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A Question To Ask Before Working In A Library

cute librarian

I don't see much of this at work

“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

Burnout

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.

*Honorable mention

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.

Upsides

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.

Josh

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather July 19, 2010, 5:41 am

    Josh, as a high school librarian who is also working on her Masters degree (my final class and practicum is this fall, and my library will finally—FINALLY—have an updated policy manual, which I get to write), I must say that I really do enjoy my job. Fave class—CATALOGING. Fave courses to teach—Research skills, internet searching shortcuts, basic html help. I have sections of MLA 6th edition memorized, and then those bastards went and changed it. I also enjoy helping my kids and faculty members find books they might enjoy, information they can use (especially helpful during Senior Quest) and web sites filled with other types and formats of information that they might get curious about. I also remember the whole “all these librarians are going to retire” schtick. They’ve been saying the same thing about teachers in WV since the mid-90s. The REAL reason why so many of our ed majors have to go out of state for jobs is because there aren’t very many here, because so many teachers won’t, don’t want to, or simply CAN’T retire. Being a librarian is one of the coolest gigs in the world, but I do agree that it’s not for everyone. But I dig it, and I’m glad you dig it, too! 🙂

  • Avil Beckford July 19, 2010, 7:17 am

    Josh,

    Sometimes I forget that you are a real librarian. I love libraries and I love the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library. I love the New York Reference Library as well and I also love books that were written a long time ago. The next time I have a pesky research question that I’m not having any luck with, you know who I’m going to call. Avil

    • Josh Hanagarne July 19, 2010, 9:42 am

      Sometimes I forget too. I was in the NY public library for the first time a couple of years ago and nearly fainted I was so happy. Call me anytime!

  • Boris Bachmann July 19, 2010, 7:36 am

    “I have never seen an attractive person in a library.”

    REALLY? Maybe it all depends on the library and the working hours because I find that very hard to believe.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 19, 2010, 9:41 am

      It isn’t true. It’s not really the meat market, but there are plenty of attractive people using the library and working in it.

    • Heather July 19, 2010, 1:06 pm

      Boris, we’re all hotties. We are all fabulously in shape from walking the floors and walking p and down stairs (faster than the elevators) and we’re all shockingly smart and fun. We know where all the cool stuff is and we listen to rockin’ music, too. Hit up your local librarian and maybe get yerself a hot date, friend! 😉

    • samantha August 5, 2011, 3:46 pm

      true, maybe it’s my city, but we often have lookers.

  • ami July 19, 2010, 11:30 am

    Who goes to the library to look at PEOPLE? Is it possible to be in love with the library? I’ve loved the library from the time I was small (having no idea what I could find at the library and no agenda, I just read the books sequentially on the shelf. Accidentally discovered the Odyssey and the Iliad this way.) Your post makes me want to get a job at the library . . . however, I would probably violate the rules against yelling and tossing small children about in the library when I encounter scenarios like you describe in your opening.

  • Chris Baltzley July 19, 2010, 12:35 pm

    My grandmother was a reference librarian into her 80’s. The county suddenly realized how old she really was and forced her to retire. I firmly believe that not having that job to go to every day is what hastened her rapid mental and physical decline after that.
    Back when I was considering a sideways slide into a library career from art history, what stopped me was how BORING all the required MLS courses sounded compared to how much fun I had just perusing the card catalog – and everyone was all about how libraries were moving into the multimedia stuff when what I loved was books! So, I never actually went ahead with it … probably a good idea really considering how few job openings I have ever actually seen and how low the payscale was .
    And I STILL miss the old card catalog – making connections and finding cool stuff was just easier flipping cards than with the computerized ones.

  • Matt July 19, 2010, 3:48 pm

    I’ve actually worked with several good looking women over the years. Can’t speak for the men.

  • Tim July 19, 2010, 9:54 pm

    Josh:

    Great post! During my present job search I’ve spent so many hours in various branches of libraries in Chicago that I almost feel that I can be a librarian. Honestly I love it there. But since the beginning of the year…libraries in Chicago cut their hours from 12 hours to 8 hours per day due to budget problems. I’ve become friends with a woman who got laid off. Making matters even worse, the FOX affiliate in Chicago ran a piece recently that questioned whether libraries are even relevant anymore and that they could be a waste of taxpayer dollars?!

    Me, I say libraries (and librarians) are more relevant than ever. I look at libraries as the great equalizer and give people of all income levels the same resources.

    Oh…to your friend who said there are no attractive people at the library…I’ve met several attractive librarians who I enjoy asking a lot of questions. Thank you for doing what you do.

  • David July 20, 2010, 6:54 am

    Once I was approached in the grocery store by a very attractive female who asked me, “Hey, aren’t you that guy…?” I was. Still am. When I asked who she was, she told me she works at the local library. She was cute, articulate, funny, just a little too married for my taste. Learned that so I stopped before I could say, “Are you an overdue library book…?”

  • Daisy July 21, 2010, 1:05 pm

    I am an elementary teacher, and my cousin is a librarian. We bond over book talks! I must agree that your curiosity is often your best asset as a librarian – or as a teacher.
    I think I’ll go offline now and read a book. Or blog about reading a book. Or something along those lines.

  • Jodi Kaplan July 23, 2010, 1:34 pm

    Have you seen the old spice guy replying to tweets, including one about a library? Great stuff.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu-KBxOtJxs

  • KANYISA MHLAULI October 5, 2010, 7:28 am

    i love working in public libraries but sometimes i feel that the work environment is not challenging.it does not give you the opportunity to grow as a person proffessionally.

  • Caitlan Trick September 28, 2011, 8:04 pm

    Hello, my name is Caty and I’m just on my second year of community college. As of right now all I’ve been doing is taking basic classes to save money in order to transfer to a university. The reason I’m writing you is because I have always been interested in Library Science and I am hoping to major in it but I honestly can not find a person who can tell me anything about it! I love to read, I love to organize, and I love to work with children, I just want to know if this is really what I want to get into before I put in the money and time. I would appreciate me an email, that would be great . Thank you

  • Leona October 25, 2011, 2:51 pm

    Hello

    I am taking a library assistant course, which so far has been quite vague. We need to do a 10 minute presentation and I, need a little help with this. Do you have a rockin’ idea for me?

    • Josh Hanagarne October 25, 2011, 3:27 pm

      Leona, why don’t you send me an email through the contact form? Let’s talk.

  • Leona November 28, 2011, 4:50 pm

    Josh
    Can you tell me do the library assistants have to a lot of the “clean up on aisle nine” work?

  • Kayla Jones January 5, 2012, 9:45 am

    I am very interested in obtaining a full time position with a library I am looking for a position that will allow me to use my natural talents and skills as well as prepare me for a career as a librarian. I have a friend that works at the library downtown and she has notified me of a full time position that is about to open up. What is the best way for me to apply for this position and be considered for the job?

    I have several years work experience but nothing at a library. I just finished my B.S. degree and now I want to get my masters degree to become a librarian. I really want to get experience working at a library. I love books and the smell of a library.Do you have any suggestions for me?

    • Josh Hanagarne January 5, 2012, 11:02 am

      Kayla, where do you live?

      • Kayla Jones January 5, 2012, 3:54 pm

        Thank you for getting back to me! I live in Midvale Utah around 6778 South and 100 East.

        Sincerely,
        Kayla Jones

        • martha February 15, 2012, 5:29 am

          i have an inyerview on the 21 february 2012. i would like to ask u what type of question must i expect? will be waitng for ur reply.

  • D March 21, 2012, 11:51 am

    I’ve been thinking of working at a library as a career. Do you think its essential to have a broad interest in books/subjects, a variety? I don’t read fiction. I like health, nutrition, metaphysical, and self help and not much else. No, I can’t up and move to Portland, Oregon. I have worked at a bookstore and library before, but I was younger. I love the environment of a library and not selling. I do like research and helping people, but if it’s mostly fiction, then ugh, I’d be too bored.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 21, 2012, 11:52 am

      Depends on the library. I work in a big enough place that fiction has its own department. At smaller locations, you’ll probably wind up doing a bit of everything. But you don’t have to read fiction to be able to help people find it.

  • caitlin March 26, 2012, 12:34 pm

    oh hey josh um i love reading and stuff and i always wanted ot be a librarian. you know people make fun of me because of me for it. but i dont care what they say i love reading and they cant say nothin about it. well my favorite books are tall texans by diana palmer. i go to the library every day andf read. i am supposed to be in highschool. well i hope you understand how i feel. its good to talk to you

  • caitlin March 26, 2012, 12:41 pm

    what i love the most about reading is that no one really bothers you and i love that i read a 3oo page book in 2 days how about you

  • Terri August 1, 2012, 6:39 am

    Hi josh I have just decided to seek a career as a librarian but I don’t know where to start. I live in texas and my classes have been mainly at a community college in general studies. I have been researching what classes I should take as a beginner in order to have a foundation, however that has been very difficult. Do you have any suggestion about courses that I would need to be able to transfer to a four year college on the community college level?
    Thanks
    Terri

    • Josh Hanagarne August 1, 2012, 12:18 pm

      Terri, I got an undergrad degree in English, which was more than enough preparation for Library School.

      I’d recommend talking to an advisor at that community college and see if they have any guidance for you. Everything I ever took at community college transferred when I moved to a bigger university. If you want to talk more, please send me an email and we’ll keep going.