Is your job really to quiet patrons and give directions?

From: –Best Careers 2009: Librarian “A Day in the Life. You work in a small municipal library, where you have to do a little of everything. You start your day by leafing through catalogs from online database publishers and book reviews in Library Journal to decide which titles to add to your collection. Next, it’s out to the reference desk, where visitors regularly ask how to find something. Sometimes, it’s esoteric; often, it’s the bathroom. Later, you teach a class: an advanced lesson in Googling. Next, it’s back to the reference desk, but you’re soon interrupted by a group of boisterous kids, so you have to turn into schoolmarm: “You’ll have to be quiet, or I’ll have to ask you to leave.” You end your day reading about “automated librarianship”: data storage systems that let the public get needed resources without the help of a live librarian. Tomorrow, you decide, you’ll start writing a grant proposal to develop a computer kiosk that will help patrons find health information.”

–Best Careers 2009: Librarian
By Marty Nemko
Posted December 11, 2008

In a way, this describes what you should not be spending your time doing.  I’m certain we’ll split hairs over this. Sure, everyone must pitch in -at all levels and all roles. Heck, in my old position I regularly cleaned the restrooms.  I assure you I was not paid specifically to do this.

I’m going to ask you a question now: Should librarians, as their regular daily duties,  be made to :

-give out directions to the bathrooms,

-enact police actions against “noise offenders’,

-leaf through … who has time to leaf through and isn’t there something called a collection policy and an ILS that can pre-determine what materials your library should buy (the point being your time is better spent elsewhere). Fine- we still need people to review some materials but this should be a very very small part of the job.  The majority should be spent interacting with people- not books.

-handle the esoteric question?…er…how about handling the “esoteric” patrons?  If you spend any time in a library of any kind, you will eventually deal with peculiar behaviors more than you will ever deal with esoteric questions.  There’s no mention of the esoteric patron who screams loudly as you kindly tell them that they cannot shower in the public drinking fountain. And I’m not poking fun at the folks who scream as they talk. Seems like an extreme example?  There isn’t a week I don’t hear about or read about some annoyed library staffer who cannot handle people with pscyhological disabilities and feels the need to blast this person with angry blog-platitudes rather than empathetic action.

-And, what about the Technological Fluency that is required of a librarian? I completely understand you may not dig technology. The absolute avoidance of being well versed, though, in a critical language needed for success in our profession is rabidly amiss.  You do not want to be a stranger in a strange land unable to understand the strange language.  Without being able to read, write, and speak eloquently as an advocate for the appropriate and strategic use of technology, your IT opponents will run circles around your arguments until they’ve stereotyped you as a Luddite clutching a book by candle light (which could be a really cool flickr pool to start).

Maybe your answer is yes? Why then? Again, I understand the need for everyone to pitch in. Believe me when I say I see no point in sitting at an antiquated desk or believing that you are above answering certain kinds of questions. My point is: should that constitute the majority of your job?  Should your job be described this way?

I welcome your comments. Though, I obviously cannot cover every valid point. This one matters most: librarianship has changed but you still need to get back in the box. Merge the old traditions into the new. How can librarians retain the best of what they did and what they now must do?  Maybe like this:

“McCracken County Public Library attributes much of its recent growth and change to the Good to Great philosophy… applying it and the questions it asks to every aspect from team building to community involvement… The goal should not be to create a great library… but to create great lives in the people served by the library.

Now that’s a job, career,work, life I want.


13 thoughts on “Is your job really to quiet patrons and give directions?”

  1. Surely I have misinterpreted you, so I won’t argue this point to o strongly.

    But just to clarify, do you seriously think that collection development is not important? You want the choice of what books are added to your collection to be automated or handled by someone outside your library?

    Did you really say that ensuring your library’s collection is well suited to your library’s users should only be a “very very small part of the job”.

    I could go on, but again, I’m worried I have misunderstood your point.

  2. I have to say, as somebody who has only spent a few years in the industry, this was the biggest hurdle I needed to get over.

    I had gone through a course that got me all excited about the potential for innovation in the industry, combined with the assortment of blogs celebrating the advent of Library 2.0. When I started working as a librarian, I thought there must have been something wrong with (a) my library and (b) my users, because it just wasn’t delivering to me the kind of work that I wanted to do as a librarian.

    I attempted to initiate new programs that would get our adult learners motivated into lifelong learning and information literacy, things like “advanced googling” as well as social networking, blogging, and feed aggregators. I attempted to highlight the academic potential of using online databases and the reference collection, through various promotions.

    These all had very little uptake from the community. I became somewhat demoralised and frustrated. What was wrong with the world? Couldn’t they see that they weren’t keeping up with the skills that they needed in order to become participative citizens of an information society?? I didn’t go through all those years at uni just to be a glorified and overpaid customer service clerk.

    Eventually, though, I realised, that it’s not the community’s role to make our lives professionally fulfilling. In a public library, we are public servants. As much as we’d like to be highly-specialised information educators, the reality is that in a library setting, there is little demand for this.

    However, whilst as librarians we need to focus our service on their needs, we can also make a difference. We need to listen to our patrons, and more importantly, take note when patrons start demanding things that we don’t offer. Most importantly, we need to have conversations with our patrons, rather than lay down the law. Once the channels of communication between the community and the library are truly open, then our role will be more than apparent.

    I work in what is meant to be a public research library, but the majority of patrons don’t treat it as such – they see it as a free internet cafe. Some staff see this as a problem, but I simply see it as a sign of the times. We no longer choose our work – the work chooses us, and as librarians, we should strive to become public servants of choice.

  3. Hey Jonathan!

    I’m going to check out your site:

    I’m sure we will have a lot to discuss! Just a curious question: how much time, if you do collection development, do you spend selecting books? (and if you don’t mind sharing what type of librarian / or classification of librarian you are?)

    Look forward to learning from you! :)


  4. Andrew-

    This is fantastic:
    “We no longer choose our work – the work chooses us, and as librarians, we should strive to become public servants of choice.”


  5. Interesting post and responses… as a school librarian responsible for doing everything from dusting the shelves to fundraising, collection development to planning major curriculum projects and teaching, I’ve learned quickly that nothing I do is as important as spending time talking to my students and staff members about what they are need and want to make their jobs as teachers and learners more relevant, more exciting, more successful.

    I see my role as a listener and facilitator to their needs. Yet, I spend a lot of time learning about new trends in libraries of all kinds and information literacy, and I bring ideas about new technology, use of space and resources, and new programs into the conversations with my patrons… “have you ever thought about …” what if we tried …” “how would you like to create…”, etc. That’s when I see the most excitement about teaching and learning and that’s when good things happen in my libraries.

    So, while I agree that “the work chooses us” as Andrew said, we also have great opportunities to shape our work and make our own jobs fulfilling if we take advantage of opportunities to do so as we listen to our patrons.

  6. Great article! As far as technological fluency goes, I worry about some of my fellow students who are opting not to take technology-related courses. While librarians who are nearing retirement may be able to get away with avoiding technology, this fluency is often assumed of new grads. Unfortunately, many library schools do not require much tech-related learning, and I believe this is a mistake.

  7. Lee, to answer your questions, I am a youth services librarian in a public library and responsible for the junior and teen collections (and programs) at two branches. As for how much time I spend on the collection – I’m really not sure, but I (and my boss) consider it a central part of the job.

    A number of authors and series are on standing order and therefore select themselves. Although this list needs to be periodically reviewed.

    I share regular selection work with the librarians at other branches meaning every month I would go through between 4 and 8 tubes of books sent by our main supplier and select for 2 or 3 branches, this would take several hours.

    I regularly weed and sort repairs, ordering replacements as required.

    The different youth services librarians also select for all branches from reviews in one journal each.

    On top of that is just keeping a general awareness of new titles and other occasional “shopping” trips.

    Again, I’m not sure of the total time commitment and some of the work can be done during quiet desk shifts. I would spend some portion of every day doing something with the collection and as I said, it’s one of the key parts of my job.

  8. What should librarians be doing as part of their daily duties? Well, it depends on what you view your professional role to be and what you want out of it. I took a library diploma not because I wanted to work in a library, but because I was interested in answering people’s esoteric business questions – a service that was provided by my local business reference library. I still consider myself to be a librarian, and in fact, my daily routine is not that far removed from the one described, but I don’t work in a library. Here’s my routine:

    — Very soon, I hope to give out directions to the public bathrooms in Monaco through my new website A website built using someone else’s IT skills and my librarian “cataloging and classification” skills. I already give out directions to restaurants, bars and other places.

    — Enact police actions as the moderator on my website as mentioned, and my next website (currently being built)

    — Browse through information about restaurants and businesses in Monaco in order to keep my website up to date so that more people will visit and find what they want. Put some creative thought into my next website venture.

    — Handle questions not really related to my websites, but nonetheless important in order to maintain a helpful and knowledgeable image of myself as an “online librarian”.

    — I don’t argue about my technological fluency. I just get on with learning about new stuff and using it to develop new websites for collecting, managing and disseminating knowledge (now no longer the domain of only books and libraries).

    I have worked in bricks and mortar libraries – the last one had me as backup receptionist, which I set about successfully changing. I honestly would not have cleaned the restrooms tho’ – I just wouldn’t have accepted a position that included that. My goal is not to create a great library, nor great lives in the people I serve. My goal is to use my library education, skills and experience to create a great life for myself and great “services” that I can be proud of. If that involves helping people, no matter how, then all the better.

  9. Great thoughts Lyd and Jonathan!

    I defined these ideas from my viewpoints -as you did yours. Are you right? Am I wrong? Maybe.

    I’ve never accepted a job that was able to tell me everything that was required of me. Nor defined how I would handle the work. Except when I was in the United State Air Force.

    Our “craft”. of how we handle information, doesn’t lend itself to be easily explained. Let alone easily defined. We may find ourselves doing things, that, well one would never think they should have to do.

    Sometimes it involves learning things we never thought we’d have to. Sometimes, two people with the same job will describe it in completely different ways. Sometimes, Maybe, Could be.

    These words seem to be the hard fast standards we should use when talking about how expansive the role is of a Librarian/ Information Professional is… you know I got blasted awhile back for not being able to articulate exactly what defines a librarian. I’ve yet to read a good response to that question. Do either of you have one? I’d love to hear it!

    Both of you certainly sound like you’ve successfully defined what your roles are.

    I hoped this would become apparent as the comments flowed: the work we do, the ways we do it, the “how we do” may serve to better define us than a played out stereotype. Maybe. These ways we define we our lives and work: so lubricious

    “6. Maybe

    Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

    “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

    The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

    “Maybe,” replied the old man.

    The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

    “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

    The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

    “Maybe,” said the farmer.” –from

  10. You’re right Lee, everyone’s perspective is different, and different librarians have vastly different roles.

    I wanted to make sure that collection development is not seen as something that seperates me from the reading public. I don’t see my selecting books as being about books instead of people. It’s about bringing the two together.

    I’m pretty passionate about selection being handled in-house rather than being outsourced to a vendor. I like the fact that I see what books work in storytime and talk to kids and parents when recommending or finding books for them and then put this accumulated information into practice when building the collection. I see this as fitting with your comment that libraries should first be about people.

    As for your question about exactly what a librarian does. You’re right, it’s a tough one to answer simply. I tend to think along the lines of helping to satisfy the information and recreational reading needs of my community/users. Although I’m sure this leaves gaps.

Comments are closed.