By Fern Hallman, M.Ln.
Every librarian I know has had this conversation. You meet someone, they ask you what you do, and then they say it: “I love books.” Yes, I love them too, but there is a lot more to being a librarian.
Many people do not realize that librarians are expected to go far beyond minding the library — and always have been. Back in the day, they even delivered books on horseback!
Thinking about the various duties librarians are asked to perform every day makes me ponder about how being a librarian has evolved over the years. Or has it? Maybe the central role of the librarian has remained the same, but the specific tasks have morphed over time to reflect outward changes in our world.
Here are some of my varied and treasured experiences as a librarian.
I have been lucky to have jobs where I have participated in creating new libraries. Imagine a blueprint for a new library building, and then figuring out what is needed to fill it up. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and librarians get the chance to determine what’s needed and wanted in their communities. Many librarians choose individual titles very meticulously, but it’s a whole different game to assemble an entire library at once.
One of my favorite “special skills” is the librarian’s ability to make sense out of bits and pieces of information. I’m a librarian who knows something about just about everything, and I know how to get up to speed on any topic in a hurry. In my initial interview for a job at a public library I found myself saying many things: “I love books,” “I know the difference between a stock and a bond,” “I speak four languages” (not fluently), “I can knit a boyfriend or a pet using scraps of yarn” (please refer to one my all-time favorite books: “Knit Your Own Boyfriend: Easy-to-Follow Patterns for 13 Men,” by Carol Meldrum), and most importantly, “I love stress!”
Often a library patron knows a little bit about a book, like the name of the dog in the story, and the color of the book jacket, and a good librarian (or a team) can figure out what it is. The patron remembers there was something about red hair, puffy sleeves, and the depths of despair. OK, maybe that one’s too easy. The New York Public library recently held an event called Title Quest 2018. A group of NYPL staff members gathered to try to identify books that patrons remembered. Using bits and pieces of information, they were able to solve nearly 50 mysteries and reunite hopeful readers with their long lost books.
Another magical thing librarians do is change with the times. When I was in library school, we learned about online searching using an acoustic coupler that made weird noises when you stuck your (landline) phone into it. Needless to say, everything has changed since then. But being exposed to those early database searches still comes in handy: I can do more with Google than the average citizen, and I can help you determine what web sites are more reliable than others. Librarians across the country have played an indispensable role in teaching their users how to use computers and evaluate the information they find.
Many librarians coordinate magical programs such as storytelling for children, literacy skills, and book talks for adults. Many librarians have come up with unique programs for lending things other than books. They do all this while also unjamming copiers, keeping track of whose turn it is to use the computers, handing out bathroom keys, and so much more. They often also interact with patrons who have mental health issues and assist non-English-speaking patrons.
Every librarian has a story about what they can’t do. Here’s mine: I was working as a news librarian at an Atlanta TV network that shall remain nameless. One morning I got a call asking if we had any video or photographs of the “vast right wing conspiracy.” Despite my prodigious magical powers I had to say no that time. I was also obliged to explain to more than one library patron that while you can easily research federal, state, and local laws, there is no list of things that aren’t illegal.
Public libraries are a great asset to society, but today’s librarians are sometimes expected to take on responsibilities that they never expected. For example, the idea that anyone can come in and stay as long as they like is an ongoing challenge. Also, when I got my first job at a public library, I was shocked and dismayed to learn that I had to teach THOUSANDS of people how to use microfilm each and every day.
Today’s nationwide opioid epidemic has led to a program that supplies public libraries with Narcan to reverse overdoses. I find this to be kind of heroic and also terrifying at the same time. Librarians are responsible for providing books and information, presenting all kinds of programs and entertainment, promoting technological literacy… and literally saving lives?
Speaking of going beyond the call of duty, here’s a librarian’s take on the issue of boundaries.
In summary, most librarians will do their best to help patrons in any way they can. It’s what we do. More than that, it’s our calling and our passion. But don’t ask your librarian to braid your hair (unless you are under the age of five, in which case, maybe they will).
For more on the magic we librarians create, here’s an interesting article on the role of librarians.
Fern has worked for Brodart as a Collection Development Librarian since 1990. She also did a stint as a reference librarian in the CNN newsroom and is married to a newspaper librarian. Click here for more.