“Please quit peeing on that.”
Ah, librarian work.
I heard myself say that to a five year old boy in the children’s department at the library. He was standing atop a decorative stone, swaying, spraying to and fro without a care in the world.
The untold stories of library careers…
I’m about to start my fifth year as a library professional. I love it, as you know if you’re a regular reader. At work, in my personal life, and online, I get a lot of questions about how to get a job in a library and what my job is like. In this post I’m going to ignore those questions and answer what I think is a better one:
What might I like or dislike about working in a library?
I am generalizing about recruiters here. The ones that convinced me to go to library school were great people and I’m still in touch with them. But they also had a product to push and I wish they’d been more willing to speak realistically about the job realities.
There are things the library school recruiters don’t tell you when they come to make their pitch. They talk about guarding democracy as if the moment you graduate you’re given a broadsword and get to run around smiting censors and leaving a swath of literate destruction in your wake.
They also talk a lot about how everyone in the profession will be retired in a few years and you’ll have your pick of jobs. This is nonsense. Most people I know who work in libraries love their jobs, sometimes working well past the age of retirement. And when I was recruited, we weren’t in the middle of the current economic mess, but there weren’t nearly as many library jobs as they made out. Not even close to the amount of students enrolling.
The most relevant and sincere talking point they made for me was that the work was fun and satisfying. In a lot of cases, they’re right.
The potential downsides of working in a library
Librarians often pretend that people need our services more than they do
I believe the the nature of what people need from libraries is changing faster than many librarians want to admit. Lots of co-workers have told me how much they love answering fascinating reference questions all day, even though I know they spend most of their time pointing at the restroom and helping people log onto computers.
Like it or not, the Internet has changed things. There was a time when the local librarian was the first stop, not the last resort. Libraries had information that you sometimes could not get anywhere else. Now there is so much information available that the role of the librarian is leaning more towards knowing where to find it.
There are exceptions, of course. If you want to hear a great storytime or find people working hard on child or adult literacy, the library is hopefully always going to be the place to go.
The degree can be an expensive membership card
I have a Master’s Degree, but I do not have a body of knowledge I couldn’t have gotten another way. In fairness, I pursued the general course of study. I didn’t want to work with medical records or be a law librarian and fetch for attorneys. My librarian degree was really, really, really, really easy. I doubled up and did two years of work in one without much stress or effort. Easy.
What did I learn? Not much that you don’t already know. I’m good at what I do, but that’s because I was working on my own curiosity long before I went into library school, and I will continue to do so now that it’s years behind me. School taught me about .001% of what I needed to know.
Sometimes a librarian’s research skills are essential to people I interact with. This is even more obvious in specialized library niches like photo librarianship, when people have a clearly defined body of knowledge and they can do things that the person off the street probably can’t.
Sometimes my skills are not necessary at all. This is true with lots of public librarians I know, most of whom burn out and get lazy. Which brings me to another point
Back to job description: my personal favorite job description is this–I answer questions.
Where it gets fun is when you are trying to answer questions that people will be asking in the future. Taken from this angle, this description lends itself to a lot of potential adventures. I’m rarely happier than when I’m working on a creative library program or project which will get information to people who don’t have it, but will need it soon.
If you care enough to be creative, a library career, sometimes even as as a librarian’s assistant, can be a huge playground. You can make your job whatever you want. If there is something you are passionate about, you can usually pursue it unless you don’t have the support up the bosses.
On the other hand, if you are lazy and just want to hide out, there is no better job for you. In every library I have worked at (18+locations now) public librarians are not required to produce a stack of work by the end of the day. It can be very hard to find something to point at and say “See? He’s that good of a librarian.” There’s very little accountability.
If you’re looking for a job with low accountability, the right public library system could be just the ticket for you.
My brief stint at the County Jail library was the exception. There was a lot of accountability and oversight there.
The people I know who are burned out and always whining are the librarians who don’t work with any purpose or curiosity. There are way more of these in my past than in my present, thankfully. They just come to work. Their sentiments aren’t profession-specific. They just like to complain and put out minimal effort.
I used to work with a lovely European girl who once remarked, “You know Josh, I have never seen an attractive person in a library.”
I waited for her to add “Present company excluded, of course.” She didn’t! If you need hardbodies all around you, the stacks might not be the place.
Seriously, everything besides what I have mentioned above is pretty awesome. The hours are good, the environment is wonderful for book people, nerds, and learners, the pace is pretty laid back, and you’re never wanting for book or movie recommendations. About 90% of what I read and watch just shows up on my desk.
Besides the burned out grouches and lazy complainers, librarians are a pretty cool bunch. I’ve never felt more creative than the times when I work on projects with other librarians who are also trying to be creative.
Depending on where you live, the pay can be decent as well, particularly if you specialize. It surprised me to learn that one of my bosses had been the librarian at NASA. Holy crap! I’ve also known librarians who were hired by operas, art history departments, and one of my instructors was the head librarian for Coca Cola. She was one of their photo librarians and organized their images.
If you think you would like to work in a library, I’d call that a clue. Chances are that there’s a library you would enjoy working in. But when people tell you that all libraries are created equal, or that it’s easy to get the jobs, or that they are answering interesting questions all day, or that they spend all day reading…please take a step back and get a second opinion. And a third.
I have been a shelver, a library assistant, an associate librarian, a manager, and a plain old reference librarian.
It’s great. It really is. But not always.
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