training coworkers, relabeling books, writing blog posts, or prepping for a high school book talk. Point being, there’s a lot of stuff going on at the library, and even though I wish I could spend my days reading, I can’t.

But there’s something else about that question that irks me: the word “just.” Not everyone includes the word “just,” but I can often hear it lurking in the background, the assumption being that reading, and reading as a librarian, is easy.

My primary job at the reference desk is readers’ advisory, which means I’m luckier than a lot of other librarians because even in my downtime, I spend a lot of time researching and reading about books. But even that is a lot of work. Besides staying on top of new releases through professional publications, blog feeds, and webinars, I have to be familiar with genre trends, backlist titles, and popular authors so that I can use this information to help our patrons. I have to be able to make read alike suggestions, compose blog posts, update our book-related social media accounts, coordinate displays, manage our online book recommendation form, and keep our new materials area looking spiffy. This is not an easy job. It’s extremely enjoyable and satisfying, and in my unbiased opinion, I have the coolest job in the world, but it’s a lot of work.

And all of this work is done not so that *I* can have a satisfying reading experience, but so other people can. I read for the time-crunched people who need a good book right away. I read for adult learners who are working on their their reading skills because they weren’t able to finish school when they were younger. I read for our patrons who are improving their English skills and need a compelling yet simple read that won’t overwhelm them. I read for the high school students who are at a loss as to which book they should choose for their class assignment. I read for other people, not for myself. So if you have an image of a librarian casually whiling away the time with a book of their choosing, it’s time to adjust your thinking.

I wish I could spend more of my time reading. I really do. I wouldn’t have to feel so much like I was scrambling to stay on top of all my book-related duties, and the selfish part of me just wants to read for myself from time to time. But between work and graduate school, reading is a luxury I can’t always afford.

So here’s an idea. Next time you stop into the library, don’t ask the person at the desk if they just spend all their time reading. Ask them about what they’re reading, or what they’re planning on reading next. I guarantee you’ll get a much more enthusiastic response, and you won’t have to worry about irritating the librarians, which is always a good life strategy.

Curious about what librarians actually do read in their free time?  Check out Rioter Margret Aldrich’s post, “What do Librarians Read?”