I [heart] Librarians
November 24, 2010 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Libraries are, for many of us, the public places where we bring our most private selves, our fears and our dreams, so long buried and so studiously unspoken. The librarian checking out a stack of books may be for many of us, the equivalent of the first person we’ve told a secret to. Which brings me to the real reason I chose the profession that I did for my narrator: Even more than libraries, I love librarians.
As Others See Us: An Author On Why She Loves Librarians
posted by carsonb (30 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Aw, wow. Thank you for sharing this. I got a little choked up at the end there. Wonderful.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:53 PM on November 24, 2010

First carsonb, I appreciate you and your excellent past offerings.

But as a librarian I say this: The romanticized notions of librarians are every bit as irritating to me as the rest of the stereotypes (hair in a bun, etc.) This article has been written a thousand times by a thousand writers. Unfortunately, I believe half of them were in my MLIS program and couldn't stop holding forth about their selflessness and unwavering commitment to the public good -- generally in between ridiculing their latest patrons.

Fortunately, now that self-checkout is becoming commonplace, this false librarian-as-confidante idea can go the way of the librarian-as-sexy-schoolmarm, where it belongs.

"How can we thank you collectively for all that you’ve done? It would be, for some of us, like trying to thank our parents for a life that contains many periods of quiet happiness."

I love libraries as much as the next person, but seriously, do you wax poetic over the guy at the pharmacy for filling your Zoloft prescription without judgment as well? If not, why not?
posted by coolguymichael at 8:13 PM on November 24, 2010 [12 favorites]

I love libraries as much as the next person, but seriously, do you wax poetic over the guy at the pharmacy for filling your Zoloft prescription without judgment as well?
Well yeah.
What else are we here for?
posted by Floydd at 8:21 PM on November 24, 2010

Apologies, I'm feeling extra GRAR-y tonight.
posted by coolguymichael at 8:23 PM on November 24, 2010

I know why I love librarians. And that's because of my childhood spent in the Kensington branch of the NY Public Library system.

As a child, I was first brought to the Ditmas Ave. library with a kindergarten class. I can still remember the person that showed us around made a big deal about how we were going into the children's section. It was (and still is ) upstairs.

I remember thinking how cool it would be to be able to go into the Adult section downstairs.

Eventually I was allowed into the Adult section. I guess it was in the 5th or 6th grade at PS 179.

And I found a truly wonderful place. One of my favorite things was the copy machine that you could use for a dime a page. I had never seen a machine like that in my life. I hated the smell of the pages that it spit out. As well, if you scraped your nails over the paper that the copies were printed on it was worse than nails on a chalkboard.

But that's not what this is about. This is about the people there.

Me, I would use the books and the copier for reports and research. I had to do a report on UFO's. I picked it because I thought it was cool back in 1969. That was when I read the book about Betty and Barney Hill. I was blown away.

The librarian eventually suggested that I go over to the corner where the Science Fiction books were.

This changed my life.

The Lensman series. Analog magazine. Something about a chimp in London and the first time I ever heard the word lorry meaning a truck. The chimp was made really smart and he stole a lorry. So I had to know about the differences between American writers and writers from England.

So I asked the librarian. It wasn't always the same librarian. But the constant was Shhhhhh! if my friends were with me asking why I was in a library instead of getting dirty or playing football.

And the librarian showing me how to use the card file to find what I was looking for.

And the first time that I was told that reference books couldn't be taken from the library.

And the lady at the desk asking me, why are you taking out the maximum number of books (six I believe) on:

The Theory of Relativity
Reniassance Art

And a bunch more.

And finally the other really old people that were always there. There was one guy, in a long grey overcoat. He would make loud noises. Grunting and stuff. And occasionally he would walk up to the librarian and ask her.

"If I don't eat. I die?"

And she would say, every time, as patient as possible.

"Yes, If you don't eat, it's bad."

"I don't eat I die?"

"Yes, you don't eat you will die."

And he'd walk away and go back to a table. No books. No reading. And he'd grunt a few times.

Eventually he'd get up again and go back to the desk in the middle of the room, to the librarian. And he ask,

"I no eat I die?" Huff. Huff.

And she'd answer the same question for maybe the thousandth time, "You must eat. Yes. Yes you must eat."

Eventually an old lady came in and took his hand and took him out. She never said anything to the librarian or anyone else.

Was he an older brother? A son? I never found out. I never asked. But whichever librarian was on was always pleasant and courteous and never nasty.

Libraries are heaven and librarians are angels.

I dare you yo argue the point.
posted by Splunge at 8:24 PM on November 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

As a child, I was first brought to the Ditmas Ave. library...

Are you talking about the Ryder branch? Right off the Ave. M stop on the F? Because, holy crap, that's the library I pretty much grew up inside of.

...although I don't remember it having a downstairs.
posted by griphus at 8:37 PM on November 24, 2010

Wait. Never mind. Kensington branch. Whoops.
posted by griphus at 8:38 PM on November 24, 2010

No this would be closer to an F train. But I know the one you mean.
posted by Splunge at 8:39 PM on November 24, 2010

I mean the Ditmas stop. On the F. Damn I'm drunk.
posted by Splunge at 8:41 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

My biases are obvious. I like the Early Word blog [the woman who launched it is terrific and the idea of something for the librarian/publisher overlap is useful for a lot of people]. Librarians also buy a lot of books, so it's never a bad idea for a writer to say good things about them. That said, there's this sense of librarians as the non-judgmental helpers, the people who can get us the stuff we need without hassling us, sneering at us or trying to sell us something that becomes more and more useful as the private sphere gets chopped up into little bits and sold to the highest bidder. I know everyone's experiences haven't been like this in libraries and that bugs the hell out of me.

That said, I live in a place without self-checkout [except at the grocery store] and we still have card catalogs in a lot of places [something I'm trying to change, lord help me] and the kindly librarian who helps you find just the book you need is more fact than fiction, even as other places are dealing with funding crises, censorship headaches and digital content/copyright/vendor nightmares. Marilyn Johnson is another writer/true believer and people might like her take as well [plus she wrote a book about obituary writers, how cool is that?]
posted by jessamyn at 8:42 PM on November 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

BTW, Jessamyn, while I'm still here. I still have love for librarians. I also have two library cards for the main branch on 42nd Street. One is a basic card and one is a card with my picture on it. That's the one, I guess, that gets me access to books like the Necronomicon and such. Libraries still rule. Kisses.
posted by Splunge at 8:51 PM on November 24, 2010

Top 3 reasons I too love (some) librarians:

3) You have a _______ year-old kid. You take said kid to the children's librarian and ask, "Hey, what are ______ year-old-kids reading these days?" They take 10 or 15 minutes to show you what's what.

2) I'm checking out something, and the librarian says, "Ohhh. Isn't so-and-so awesome? Have you read __________?" This is nice because (a) recommendation for another book I'll probably like, and (b) it's a little human connection (that I won't get from the self-check).

1) I find that most librarians I come across like books. I also like books. There are few things cooler in the world than talking to someone about something they are passionate about, and if it's something I also like, that's even better.

On the other hand, don't worry cgm. I don't think all librarians are awesome. Just like any other group of people, I'm sure some are dorky or grouchy or weird or lame or whatever.
posted by claytonius maximus at 9:32 PM on November 24, 2010

I'm so glad to hear this lady really loves paraprofessionals.

Depending on where she lives and how big her library is, the wonderful person who is not passing judgment on her choice in reading is likely to be a library technician with a high school education. As I've mentioned before, there's nothing wrong with that and in fact my own mother is a retired library tech (she managed branch libraries, whilst checking out books and other things). But McGovern's praise rings a bit hollow for me, knowing that librarians had nothing to do with that portion of it.

I'm also a little uneasy that she thinks librarians are "accommodating" and have the sort of imagination that would confess to murder because they don't "want someone else to be blamed" (!). Speaking as a librarian here, I've gotta tell you that I sure as hell want the murderer to be blamed for the murder they committed and be, y'know, properly punished.

In short, I'm a little disturbed by her misguided perception of who librarians are and what they do. She confesses to only being on a first name basis with one librarian and it shows. I'm glad that other readers are enjoying her tribute to librarians but a little sad that this is the tribute that gets the news; it's not nearly as accurate as the profession deserves.
posted by librarylis at 10:03 PM on November 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

I was going to flag this as a FPP about libraries so jessamyn wouldn't miss it, only to find that the pony hadn't yet been implemented. It's all good though, apparently she's seen it.
posted by axiom at 10:30 PM on November 24, 2010

Unfortunately, I believe half of them were in my MLIS program and couldn't stop holding forth about their selflessness and unwavering commitment to the public good -- generally in between ridiculing their latest patrons.

I'm a librarian as well. No, I wouldn't say all librarians are selfless angels any more than I would say that all of any other profession is. Librarians have good days, librarians have bad days, librarians have moments of exasperation over things that they shouldn't have exasperation over. Who doesn't? Not all librarians are accommodating and thoughtful all the time. Not all people are accommodating and thoughtful all the time.

One possible differing perspective on this kind of wide-eyed polemic might well be "Why I Don't Use Public Libraries for Reference Anymore," by Jean Costello. It has a sharp focus on the sort of experience that coolguymichael may be referring to. It bugs me, too, that this is the kind of experience that patrons sometimes or often have. These experiences are not helping libraries keep the warm place (partly born of nostalgia, perhaps) in people's minds that Cammie McGovern evokes.
posted by blucevalo at 10:49 PM on November 24, 2010

The sadder but wiser girl for me.
posted by pracowity at 11:34 PM on November 24, 2010

well i have have worked in 3 libraries. not one bee hive have i seen. always nice. it pays to ask nice and remove your ciggerette.
posted by clavdivs at 11:43 PM on November 24, 2010

Jessamyn: "That said, there's this sense of librarians as the non-judgmental helpers, the people who can get us the stuff we need without hassling us, sneering at us or trying to sell us something that becomes more and more useful as the private sphere gets chopped up into little bits and sold to the highest bidder. I know everyone's experiences haven't been like this in libraries and that bugs the hell out of me."

Agreed. Often times, it has been our fault that we have not been giving people that come to the library the respect they deserve. Other times, it is because we do not effectively promote ourselves - only our buildings, our contents (books), our reading spaces, and not our people. This is mistake, yet I don't know of any library schools that really address this. Yes, we learn about values, privacy, defending content from censors - but less about how to be an advocate, a partner in people's lives. That all has to be learned on the job, or be innate, and no wonder it doesn't always come through the way it should.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:43 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish library staff were as nonjudgmental as she says. Once I had the singular pleasure of watching a colleague talking on her cell phone, at the circulation desk, about how awful a previous patron had been, while she was checking someone else out.
posted by Jeanne at 4:30 AM on November 25, 2010

Huh. I always find it weird when people extrapolate so transparently from their personal (and in the author's case, limited) experience to make these kinds of declarations: "LIBRARIANS, I LOVE THEM!"

I am also aware that librarians as a group are generally a force for social good and that vocal members of that group are constantly lobbying for really critical things from free speech to, you know, access to libraries. But geeze, I don't think every member of the librarian class is a saint, any more than the few bad experiences I've had with bored reference desk staffers makes me think "LIBRARIANS, THEY SUCK!"

TL;DR: This kind of editorial, while nice, is also sort of pappy and lazy.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:00 AM on November 25, 2010

I was debating whether or not to make this post all yesterday, for many of the reasons y'all've mentioned, but went ahead because in the end I really wanted to hear what folks here had to share. And because I love libraries and many of the librarians I have met.


Another reason this link got shared is that I had a "LIBRARIANS, THEY SUCK!" moment yesterday and totally needed a bit of love. Of course, it was one in particular. We'd spoken a few weeks ago when a copy of this book was donated to my LL's FoL bookstore, and agreed that it would be amazing to be the only public library in CA to have a copy on the shelf for all to see. She said she'd look into acquiring it for the collection and promised to keep me updated on the status of the book. But that didn't happen and it was sold to a private collector. Her. =o(
posted by carsonb at 8:14 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I have to admit that I was a little skeeved out by the librarian character who takes the rap for a murder by saying that they might have committed it. Good going, nameless librarian, there may be a murderer running around free because of you! That's real selflessness!

As for me, I'll admit that I became a librarian for purely selfish reasons: I'm decently good at it, and I like it. That it produces a social good is a nice bonus, but really, people become contract killers for the same basic reasons that I chose my profession. In my more grandiose moments, I see myself as doing the work of Ganesha and Prometheus, removing obstacles and sharing the fire of the gods with everyone. Sometimes the information that I share isn't what they wanted to hear, or conveys bad news. I might have a momentary pang of regret or empathy, but that doesn't stop me. Some of my relatives and acquaintances no doubt think of me as that know-it-all asshole that ruins a perfectly good anecdote that they forwarded to their entire address book with a link to Snopes. It's what I do. I'm still convinced that the work that we do has value and is something that's needed quite a lot, and part of my job is to convey that bit of information as well.

That doesn't mean trying to be all things for all people, though. It's more than possible to be "accomodating and thoughtful" in my job without taking the rap for a murder because the nice cop wants to close the case. Sheesh.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:36 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

'You give us all a place to come and be ourselves for hours at a time. You don’t judge our quirks or the number of hold requests we fill out every month'.

I knew archive work was serious when the CR stamp came out. Copied as much as i could and he disliked it but not because of that. After three hours of work however, he did bum me a smoke and laughed when i inquired about the process of animal skin storage. He would not discuss the historical meaning of Swiss sparkplug magnates, race car drivers and how they relate the machine age sports industry.
I was honored when he allowed me into the back area. I think this is forbidden. I inquired about how the archive was closed even with-in business hours and this was a policy because he worked alone in a small building in a very dangerous city. (they moved the archives to the library and he was like a kid in a candy shop)
posted by clavdivs at 9:50 AM on November 25, 2010

It's more than possible to be "accomodating and thoughtful" in my job without taking the rap for a murder because the nice cop wants to close the case. Sheesh.

Well, yeah. But I think McGovern is sort of stumbling on an uncomfortable truth here. Libraries: we're a female-dominated environment. Women: we're encouraged in ways both obvious and covert, systemic and personal, to be all things to all people. So we grow up and find ourselves working in libraries -- some more than others, I know because I've worked for all different kinds of collections -- where bending over backwards on a regular basis, straining our already limited time and resources and patience, is standard operating procedure because that's our responsibility, that's customer service, and having some say as professionals (ffs) in the boundaries of our work just isn't on the table.

(...So I end up with a 'customer' who is permitted to externalize his information storage costs to my library in a way that would NEVER scale, and I have to spend part of my work day hauling mountains of his old newspapers around when I could be organizing resources that benefit our hundreds of other customers, and yes! I realize that I'm not taking the rap for any crimes here! But it's fifty different things like this all day long. The work it takes to change them fills me with GRAR, and it is a not dissimilar flavor of GRAR to the one I get when a man tells a woman to smile.)

It's skeevy and she didn't do it on purpose, but I think it's valuable anyway -- and still, the rest of TFA warms my heart because I know what she's talking about. I've heard this narrative over and over from both colleagues and friends: "I was a weird kid and libraries saved my sanity because they had books about aliens/astrophysics/dragons/queer people/feminists/atheists when nobody in real life would talk to me about that stuff without being judgey." That right there is gold to me as a weird kid turned information professional.

(ps, Ganesha and Prometheus: NICE. Someday when I have my own office I may have to put them up on the wall.)
posted by clavicle at 10:21 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to agree with librarylis; I didn't really care for this article. It was just so overly romantic given my experience working for the public library and a college library. I graduated from a two year library technician program and the local public library system did not respect it. I was a shelver for almost two years and then a library assistant one for a few months before I left to become a web developer. The difference between the two positions was about $7 and the right to load book trucks and process holds. I am sure the public library has changed over the years, but it was so hard as a young person trying to build a career. There was no career to be had unless someone died or retired, and the retirement wave came ten years after I left.

I worked for 11 months in a college library that was so respectful and wonderful that I wish I could have stayed there forever, plus it paid more. I worked two jobs at the same time because the public library did not pay enough.

There are a lot of "little people" who help make libraries as awesome as they are and they don't get the recognition or respect from the public and, sad to say, sometimes their own co-workers.
posted by Calzephyr at 11:18 AM on November 25, 2010

Well... I appreciate the sentiment, but this sort of attitude has been the core of the really creepy relationships that a few patrons have had with me and the rest of the staff. I get it that McGovern means this in only the warmest way, but whenever you idolize any person in a relationship it's hurts both parties. The librarian, depending on how committed to their job they are, won't judge you to your face, but they are human. The job can be stressful, and staff room talk is only natural. You have patrons with very... different ideas of social acceptability, and they tend to get nick names, or heavy sighs, or knowing eye rolls. It's the sort of bleary eyed sentimentality that made me deeply detest Eye Contact.

The library can't turn people away. That's a strength, and can also be a weakness. Sometimes it means that people with nowhere else to go will come to the library and extend the patron-librarian relationship into deeply, deeply inappropriate places because we pretty much have to talk to you and be friendly (at least in a well run system).

The thing that drew me to librarianship was helping people, but I'm not a saint. I have a life outside of work, and outside of books. I'm not always perfect in how I do my job, and I like a paycheck at the end of the day (albeit not a very big one). I see my work as a social good, but I also do it because I like teaching people, writing, and hunting for information. There's a level of personal pleasure that goes beyond some monkish devotion to the written word.

All of this was written from a working perspective in a public library, by the way, when I was doing the job of a technology librarian under the title of "associate". Going through library school is shaping my perspective even more, and making me much more pragmatic about the craft than I was as a practicing (although unrecognized) librarian. I think we're entering an interesting period of what it means to be a librarian and a knowledge worker. Some sort of weird community activist, teacher, researcher, mediator, hybrid.
posted by codacorolla at 11:49 AM on November 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Since the trending in this thread seems to be somewhat negative, I'm going to add that librarians and paraprofessionals as a group have been the most friendly, knowledgeable, hard-working, resourceful, and yes, helpful people I've ever had the pleasure to work with. That began at the age of 4 or 5 or so when I went to the Hill Avenue Branch Library and tried to check out books from the adult section and was firmly barred from doing that, but after I'd been a patron for a while, the staff let me start checking some non-children's books. At that point in my life, it was mostly dictionaries (medical dictionaries, foreign language dictionaries, etc.) , though so many of those were reference books that my desire to peruse them was thwarted until I could check out as many dictionaries as I wanted from the community college library across the street.

As my life moved on, I always had the library as a lodestar, whether more or less in the background, and every new place I moved, I made a point of finding out where the libraries were the first few days I was there. And now, many years and many different careers later, after many stops and starts, it's my life (although, like everybody else, I have a life outside it as well) -- and, wherever it takes me, I love it.
posted by blucevalo at 2:02 PM on November 25, 2010

When I was four, my friend, a four-year-old girl down the block, read me the words in her comic book. That got me interested in reading. She grew up to be the town librarian. She replaced one of the two 'mamas' who helped me through my 'awkward' years.

Bravo librarians. Some of us secretly love you.
posted by Twang at 7:56 PM on November 25, 2010

I realize I may have sounded negative, but there's a real negative reality to being a library worker, especially in a system with a strong hierarchy. I love libraries, don't get me wrong! But it's not all about the power of knowledge, freedom of information and love of reading that everyone normally appreciates about libraries. Codacorolla is spot on about the creepy relationships with patrons. I had a man that followed me around the library while I was shelving over a period of two months. It extended to following me around the mall that the library was in. At first I thought it was just my imagination or coincidence, but then my supervisor followed him around the library as he followed me and realized that the following was a few steps away from personal danger to me. He was banned from the branch. A good library system will already have the policies in place to deal with people like that.

The inherent hierarchy in library systems drove me closer to records management. Records management folks are always happy to see you, don't care how much or how little education you have, or where you are on your career path. I have been to both library and records management conferences and conventions and the difference is startling. Records managers are just as on guard for information rights as library workers, but they are often stuck with the old stereotype of being file clerks. I guess when you work in niche industries it's possible to get a little too close to them...kind of like losing interest in magic after finding out how all the tricks are done :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 6:26 AM on November 26, 2010

I have a disproportionate number of librarian friends, and I am grateful for every one of them. They are on the front lines of the battle for information access for everyone, and they do important work, work that is far from glamorous, and I think, hard to romanticize.

I've met some shitty librarians, too, who are fearful, slow, resistant to technology (and change in general). But they're not my friends.
posted by fake at 10:19 AM on November 28, 2010

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