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What Not To Say to Public Librarians

Rachel Rosenberg

Senior Contributor

Rachel Rosenberg has been writing since she was a child—at 13, she was published alongside celebs and fellow teens in Chicken Soup For the Teenage Soul 2. Rachel has a degree in Creative Writing from Montreal’s Concordia University; she’s been published in a few different anthologies and publications, including Best Lesbian Love Stories 2008, Little Fiction, Big Truth’s Re/Coded anthology and Broken Pencil magazine. She also appeared on the Montreal episode of the Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids podcast. Her day job is as a Children’s Librarian, where she digs singing and dancing with small humans.

Public librarians have a very misunderstood job, I think. It feels like everyone thinks that they know exactly what our job is because they’ve seen librarians on TV and in movies. There we are, walking and shushing. Or sitting and shushing. Shelving and shushing. Shushing factors in very often because the cliché is of librarians doing little more than frowning and telling people to be quiet. It hasn’t been that way for a long time because supporting children and families has long since become a massive part of public library work, and that can include hosting noisy children’s programs. If anything, part of the job is navigating the differing noise expectations of patrons.

Libraries have changed a lot over their many decades of existence, but the portrayals of our work haven’t. Plus, people come to the library and see us sitting at the reference desk and think we are just hanging out, not a care in the world. Often, we are sitting there planning programs that we will eventually host, creating displays, contacting community partners, and researching new books/movies/pop culture for recommendations. Modern librarians are often required to balance being an information expert with a plethora of other jobs we haven’t been fully trained in — some of our tasks include aspects of being a social worker, an IT support worker, a print shop employee, a security guard, and even providing government admin support.

So, while it’s totally okay if you don’t know what exactly a librarian does at their job, I suggest staying away from statements that imply otherwise (e.g., “I’d love to be a librarian, what a peaceful job”).

With that in mind, please refrain from saying some of the following to your neighbourhood public librarian:

a photo of a Black librarian
Image via Canva Pro
  1. “Your job must be so quiet.” (It is very often not. Children’s programs, people who speak loudly, and library incidents can all be daily occurrences.)
  2. “Your job must be so easy.” (It definitely isn’t. Read up on what’s going on in libraries right now.)
  3. “It must be nice to read all day.” (I wish I could tell you, but that is not my job, so I can’t.)
  4. “I could never do your job. I’d go crazy.” (Strange flex, but okay.)
  5. “You don’t look busy; how about I give you something to do?” (I am very busy as libraries tend to now employ less staff but still provide us with a lot of admin and desk time requirements.)
  6. “What do you mean I can’t take things from your desk without asking? My taxes pay for this library.” (My taxes pay for police and fire stations, but I can’t just walk into a fire station and slide down their pole for fun.)
  7. “What do you mean I can’t eat pizza overtop this stack of books? My taxes pay for this library.” (See prior statement.)
  8. “I’d love to be a librarian when I retire.” (We have master’s degrees, so it is unlikely.)
  9. “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” (No further explanation needed, in my opinion.)
  10. “[Insert literally any comment on a librarian’s appearance].” (Just don’t do it.)
  11. “When do you graduate high school?” (Being a librarian requires a master’s degree. So we likely graduated a while ago.)
  12. “I’m looking for a book I read in the ’80s. It had a red cover and was about a boy on a coming-of-age journey.” (Now, this one, I don’t blame anyone for asking, but here is the deal: editions change. I may or may not be able to find an image of a book cover from the ’80s, and it is tough to find a book through a plot as generic as a boy’s coming of age.)
  13. “I don’t need a library card; does anyone now that Google exists?” (Yes, a real thing said to me multiple times in my life.)

Some of these are more comical than irritating, but really, it’s about showing respect to someone when you speak with them. You don’t need to love libraries as much as library staff do, but it would be great for us to feel we are being treated respectfully at work.

For more insight into what working at a library is like, check out The Weird Things Librarians Find in Books and Booksellers and Librarians On the Weirdest Requests They’ve Gotten at Work.