Surprising Realities of Being a Librarian

I’ve written about my career as a librarian a few times. Most notably, I battled some common misconceptions in my article Shelving the Stereotypes: When I say I’m a Librarian… mentioning such issues as the picture of a conservative, uptight older woman, what exactly it is that I do, and how the Internet is not putting me out of a job. However, even the positive assumption that I spend my days singing on rolling ladders, is pretty far off the mark. I have rarely addressed some of the more sensitive topics, because I love being a librarian and see them as little more than a penance. Recently, however, I’ve noticed some consistencies in the #LibrarianProblems Twitter feed, such as…

… BEHOLD: the sexism.
I’ve touched on this a few times, usually and most recently in my dating rants, but library patrons and people in general can be extraordinarily sexist towards women who work in libraries. In fact, I once stopped by the gas station on my way to work, not even considering the ID badge I had clipped to my dress:

Attendant: “A librarian. Niiiice.

Um, dude. You are at work. What. The. Fuck? Recently, one librarian on Twitter posted several examples of sexist remarks made by patrons, including the following:

5-21-15This fucking happens, y’all. I once had a customer raise his hand for help on the computer, despite being perfectly able-bodied and capable of coming to ask for assistance. When I looked his way, he snapped his fingers and pointed to the computer screen. That doesn’t even touch on the flirting. I am to the point that someone blatantly checking me out no longer phases me. It’s just a weekly occurrence. Yes, I dress nicely for work, in dresses and flats, but they are in no way inappropriate. Nothing is printed on my ass in glitter. Yet, I still get men who ask what I’m doing after work. While the pictured comment would be met with a stern “I’m sorry sir, but that’s completely inappropriate and you need to take your prints and leave,” this one doesn’t warrant such a harsh response. I’m left to awkwardly fumble through a rejection, while hoping I don’t offend him, which by the way, I fail at every time. It’s bad enough to be winked at and called sweetie, but it’s also intensely uncomfortable to have a man hand you his phone number and have to smile at him, because he is still a customer. It’s far worse when a patron asks you to help him in the stacks only to get in your space and tell you how beautiful you are, out of sight and earshot of your coworkers. It’s scary to have a known rapist catch you in his sights, because…

… being a librarian can be dangerous.
None of the above things are exactly specific to librarians. I’ve directly informed patrons that they cannot touch the staff, in general. Yes, “do not touch the staff” is a rule I’ve had to repeat, in part, because The Rapist isn’t just a pet name for one of our customers. It’s not always sexual, though. Libraries are open to the public and accept all kinds, including homeless, the mentally disabled, the mentally unstable, and the addicts. Most of them have their good days, but in every public library, there are regulars who sit and have lively, heated debates… with no one. They carry suspicious parcels. They get arrested on our property and we never learn why.

We take those fines damned seriously.

Sometimes these people get frustrated. Sometimes they get angry. Sometimes they scream at us. Sometimes they grab us. Sometimes they threaten us. Sometimes, walking to our cars is scary. Sometimes, those cars have been vandalized. There are library workers who have had their tires slashed. There are lists of customers who have been banned. Some locations are lucky enough to have security guards, while others are just close with the local police and glad to know in advance when a gunman is loose in the area.

It’s also extraordinarily common for customers to angrily insist that library staff are being racist. Even in the most diverse areas, where 90% of the customers aren’t white, that is still the default for some people, because we represent The Man, and it’s infuriating. I wish I could say “I don’t care that your daughter is black. I care that she just shoved someone out of a chair and called her a bitch.” “No, m’am, I’m sorry, but we can’t tailor more classes to specific racial groups, because ‘Finance for Black People’ is not going to go over well. Please stop screaming. Yes, I would ask a white woman to stop speaking at that volume.” “Sir, you can’t insist the circulation clerks are just being racist when they don’t want to give you their phone number. Please don’t speak to the staff that way.” I can’t, though, at least not in so many words, and I’m just left with another angry customer.

Some days the issues are milder and we just have to inform customers that they cannot ask random customers for their phone numbers, look at porn on the library computers, bathe in the water fountain, carry around jars of urine, but we still have no idea if those patrons are having a good day or a bad day. We don’t know what kind of reaction we’re going to get as we walk up to them with our Codes of Conduct in hand. Even on a good day, though…

… being a librarian can be really gross. 
Once again, we have patrons of all kinds. A good library is a diverse library, because a good librarian can treat anyone with respect. It’s a little harder to make that respect apparent, however, when I scream and throw your materials across the counter as roaches pour out. It’s also more difficult to politely explain that we can’t check in items that are covered in urine.

“I don’t know if maybe a pet got to them or…”
“I don’t have any pets.”

Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew.

“You’re still going to have to pay for these.”
“The were like that when I got them.”
“They’re still damp.”

When people talk about how they love the smell of books, I assume they buy new, because I, most definitely, do not love the smell of library books. Too often, if I notice the smell, it’s because it resembles warm and fetid fecal matter and requires sincere effort to quell my imagination as it conjures images of a patron’s home. It’s not just the books, either. I once walked out the back door to see a teenage boy relieve his bowels on the fence around our trashcan and nearly vomited. That was actually better than the times I’ve had to clean up feces in the public restroom and really quite preferable to the aforementioned pests that can be found in the book drop. Folks, these are smells you cannot unsmell and sights you cannot unsee. Yet, we’re all still here and love our jobs. In fact…

… being a librarian is extremely competitive and not for the reasons you’d think.

 After men who lick my neck at the gym (exaggerating), my least favorite part of dating is explaining that I only work half time as a librarian. I shudder at what goes through a man’s mind, because I’ve heard it spoken out loud more than once. They assume that the reason I can’t find a full time position is that libraries are a thing of the past and eventually I won’t have a job at all. It’s not just them, either. I’ve been asked, by family…

“Do you worry that you won’t have a job in 10 years?”

Short answer: no. Libraries are one of the few remaining free resources equally available to all people and are adapting to accommodate modern needs and wants, with computers and WiFi, tablet rentals, movies, magazines, expensive database subscriptions, and even the occasional equipment collections that include shovels and cake pans. If the community needs it, a good and well-funded library will have it. I, myself, am fortunate enough to work in one that fits that description. The trouble in the job market, though, is that more and more people are going into this field. When I entered the graduate program, we were informed that we were the biggest class in history. The community needs librarians and while there are many retiring, they aren’t doing so quickly enough to leave the openings needed to satisfy all of the new graduates. Ultimately, working half time, at this point, is exactly where I should be in my career. I’m lucky to have a place in my system, as there are people who have been applying for years with no results. In 15 years, while I will have a position, it may be damned near impossible for anyone new to get one… because being a librarian is awesome, despite the challenges we face.

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