Today, I want to help elucidate what it is we Librarians actually do. Public libraries are different from academic university libraries, school libraries, private libraries, museum libraries, and none of these are archives. I work at a standalone – we have no branches – Public Library in Ohio. Our community is landlocked by the larger Metropolitan area library system, with whom we share resources.
Maybe you haven’t been to a library since you were a kid, but you probably have some memory of people pushing heavy carts full of books or saying, “shh,” finger pressed to their lips. Perhaps they yelled at you for shuffling books around on the shelves. Hopefully, they changed your life by finding you the exact perfect book for that day and inspired you to become a Pulitzer winning author and your first novel was dedicated to them. Most likely, it’s somewhere in-between: you vaguely remember a bespectacled woman of a certain age who issued you a library card.
To summarize, being a librarian is a lot like any other job: we have a myriad of tasks and projects. Other duties as assigned, the job description states. A notable difference is that any joker off the street – such as you, Reader- can walk into our office at any time and ask us literally any question about any subject and we are duty-bound to help find an answer to the best of our ability, current project be damned.
Like with any profession, there are sticky grey areas about what qualifications a person needs to be considered a professional in the field, or in our case, a Librarian. If someone says their title is, Librarian, that usually means they have a Master’s degree in Library [and Information] Science. If their title is not Librarian, but instead perhaps Library Associate, Assistant, or they work front-of-house with books, collections, or in a reference-type capacity, it probably means they are part-time, they don’t have an ML(I)S, and/or work in Circulation. If you want to pick a fight, find a Baby-Boomer Librarian and ask them about the difference. For our purposes, and the purposes of literally any person coming into the library, we’re all librarians. I don’t keep my diploma under my desk ready to whip out in case someone needs proof I can show them where the James Pattersons live.
Speaking of James Patterson, believe it or not, a big part of the day-to-day work of the librarian is book related! Librarians in 2018 are helping advise readers on what to read, where to find it, how to get a hold of it, and what the title is –even if you only remember that the cover was blue. Most librarians spend the majority of their day “on-desk.” This means we are front-of-house providing customer service. We help people find materials ranging from books, music and movies to Consumer Reports and digital language learning software. We provide information like who is running for city council or finding the phone number for weed dispensaries in California. Every day we help troubleshoot a range of personal devices including cell-phones, tablets, laptops, and e-readers. In our computer labs you’ll find librarians assisting someone with Podcasting equipment on one end of the room, spending an hour working through the inane Taco Bell application with someone else, and then troubleshooting the printers after that.
Consider this: while your Millennial-child might be tired of answering your questions about your newfangled internet device, Millennial-librarians are literally paid to answer those questions while maintaining polite indifference to your frustrating inability to use a touch-screen.
Meanwhile, circulation teams are busy welcoming you to the library, answering any questions you have, signing people up for cards, dealing with lost-items, fines, and checking in thousands of items a day. Then, the team makes sure those items are re-stocked with meticulous accuracy so we can find them again. Legions of volunteers across the country help libraries “pull holds;” when you put an item On Hold it gets put on a list, that list is printed out and a human person walks to a shelf, gets the item, and it gets sent to you in a bin, on a truck.
While On Desk, customer service is our main priority, yet, we have a lot of other ongoing projects. In addition to the above, librarians are charged with maintaining a relevant collection of materials in good condition. This requires us to look at every single item, order new books, withdraw items in poor condition, and find lost items: a project that never ends. Most librarians all also have individual projects, sit on teams and committees, and create content. This can include organizing and executing programming like lectures, story-times, concerts, classes, trivia, after school activities, author-talks, and more. Many libraries have robust rotating art exhibitions, which are curated by a librarian. We often teach classes, create resource guides, put together displays, and host community events. All this, while being prepared to interact with and provide for The Public at a moment’s notice.
I have found librarians to be a motley crew of punk-ass book jockeys, many of whom never expected to be librarians. They’re weird – like, really weird – with great senses of humor and a boundless appetite for helping people.
So, if you ever meet one of us in the flesh, please try to refrain from saying, “wow it must be so great to sit around and read all day!” The librarian will probably not maintain a smile of polite indifference.