Realities of Being a Librarian
Beneath our glasses and sensible shoes, librarians are the archons of the collection of human knowledge. And some of us even do Windows.
Before life dropped me square on my ass, I was an academic librarian for five years. It was everything and nothing like I expected. For starters...
1. It's not all just sitting behind a desk and shushing people.
It takes years of study to become a librarian. (And a lot of paperwork.) More than just “this book goes here,” we’re also constantly learning new databases and software. We’re trained in repairing and archiving materials, information retrieval, marketing, and tailoring the library specifically to the needs of its community. Instead of running a crypt of human knowledge, we're teaching basic computer skills to seniors, hosting the teens' anime club, and wrangling small children who really love the acoustics of the space.
2. It's not just the books that are old.
Libraries are infuriatingly underfunded, so we have to cherry-pick what gets updated. There’s a fax machine that shrieks like I'd damned its soul to robot hell and was trying to make one final plea.
There’s a copier that’s been there since Bill Clinton was in office. The machines are temperamental and tend to stop working when someone desperately needs to use them. More than once we joked about lighting incense and sacrificing a goat just to get the damn things to work. After a while, it becomes less jokey and more like a reasonable idea. The day that Cyberdine takes over the world, your local library will probably make a decent refuge.
3. Unexpectedly long work days are part of the package.
A standard work day for a librarian is eight hours plus an hour for lunch. But if you’re understaffed, you have to go above and beyond the call of duty. The library is owned by the people it serves, and it must stay open—even during snow days, flu season, a pandemic, or a plague of locusts. If someone calls in sick, you may be looking at a 10-14 hour work day. Better pack a lunch.
4. Patrons are people, and people are often weird, creepy, and gross.
You rarely hear a librarian talk about a normal day, because they tend to be calm and uneventful. But we’re very aware of the existence of Those People®, and we all have a story about them. Like the woman who changed her baby and left the dirty diaper in the parking lot. Or the shifty-eyed guy who’s still on the computer even after you’ve started turning the lights off. Or the guy who’s got a portable meth lab in his backpack and decided the best place to set up shop is in a place full of wood and paper. The one where I used to work once had a woman escape police custody and run to us to use the phone. She was re-apprehended and no one got hurt. However, I missed all of this because I was in the back filing paperwork.
And of course, there are people who take your friendly demeanor and helpful attitude as a sign that you're totally into them when you're just doing your job. We don't want people to feel unwelcome in the library whether or not they want to date us. I've been asked out by patrons, and I've had a woman try to hook me up with her son. In these scenarios, I've usually fallen back on the gentlest letdown, i.e. I'm already in a relationship. But then I feel like a bad feminist because I'm perpetuating the notion that people respect a man's claim on you more than your own right to say no. And if you just say no, it then becomes a discussion where you are both the hostage and the negotiator. There's a dozen projects going on behind the scenes--I literally do not have time to white knight for myself.
5. We love a challenge--even the questions that are impossible to answer.
Each reference question is its own treasure hunt. Finding the answer you seek makes us feel like the love child of Carmen Sandiego and a ninja. I can't tell you how excited I was to help a patron who wanted to know how to escape from quicksand. (Honestly, given how often quicksand was a trope in '80s movies, I'm surprised it didn't play a bigger role in my development.)
Sometimes people want something we legally can’t provide (ex: advice on their divorce) or something that doesn’t exist (authentic color photos of dinosaurs). Sometimes they only remember the insignificant details (“It has an owl on the cover, and my friend checked out the other copy.”). But we can’t take it personally if they get mad at us. We’re regular people, not wizards, and we can only work with what we’re given. Most people are pretty chill. Either way, I go home with a fun little anecdote.
6. Being the anti-troll is pretty sweet.
Many libraries offer a chat feature, so people using the site remotely can have access to a qualified professional if they need help. But every so often you get someone whose boredom can only be relieved by making a stranger as uncomfortable as possible.
Unless you’re a 12th-level IT wizard, you have no idea where these people are coming from. It can be annoying, weird, even a little scary. In this case, realistically this came from a bored high school student who popped in and out because they thought if they stayed on longer, I'd be able to bust them. But a troll really only has the power that you give them. I think in all my experiences with trolls in a professional setting, some part of them was hoping I would do the librarian version of shaking my fist and yelling at them to get off my lawn.
Instead, I decided to try something a little different: I played them completely straight. When someone asked me where they could find the Kama Sutra, I gave them the call number and recommended they go with Sir Richard Burton's translation--it's so well done that the English-speaking world didn't try translating it again for over a century. But whoever I was talking to disconnected when I got to talking about Burton, who could easily contend for The Most Interesting Man in the World. I guess they had some reading to do. But this is the one I'm most proud of:
I imagine on the opposite side of that conversation, there sat a scruffy teenage boy who smirked and muttered to himself, "You win this round, library lady."