Here’s What It’s Actually Like To Be A Librarian
“No one told me how much poop this job would involve.”
Back in September, BuzzFeed Books sent out an unscientific survey to librarians, asking them about their jobs, projects, pet peeves, and more. About 1,400 librarians responded, mostly in the US. Here’s what they had to say.
What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
So first of all, no: Librarians aren’t sitting around all day, and they’re certainly not reading on the clock.
“I am constantly doing programs, ordering books, helping patrons while children are playing loudly outside my office. I am still expected to read lots of books but it’s all on my own time!” —Elizabeth P.
In fact, some librarians almost never deal with books.
“I haven’t touched a book in the context of my job in more than a year. I don’t buy books, I don’t classify them, I don’t even think about them. Librarians aren’t only about books: We’re about the democratization of information. It’s about helping people find what they’re looking for, no matter the shape it takes. It’s about training them to become autonomous in their research.” —Caroline
Public libraries are far from peaceful environments.
“On top of simply being busy finding books and helping with computers all day, we have noisy kids, people in mental health crises, angry patrons, homeless families, and on and on. People are very surprised to learn that some of us calmly call 911 on a semi-regular basis.” —Amy D.
“I dealt with a masturbator my first day, a fight on my second; I’ve had a patron pull a knife on me, been called lots of names — and I hold two weekly bubble machine mosh pits for babies and toddlers (willingly!). This job is the antithesis of peace.” —Jannah
Librarians don’t really shush people and, frankly, they’re over your jokes about it.
“I have never said ‘shhh’ at work. Ever. In fact, in youth services, we encourage noise! It means kids are there interacting with each other and the space. Oh, and I don’t wear glasses on a chain, or my hair in a bun. And I’m 24 years old, not 65.” —Anonymous
There are so many types of libraries — not just public or academic.
“Hospitals and other medical facilities have medical libraries. Law firms have law libraries. Most government agencies have some form of science library that provides their staff with important reference and other materials in the fields they specialize in. Some librarians specialize in research and locating information; some librarians work with tech, making sure online catalogs function correctly, or developing innovative web solutions to provide services to patrons.” —Chris W.
Becoming a librarian requires at least one master’s degree.
“Most people don’t realize that most librarian positions require the Master of Library and Information Science (and in academic libraries, many positions will require a second master’s). When I explain that I do indeed need a master’s, the next misconception makes its appearance: ‘But don’t librarians just shelve books all day?’” —Jenny
But librarians are not superheroes.
“It’s not special. Honestly, I go to meetings, order things, answer emails, teach sometimes, and work on projects just like a lot of people in jobs that aren’t surrounded by a weird mythology. I love what I do, but 90% of it is regular white collar work. Of course, the other 10% of it I’m a warrior for access to information and the culture of knowledge-seeking, so it is better than working in marketing at XYZ corporation in that way.” —Bunny W.
Their industry is not dying.
“So many people think libraries are going to become obsolete (or already are) which is just wildly untrue, and it’s tough to fight this misconception.” —Amanda
“In our post-truth world, libraries are more important than ever. Where else can anyone, regardless of their socio-economic standing, access the information so critical to navigating our digital world? The library is a place that ANYONE can come and visit, whether that be for 10 minutes or the whole day, and not have to buy a cup of coffee. If you believe in democracy, go sign up for a library card.” —Karrah
But, yes, multiple librarians said there’s one stereotype that’s pretty true.
“I do wear a cardigan every day, so that’s pretty accurate.” —Kat
What’s the coolest project you’ve worked on?
Librarians, especially public librarians, told us about so many fascinating and heartwarming programs — things like comic cons, escape rooms, scavenger hunts, creative displays, trivia nights, life-size interactive board games, book-themed March Madness brackets, and coding classes popped up a lot. And then there were others that stood out:
Those projects meant to make libraries even more accessible.
“I just finished working on a proposal to bring fine elimination to our county. There’s still a long way to go, and it doesn’t sound the most exciting, but the ability to remove an extra barrier and make things more accessible to library users is the epitome of why I became a librarian.” —Taylor
Projects to improve patrons’ quality of life.
“We created a mindfulness program. We made kits to check out on various related topics (meditation, gardening, yoga, bird watching, sound healing, creative healing, chakra), created a meditation room, held empowered breathing and meditation classes, started an adopt-a-plant program, and got exercise bikes in the library.” —Katherine L.
“I worked on an outreach project called Music & Memory that targeted seniors with dementia and Alzheimer’s. We would curate a specific playlist for the patron based on their favorite artists, songs, or music from special moments in their lives.” —Amanda
Projects that truly serve the community.
“Every summer, our district provides free lunches for kids ages 0–18. In our area, a lot of kids go hungry in the summer because their parents can’t afford to make up for what they would normally be eating at school. Also, many of our patrons live in urban food deserts so accessing grocery stores is often very difficult. For Free Summer Lunch, the kids get a healthy lunch, music, movies, and other activities. And on Fridays we serve pizza! Our branch alone served over 3,000 lunches this summer.” —Emma
“I organized a Speed Repping program at our library, which provided community members a few minutes to sit down with their representatives in a one-on-one setting and ask them questions about who they are, what they do, or just voice concerns. We had members of our community sign up for one five-minute slot for each rep with whom they wished to speak. Our city’s mayor, director of administration, city council president, school board committee member, state senator, and state representative participated.” —Alexander G.
“I worked on a project with teens where the YA librarians brought in a domestic violence advocacy group to talk to the teens about healthy relationships and other teen issues. It was so rewarding to be a part of that! Any librarian knows getting teens to attend a program can be like pulling teeth — but they responded so well to this program.” —Kate-Lynn
“We have a large Indian immigrant population and there’s no official Indian American American Girl Doll. So right now I am working with some members of the community to design a custom doll and write a story for her to that will reflect the lives of our young Indian American patrons.” —Emily B.
Just super-creative ways to have fun.
“We turned an old AV storage room into a lounge and coffee bar for teens. They get priority over adults to use the room. :)” —Aimee M.
“A Family Fort Night. After the library closed we invited families to come in with sheets and build sheet forts all over the library to read books and play board games in. Then we played flashlight games. It was so much fun!” —Ann
“For our Books & Ink program, we turned one of our libraries into a tattoo shop for a day and had a shop give people literary-themed tattoos! It was an incredibly special day, connecting people over the very permanent love of books and reading. We also do an annual program where we recommend books to folks based on their tattoos.” —Hana Z.
And inventive ways to inspire a love of art and learning.
“We do something called the ‘See Hear Film Festival’ where we bring third-grade students from our city to an independent cinema in a college town 45 minutes away a few times a year, so they can learn about filmmaking and how films/cinema can affect all the senses! It’s awesome.” —Victoria P.
“An exhibit of old vibrators that doctors used for curing women of hysterics. I had to look through our medical archives for books with illustrations.” —Stacey
“We take the students into a small cemetery and ask them to pick out a headstone of someone that lived during the time. They take that person’s information and create a piece of historical fiction — a diary entry, letter — about the person living their life in the 19th century. We provide a subject guide of primary and secondary resources about what life was like between 1820–1870 for the students to use to create the person’s life.” —Kimberly G.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen at work?
Okay, so, basically everyone mentioned at least one of three things: sex, porn, and poop. A lot of it, all the time. Here are just some of those and other adventures.
Patron relations can be...interesting.
“I was approached by a gentleman with a bone. He proceeded to ask me if I thought it was a human bone or not. I handle a lot of reference questions throughout the day, but referred him to the police department for this one. I never found out if it was a human bone or not, and I’d like to leave it that way.” —Zach
“One time a man asked me to print out pictures of the actor Peter Falk (TV’s Columbo) for him and after I printed about 10 I then watched him walk over to a computer and print out a bunch more on his own.” —Jackie D.
“I had a group of eighth-grade girls who would come in every morning and get a giant horse book. One of them would hold it open to a horse picture and the others would stand about 10 feet back and scream what type of horse it was. Every morning for a year.” —Amy A.
“I was given a hard-boiled egg as a thank you.” —Jeremy
“One time, a man came in and asked me for help finding information on how to get a children’s book published. After looking up a few resources for him, he started to tell me more about the book and how he had gotten the idea for it from a ‘little friend’ who told him stories. He then asked if he could show me his ‘little friend’ and lifted up his hat to reveal a lizard perched on top of his head. I told him that was nice but that he couldn’t have animals in the library and sent him on his way!” —Rachel
Wild animals love finding their way through the front door — snakes, bats, birds, squirrels, pigs, alligators, turtles, and one emotional support tarantula.
“For a while, we had a peacock who regularly visited the library and wandered around the park next door. The first time we saw him, we thought he had escaped from the local zoo, but when we called, they said they weren’t missing any peacocks. Our library is in a small city in the Appalachian mountains, so he definitely wasn’t native to the area. We think someone in the neighborhood had a pet peacock that kept escaping.” —Alexandra D.
Hauntings? They’ve got ’em.
“The wildest thing? A ghost.” —Beth
“We believe our library is haunted because things randomly happen that are unexplainable. Orbs flying across security cameras. Hearing giggles when I’m the only one there. Finding money left on the shelf when it wasn’t there a second ago.” —Bethany
“I’ve encountered a haunted elevator! I was doing a collections project alone in the basement stacks, and the elevator, which was notorious for closing its doors on you, came down to my floor suddenly. The doors opened very slowly, and then stood open for a good minute or two. I was scared, but tried to reason that it was malfunctioning — but then it did the exact same thing a second time, so I booked it out of there and finished the project at my desk!” —A.M.B
Books come back with, uh, DIY bookmarks: a human tooth, salami, a vintage matchbook from a Las Vegas strip club, a pad, a bag of weed, uncooked bacon, divorce papers, a strawberry Pop Tart, and used condoms. Oh sweet lord, so many used condoms.
“Someone dropped a used condom in the book drop once. At least they tied it off. 🤷🏼♀️🤦🏼♀️” —Madeline
“We found people having sex in our alley. We sprayed them with water from our office window.” —Allison
As for that poop...
“I’ve seen poo in places no poo should be. Seriously, my father threatened to give me a monogrammed pooper scooper for Christmas one year because of all the poo cleaning I did at work! (I’m at a branch library with no janitorial services.)” —Lexie A.
“No one told me how much poop this job would involve.” —Geri D.
But often the “wildest” thing is a beautiful shared moment:
“Working in urban public libraries, the answer is: everything, and most of those stories aren’t happy ones. But I’ve seen people get married in the library, and that’s lovely. Lots of wonderful happy community moments happen in libraries, and that’s better than any wild and crazy story.” —Stephanie C.
What made you want to be a librarian?
Plenty of librarians knew that was the plan since they were kids, but for most of our survey respondents, librarianship came as a second or third career — after work in things like graphic design, Blockbuster management, the Navy, advertising, pizza delivery, interior design, social work, physical therapy, finance, the opera, and at least one “chauffeur to rich people.” Here’s what brought them all to the career.
Almost universally, librarians wanted to serve other people, to help their community — regardless of their patrons’ status, class, or identity.
“I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and wanted to help make sure that everyone has access to the tools and information they need to succeed.” —Christina W.
“I did undergraduate work in literature with the intention of teaching, then realized that I wanted to connect everyone with books, not just people who could afford a college degree.” —Elizabeth
Some people figured out librarianship was the perfect intersection of all their interests.
“While making peanuts working as an interior designer, my mom encouraged me to take some graduate classes in Library Science. Since she offered to pay for them, I figured I’d humor her. I soon discovered that Library Science was a great fit for my strengths, allowing me to be tech-savvy, contemplative, organized, creative, and innovative.” —Becky
“I worked in child care and wanted to continue working with children in a different setting. I love books and singing badly and showing off, and now I get paid to do that to a willing audience.” —Alice
For others, it ran in the family.
“My mom worked in a library when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time there and absolutely loved it. When I was 16, she shared an Anne Lamott essay with me called ‘In Steinbeck Country We Said No to Closing the Libraries.’ From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a librarian.” —Colleen
“My parents were the kind of people that told me to ‘go look it up’ if I wanted to know about something. That evolved to me constantly researching stuff that I found interesting, then doing it for other people. Going to library school was a natural progression.” —Jason S.
Some went in expecting one thing and finding the opposite (for better or worse).
“I got a job at my university’s library during college because I heard it had hours between 8-5 and no shifts on weekends, and it wouldn’t interfere with my partying. Surprise! IT WAS AWESOME.” —Sara
“I was working as a secretary for a terrible boss who often yelled at me. I thought, Screw this, I’ll go back to school, get a job as a librarian, and never be yelled at again! Ha! Little did I know…” —Sandra
Some were inspired by what they did (or didn’t) get from libraries growing up.
“I had a pretty mean librarian in middle school and high school and wanted to change that for students like me who needed a place to go that was safe and away from big crowds.” —Jessica D.
“As a Mexican American growing up in the early ’90s, there were limited bilingual books available for me to read. My neighborhood library had a small collection. Thanks to these books, I learned to read and write English. Because I would constantly come in the library, it became my refuge. As I became older and needed to pick a career, I couldn’t see myself in another post.” —Monica B.
Many saw it as a moral calling.
“I tell those who come to me thinking about librarianship that if you’re curious about anything and everything, and if you are service- and people-oriented — understanding that libraries first serve people; the resources are just medium through which service happens — then you’ll love working in libraries.” —Cara S.
“I think I always knew I wanted to help people and communities and change systems, but I didn’t quite know how to do so until I discovered librarianship. My undergraduate degree led me to discover the world of politics and activism, which has given me experiences in information management, community engagement, and advocacy. Now I connect communities in my workplace and beyond it, which I believe is essential for librarianship.” —Clare
And for at least one, it was like beautiful destiny.
“I worked part-time in a library after I finished my bachelor’s degree, while I tried to find full-time work. My darling, wonderful, powerhouse of a boss slipped a flyer for library school across my desk. She knew what I didn’t — the library was my path. I’ve cleaned hotel rooms, worked in child care; I cleaned the facilities at the University of Wyoming; I have even been homeless, all while raising my daughter. Now, I am halfway through my master’s in science of library and information management. I have an 11-year-old daughter who tells me all the time how cool she thinks my job is. I am a first-generation college graduate, and the path of librarianship has unfolded in front of me. I only regret not following it sooner.” —Victoria M.
What’s your greatest frustration?
This one was easy: low pay, low budgets, across the board.
“If you want to support your local library, VOTE! Ask your local politicians what they think about library funding, how they intend to fund public libraries, and make it clear it’s important to you! Libraries are community centers that are funded by local money, and they need your support too.” —Camila
Illustrations by Tania Guerra for BuzzFeed News.