Oh, the things people say to librarians. When I’m dealing with the public, I’m usually sitting at a desk, out in the open, trying to look approachable enough so that people feel comfortable in asking me questions. This invites all kinds of verbal shenanigans: Everything from “I don’t think children should be allowed in the library! I never went to the library as a child!” to “The eighties were great for drugs. You just can’t get good cocaine anymore.” I expect a certain amount of lunacy: I work in a large urban library system. Just anyone can walk off the street and tell me pretty much whatever they want. This is encouraged to a certain extent of course, and, in some cases, I kind of enjoy it. You never know what you’re going to hear and I like having a good story to tell my boyfriend at the end of the day. There’s so much variety in the crazy.
Then again, there’s the sorts of things I hear over and over again. We’ve ALL heard patrons shout the all-too-familiar: “I PAY YOUR SALARY!” Charming. Just charming. My mother said that she heard someone say this very thing to my childhood librarian who, in turn, threw 35 cents down on the Reference Desk and told the patron that they could have it back. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but it sounds really satisfying (please do not attempt in the current job market).
Thinking of things most commonly said to librarians, I posed this question to librarians on Facebook and Twitter: “As a librarian, do you get repeatedly told well-meaning but ultimately rude or uninformed things?” I got many answers, most of which I have heard in my years as a librarian. I don’t think the patrons who say these things intend to be rude, but sometimes librarians hear things that are offensive. Librarians can turn this list into a drinking game: Take a shot for each one you’ve heard before. Non-librarians: Take note and don’t get too offended if you’ve said these things in the past. Hopefully your librarian was kind enough not to call you out on it. And now, without further ado:
Don’t Say This to a Librarian (Please)
- “Are you a volunteer?” Things they don’t tell you in library school: People will assume you’re a volunteer a lot of the time. Granted, many libraries have a significant number of volunteers who provide invaluable services, but I was not ready for this question when I became a librarian. The first time someone said it to me, I had finished a Toddler Time class at the library I used to work at. A father complimented me on my class and then said, “So. How did you get roped into this?” I was baffled by this question and was not really sure how to proceed with an answer. It turned out he thought I was doing some sort of high school community service requirement (I was 29 at the time, but no matter). I explained that I had a Masters in Library Science and that I enjoyed teaching Toddler Time classes. This was not the last time I heard the volunteer question and I still find it so weird. If you enjoyed the class, why is it so hard to believe that I’ve studied Library Science and Children’s Services and have dedicated my career to this very concentration?
Before you ask someone in a library if they are a volunteer (especially if they have provided a good service), consider the following:
- Librarians require a Masters degree in Library Science. Many of us have written theses. The person who helps you with research, finding a book or teaching a class probably has an MLS. The person shelving the books or working a the checkout desk? Sometimes this is a librarian or another paid library worker. In my experience, very few of the people in your library neighborhood are volunteers. Of course, all libraries are different.
- Would you ask the same of a person teaching a class in your child’s elementary school? What about the person taking your blood in the Emergency Room? How about the person driving a local bus? No? These are all skilled positions, as is being a librarian or working in a library. If you wouldn’t ask this of a teacher, a medical technician or nurse, or a bus driver, why would you ask this of a librarian or a library clerk?
- Many people have suggested that library workers be laid-off in favor of entirely volunteer-driven work forces. When asking a librarian if they are a volunteer, you might be inadvertently suggesting that just anyone could provide the kinds of skilled services we do.
- “It must be so nice to read all day!” and other things that imply that we just sit around.
On a very basic level, I kind of get where this one comes from. Libraries are full of books, librarians are supposed to be bookish, the libraries shown in movies and TV are quiet and the people in them are always getting shushed, therefore librarians read all day long in a sort of meditation-zen-spa-like atmosphere. It’s super relaxing and the only real stress comes from deciding what to read next, right?
Oh dear. I wish. I try to read as much as I can, but most of that reading happens on my commute and my lunch break. I used to take a book with me to desk in hopes of reading it, but I’ve since given up. Most of desk is running around, helping people find books in the stacks, fielding research questions, offering computer and resume assistance, and keeping the peace among patrons. In some cases, you might see a librarian preparing for an upcoming program or working on maintaining the collection. Sure, there must be librarians who get to read when on the Reference Desk, but rest assured that isn’t the bulk of their job. If all librarians did was read, the library would fall apart. Collection development, programming, patron service, and outreach compose most of our days. Sorry to burst your dream of retiring and working at a library! If you’re looking for relaxation, I’d like to suggest an Enya CD.
- “I hate to bother you!” or “Are you busy? OK, this isn’t annoying at all, to be honest, but I just don’t get it. Hey, patrons! We’re here to help! You’re not bothering us. Seriously! Did you have a mean middle school librarian who yelled at you every time you asked a question and then peered over her glasses in a disapproving manner? Not cool. Just ask. Don’t feel bad about asking as many questions as you need to. Don’t apologize for not knowing the Dewey Decimal system or where to find a book. Don’t feel the need to admit to us that the last time you were in a library was 10 years ago like this is some sort of confessional. Unnecessary. It’s our job to help you. This shouldn’t make you feel bad or like you’re a nuisance.
- “Know what I really miss? The card catalog.” Know who says this to me? HIPSTERS AND MY GRANDMOTHER. Yes, yes. I will be the first to admit that they’re kind of cool. When my last library got rid of some empty card catalogs, I really wanted one (my ex talked me out of it and I’ll never forgive him. I could have put socks in there).
Now, my grandmother misses the card catalog because that’s what she’s comfortable with. She, like many others, enjoys being self-sufficient. Computer catalogs are out of her area of knowledge and she’s not the kind of lady to ask for help. This is all understandable. New technology will always come along and some patrons will always be hesitant to embrace it. “Well,” my darling Grandma says, “what if the computers go down? THEN what will you do, you little smart-ass?” This has happened before and I was just fine. If you know your collection and the Dewey Decimal system, you’ll get by.
And also, have you ever seen someone loading all those freaking little cards onto the card catalog spools? That looks like a special kind of hell. No thanks.
Now, unlike my stylish and bird-sized Grandma, I have no sympathy for hipsters who want the card catalog back. I can’t tell you how many bearded-and-covered-in-flannel-even-in-the-summertime dudes have nostalgically opined to their acid-washed-jeans-wearing girlfriend that the library just isn’t the same without the stupid card catalog. Oh and the way it smelled and the discovery of filing through the cards and isn’t it a shame we’re all so dependent on computers? STOP IT. Our information finding systems aren’t a novelty or meant to be adorably ironic. The dream of the 1890s is not alive in my library. Beat it.
- “Are you single?” or any variation thereof. This is the one that can never be considered well-intentioned. I do not tolerate being hit on at my place of work. Here’s a pretty typical and recent example: The other day, I’m at the Reference Desk and I see a young man looking at me kind of strangely. I figure he has some sort of question that he’s hesitant to ask, so I do what I usually do: I smile and ask him if he needs some help. “Are you married?” he asks, “Single?” Me: “NO. NOT SINGLE.” He says, “Well, I like the way you look. I like your style,” and he walks away. Now, because I am in my place of work and am surrounded by children, I let him walk away. I do. I don’t need the toddlers and other assorted little ones seeing Miss Ingrid lose her cool. That’s what makes sexual harassment in the workplace the absolute worst: You feel uncomfortable but yet you have to keep working. You want to tell him off, but you must keep up appearances.
I don’t always keep it together: I’ve had situations where I’ve had to kick patrons out of the library (drunkenly yelling “I LOVE YOU BABY!” at me at 10 A.M. is no way to endear yourself to me. It’s a way to make sure you and your whiskey cleverly stored in a see-through Powerade bottle are swiftly transported off library premises). I don’t know any female librarian who hasn’t been harassed or asked out while at work, and there many men who have dealt with similar situations (I know one male children’s librarian who often gets hit on by his Toddler Time moms).
The truth is, it’s our job to be patient, smile, and look approachable. This is not an invitation to ask us out or tell us how you feel about our appearance. We don’t smile at you because we’re interested in you. We smile at you because it’s part of how we relate to patrons. Librarians are supposed to be friendly and helpful. Anything else you sense from our demeanor is not intentional.
Bottom line: If you are sincerely convinced that the librarian in front of you is the love of your life, keep it to yourself. We’re here to work, not to fulfill your pathetic timid but passionate librarian fantasy. (Librarians: please read Sarah Houghton’s The Creepy Librarian Stalker Hypothesis for tips on dealing with harassment in the workplace. It was a good refresher course in standing up for myself. Though it pertains to being harassed by other librarians, the overall message can be applied to patrons as well).
So, librarians, what did I leave out? Library users, did I just totally upset you and turn you off libraries forever? Spill it. Miss Ingrid wants to know.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid