Why Librarians Should Read at Their Desks
If librarians got a dollar for every time they were told how nice it must be to read all day, they might make enough to support their book buying habits. It’s no secret that we do not get paid to read. People don’t really know what we do. The reality of our job is quite different than expectations of the public. In fact, reading might be the one thing we don’t do in the library, or certainly don’t do enough. We are a community gathering place, event coordinators, research aides, book recommenders, resources for community information, printer technicians (okay, maybe not, but it absolutely feels that way), IT troubleshooters, and, more than anything, constantly interrupted.
But, here’s the thing: we should be reading on the job, and more than that, at the circulation desk. Reading is an important part of my job, and when that reading is done on a computer, doing research for example, it’s often found more acceptable than reading a physical book visible by patrons. Reading books looks like we are reading for pleasure instead of working. Hopefully, both can be true.
A key part of my job is being familiar with my collection. I need to know what books we have, what books are good substitutes for ones currently checked out, and what books to recommend. Patrons remember which librarian gave them a good recommendation and will seek that person out. It’s easy to see who reads what and what they like. I do my best when someone asks for a recommendation for a horror book by telling them which book gets checked out a lot and which one I hear other people talking about favorably. I’m primarily a YA and romance reader. If it’s YA romance, that’s exactly my wheelhouse. (My favorite I’ve read recently is I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo. Excellent for fans of Crash Landing On You.) Since I’m doing reading for work on my personal time, I tend to gravitate towards the genres I already love. If I had more time to read at work, I’d make more of an effort to read across genres for books to recommend to my patrons. The expectation that I read to recommend stands regardless.
Yet, I’m also expected to do this reading on my own time, when it’s already difficult to make ends meet. Many librarians do not make a living wage. The amount of time it takes to read widely in my collection takes up time I could be using to subsidize my income with one of many librarian-type side hustles. Or writing. Or watching Crash Landing On You again. Or, I don’t know, resting.
It’s important for professional development. Again, reading diversely in and outside my collection makes me a better librarian. I’m more knowledgeable as a result, and I am conscientious about making sure I read authors of color, authors with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ authors. I can’t say the same for all librarians. Most librarians are white women. Our patrons are not mostly white women. Educating ourselves on how to be antiracist, how to pursue disability rights, and how to be an ally are crucial in today’s hostile library environment. We need to be able to articulate why a challenged or banned book needs to be on our shelves. People need to see themselves and their experiences in the stories they read.
Likewise, if reading specifically for professional development was allowed on the job, we could be more explicit in what that reading needs to be. Creating a list of required readings for librarians to be more educated about their patrons and communities would benefit both the librarians and the community. I’m sure there are many other librarians like me who tend to stay in their preferred genres. Allowing access to a wide variety of books for professional development by allotting reading time in the library will make for more well-read librarians, which leads to better libraries.
Reading at the circulation or information desks specifically models literacy for patrons. It’s one thing to talk about liking or reading books, it’s another thing to see it in action. Many people come to the library for non-book reasons. They want a place to study, want to use the computers and technology available, or come for events and programs. Plenty of patrons are not readers. Seeing librarians and library staff reading piques curiosity and can be a spark for a conversation. This can lead to getting more books in the hands of patrons, or at the least, building relationships with people in the community.
As a school librarian, this is especially important for me. I work in a high school library, where I’ve been told many times, “I haven’t read a book since elementary school.” It breaks my heart. There are a lot of factors for this, chiefly students not having access to choice in their reading. Middle school is where novel studies usually begin, and where students stop reading for pleasure. There’s still a chance for them to fall in love with reading again before they go to college or into the workforce, where finding time to read will be even more difficult. I’ve written about reading by example before, but since that time, even more research has come out supporting this strategy. Adults need to “show, demonstrate, and make visible to students how literacy operates.”
When librarians read at their desks, everyone benefits. It helps the librarians become more familiar with their collections and more capable at recommending books. It combats complacency or even outright bigotry. Reading where patrons can see helps to increase literacy and relationship building between librarians and the communities where they work. So let’s crack some spines and set a good example for readers and non-readers alike.
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