10 Surprising Things I’ve Learned While Working at the Library

10 Surprising Things I’ve Learned While Working at the Library

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Some of you may know that I work in a library. Books are my life, and if I had to be employed outside the home again, I wanted to be around things I adore. And I do love my job: I enjoy helping people, having adult conversations, and just wandering the stacks (okay, I’m usually never just wandering, but even shelving my dear books fills me with joy sometimes). But working at the library has come with more than a few surprises and given me some valuable (and slightly frightening) insight into how people are actually using these venerable institutions.

1. It’s not about the books.

I know. If you’re anything like me, libraries are ALL about the books. We love them, savor them, breathe them. But books are losing popularity, markets are changing, and other services are in high demand. Our library is about DVDs. Then free computer usage. Many cardholders have never checked out a book. I know.

2. Libraries are not quiet anymore.

Cell phones are allowed. And we can’t do the infamous librarian “shhhh” unless we can hear your entire conversation more than three aisles away. Groups gather at our tables for projects, homeowners association meetings, and tutoring sessions. (Including a tutor who uses a ticking metronome!) I once had to politely banish a group of gabbing Girl Scout troop leaders to a far corner because they were yapping like a group of sugared-up Brownies. The building is filled with a constant hum.

3. Very few “real” librarians actually work at the library.

Patrons call me a librarian every day. I rather like the title, but alas, I am only a lowly library clerk. Chances are, most staff members at your library are as well. We do most of the same things as a librarian: answer questions, plan and carry out programming, help with research, handle library accounts, and SO MUCH more, but we don’t have that MLS degree. Or maybe we do, but the official position (one per branch, often only a few per county!) is not open. And we work for half the pay. Which is a key factor because…

4. Libraries are as underfunded as schools.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Library funds come from county taxation. Property taxes took a nose dive, which means funds evaporated. Plus fewer residents think they “need” libraries, so the percentage of taxes libraries receive keeps dropping.

5. Some people who work at libraries have no passion for books. None.

I’ll admit—this one knocked my socks off. I’ve had to rationalize it like this: when I worked retail management, I sold and managed many commodities I had absolutely no interest in (like men’s suits, shoes, and underwear). Libraries work the same way. I’d say half of the staff at my branch hasn’t read a book in years. A few listen to audiobooks when they drive. It’s all about customer service and moving a commodity. Meanwhile, I want to cry with joy whenever a patron asks my opinion on books, and I’ve volunteered to “show off” many of my favorite books and create displays to get these books discovered. And don’t even get me started on weeding…

6. Fiction make up a disturbingly small percentage of check-outs…and the numbers are dropping.

Entertainment DVDs make up most of our circulation: around 40%. Next comes Children’s Easy (picture) Books and CDs. Only then comes Adult Fiction and Lease books (new & best sellers) together making less than 15% of total check-outs—and those numbers are about evenly split. Think about it: ALL of the fiction books which aren’t top new releases (i.e. James Patterson, Nora Roberts and the like) make up only 7ish percent of our circulation. People don’t come to the library to check out novels. Well, some do, but not nearly enough.

7. A huge chunk of the population still has no (or very rudimentary) computer skills. And forget about having any concept of the Dewey Decimal system.

I’m guessing they don’t teach library skills in schools anymore. Or make students do research projects that require actually going to a library. Most patrons look at me as if I’ve sprouted a book from my head when I mention that books are actually organized by numbers. They don’t know how to find anything alphabetically or numerically. They can’t figure out how to type a title into the catalog and hit “search.” They just can’t grasp the concept. And our free computers (3 hours of use per day) are a huge draw in my branch’s location. So many people don’t know how to use Google. Or find their email, print, or type a message. Some don’t know how to click on a mouse. Blows my mind. And it’s not just older folks. I push our free computer classes, but so many patrons refuse to take them. How can anyone hold a job now with NO computer skills? You can’t even sign up for food stamps without some computer knowledge (which many folks don’t have, so we became part-time social workers as well).

8. So much material is “lost” because patrons never bother to check it back in.

Let’s say we look for a book—a classic like 1984 for example—that’s in high demand now due to high school summer reading lists (which I love). We may have 45 copies in the system. But that’s all the copies the library system has ever owned. Over the years many have been damaged and withdrawn. Dozens (say 75%) of the copies still show up as checked out with due dates as old as a decade. People just never check them back in and abandon the library system. And don’t even get me started on DVDs…if you want a copy of movie released more than five years ago, there might be one or two left…might be… So these thousands of people have been billed for these items, which leads to…

9. Many patrons rack up HUGE fines.

When I was a normal library patron, I’d occasionally have an overdue book. Usually only a day or two because my schedule wouldn’t allow me to drive the six miles to the branch. I’d slink up to the counter and immediately admit my books were late. Hanging my head, I’d take my wallet out and pay, apologizing the whole time. Now—no way. Patrons have $40, $60, $100+ fines on their accounts. I’ve seen a few over $200. Whole families owe hundreds because each member has racked up so much. Collection agencies are involved. People fight us. Others just shrug and walk away, never intending to pay or set foot in a library again.  And FYI: library fines are like student loans—they NEVER disappear.

10. Libraries must evolve to stay open.

Books won’t keep library door open. Door counts matter. And unfortunately, books just aren’t drawing people in. So we drum up adult programming, offer tech classes, and promote children’s crafts, movies, and science programs. We try and teach patrons about ebooks, but most patrons who come in would need hours of one-on-one help. The patrons who are computer/ebook savvy likely download everything from home, never needing to step foot in a branch. We make copies, send faxes, and act as unofficial computer tutors. We occasionally help someone discover a new author, and my heart grows six sizes each time. But we’ll find ways to draw people in, even if it has nothing to do with books because we need to find ways to keep books available to those who love them. Our future depends on it.




5 thoughts on “10 Surprising Things I’ve Learned While Working at the Library

  1. E. Michael Helnms

    Now that is simply sad! I used to practically live at the local library when I was a kid. AND I knew how to find books. Have a report due? — off to the library. Need a couple more Hardy Boys books to read under the covers after bedtime? — off to the library. And no telling how many nickels, dimes, and quarters I shelled out for overdue books! Ah, all part of the great experience of going to the public library!

  2. Cindy Downing

    I worked in libraries for almost 20 years. I agree with all of the above. You can add counselor(listening to patron’s problems), babysitter(parents still don’t supervise their kids and I was the children’s person), and the people who argue because they couldn’t possibly have an overdue book(try under the car seat). I loved working in the library and it is more of a social gathering place now instead of just books/research. People always surprised and amazed me(be it for better or worse). The library will evolve. I know that in bigger cities the library is focusing quite a bit on the homeless population.


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