So What’s It Like to Work in a Public Library? (Guest Post)

Our anonymous guest poster explains what it’s like to have one of the jobs book lovers covet!


I’ve got to admit that working in a public library is pretty great.  I get to watch children experience the magic of a story for the first time.  I get to help people solve their computer problems, submit job applications, and find the address of that one restaurant they always wanted to go back to.  I’m surrounded by books and I can see what’s going to be available on the “new” shelf before anyone else.

And one of the biggest perks? I get a lot of social clout. If I tell someone I work in a library they immediately assume I’m educated and cultured.  It’s like my job surrounds me an aura of intelligence that other people feel compelled to acknowledge.

The truth, of course, is a little different.  I am educated and I do like to read.  But I don’t spend my days reading the books that surround me–that’s definitely not allowed on the job!  I don’t actually know the contents of that thermodynamics book and or of that  best parenting practices selection. I don’t know French, even though you can learn it through the library, or German or Latin.  And my job certainly doesn’t ask me to analyze literature or do a close reading of a poem.  In fact, no one has ever asked me what I think about a book, much less required me to use any higher education or analytical skills to dissect one.

What do I do?  What skills do I use?  Well, disappointing at this may sound, working in a library requires most of the same skill sets that working in retail does.  It’s just  that a quirk of society makes me out to be more qualified and intelligent than a sales associate.

The Job

Obviously there are tons of different duties a library worker may have.  Some library workers are on the floor helping people.  Some just check out books.  Some work the reference desk and put in ILL requests.  Others work behind the scenes acquiring, cataloging, and coding books-you may never have seen some of these people even if you’re a frequent library user.  But let’s do a simple list of duties one might expect:

  • Inspecting returned materials.  Making sure the audiovisual materials are clean, all the discs are present in a boxed set, no book is torn or water damaged, etc.  It requires attention and detail.
  • Mending broken items.
  • Shelving returned materials.  This means you have little patron interaction and, if your job is only to shelf books, you might not talk to anyone all day.  Some people enjoy this, but others don’t.
  • Shelf reading and straightening the shelves. This means you stand there and walk down the rows making sure everything is in alphabetical order.  Most people seem to find it mind numbing.
  • Cleaning up the children’s area.  You don’t want anyone to trip on a stray toy.
  • Helping patrons find books.  This usually means they don’t know how to read the online catalog so you will have to explain that if it says “Due on [Date]” it’s not available.  Or they just want you to point them to the paperbacks.
  • Checking out materials to patrons.  Checking  materials in.  Taking  payments for overdue items.  Smiling sweetly when the patrons complain about the late fees.
  • Helping library patrons get a library card.  Renewing library cards.
  • Doing research.  Sometimes patrons just want you to do a quick Google search for an address because they aren’t sure how to use a search engine.  Other requests take more time.
  • Computer help.  This mostly entails explaining to people how to log onto the computer, how to access the Internet, how to type in an address, how to use Google, and how to get to their email.  Many patrons like you to walk them through how to send an email or save a Word document.
  • Assisting with programs.  If you’re working with children this may mean that you are there mainly to keep order and try to keep the screaming to a minimum while someone attempts to read a story or explain a craft.
  • Designing programs and storytimes.  This is usually the job of more experienced workers.  They are also the ones who will order books, plan the summer reading program, and be in charge of other major projects and events.
  • Weeding books.  That means if it hasn’t been checked out recently, the library gets rid of it.  It will be recycled or donated to a library book sale.
  • Inspecting and sorting materials for book sales.  You get to dig through the grimy boxes people dig out from their attics.
  • Coding materials. Going on to the book’s record to ensure the catalog shows it in the appropriate spot–the “new” section, the children’s picture books, the “new” children’s picture books, etc.
  • Designing holiday book displays. This isn’t always as creative as it sounds.  If you only have five books about Kwanzaa, you don’t need to think much about what should be in the display.
  • Running summer reading.  Counting minutes read and handing out prizes.
  • Cutting out crafts for programs.  Doing other art projects for programs.
  • Advertising programs to patrons.
  • School visits.

Most of these jobs require that the individual be conscientious, detailed, and thorough, and good with repetitious and mundane tasks.  You need to have a good memory and be familiar with the materials you have to offer.  People skills are also required.  You need to be polite and helpful even when patrons are upset.  Most of it, as you can see, doesn’t really necessitate a degree, though most libraries want you to have one anyway.

When Patrons Ask About Books

But where’s the fun part?  The part where people ask about books?  As I stated above, no one’s ever started an intellectual conversation with me about literature.  Most patron requests fall into similar categories.

Parents Want:

  • A book their non-reader will read (or, even better, an audiobook)
  • A book for their child’s school assignment (usually with oddly specific directions so you have little room for creativity in your recommendations)
  • A book on a certain reading level

Usually preferred genre is irrelevant to parents.  In fact, most will say that their child doesn’t like any books so you just have to guess what to give them.

Children Want:

  • Books they like already
  • Really small children want books they already have at home
  • Older children will ask for things like more books with fairies or want to know where you have Magic Treehouse or Geronimo Stilton books.  They know what they want and aren’t really asking your opinion.

Adults Want:

  • Books by authors they already like
  • Similar books if the author they like hasn’t released anything lately

A Library Is Much Like a Business

Okay.  So I keep suggesting that working in a library generally isn’t intellectually challenging, that you don’t need an advanced degree to do it, and that many of the tasks performed are ones you might do in retail.  But a library is above the market economy, right?  It’s about intellectual freedom and giving access to knowledge to everyone.

That’s true in theory and sounds nice, but consider how public libraries are run.  Most aren’t operating with theories of knowledge and collection and acquisitions in mind.  They’re running in such a way as to encourage maximum patron usage so they have the statistics to demonstrate that the city should renew their funding every year.

How do they decide what books to acquire?  Books the catalogs indicate will be popular.  Books by authors that are checked out a lot.  Books they know the local schools assign.

How do they decide what to weed?  Books that don’t go out a lot.  (Unless it’s Jane Eyre or something.  Classics only ever seem to go out once every few years for a school assignment, but you have to keep them around.)

How do they decide what programs to run?  Every now and then some outside organization has a great idea and offers a grant for a program on earthworms or bees or something they find educational and worthwhile.  These often don’t have great attendance.  The library is going to run programs on things like Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, not because they’re saying these are valuable cultural touchstones or anything, but because they want people to show up.  Other programs are offered simply because a library worker has an interest in that particular area.  The worker who writes poetry will suggest poetry workshops and open mic nights.  The worker who’s into social justice will suggest panels relevant to current events.

A lot of programs aren’t even about books.  You might have a movie night or a game night or some sort of competition.  People like events that aren’t about books because then they can just show up without having to find time to read the book.  Libraries are diversifying offerings to try to attract people to their events.

How do they get people to attend programs? You’ll notice the children’s and teen programs typically provide snacks.  The summer reading program is mostly successful, not because children love reading over the summer, but because they win prizes.  Anything to get people in the door.

Do you need an advanced degree to figure out any of this?  Do you even need to be current with the book market?  Actually, no, you don’t.  The main guiding theory behind it is “What do people want?”

The Logistics of the Job

So after reading all this you still want to be a librarian.  What should you consider?

  • There are hardly any full-time jobs.  Most library workers I know are working more than one job (maybe in the dreaded retail or restaurant sector), are being supported by a spouse, or are there because they don’t want to fully retire.
  • Working part-time means not only that you will get less money but also maybe that you will receive no benefits.
  • Most libraries want you to get a Master’s in Library Science at least for the upper-level jobs.  My coworkers would hate me for saying this, but the MLIS is, as I’ve demonstrated above, generally is not necessary for the job. It’s just a way to winnow down the pool of applicants to those who can afford to spend the time and money on the degree.  Most people need to take out loans for this, but working part-time means that you will almost certainly never earn back all the money you spent to get this job in the first place.  
  • There is little room for advancement.  Full-time jobs are scarce and people don’t tend to leave them until they retire.  A full-time job opening is a rare event that causes great anxiety among library workers as they assess their odds of snatching it up.  After all, it will probably be years before there’s another opening.
  • You’ll probably have to work weekends and evenings, at least sometimes.  This may be something you like or not.  For instance, you may like having Thursday off to run errands, but the rest of your friends will have off on Saturday when you’re working, so finding time to socialize may become a problem.  If you work until 8:00 or 9:00 at night you may have to figure out child care arrangements (and it’s certainly not easy to pay for professional child care when you’re only working part-time).


The library is a wonderful and a magical place.  I truly love working there.  But I do find the ideas people have about working in a library highly amusing.  In many cases it’s a customer service job or a stocking job.  We don’t sit around reading the books while sipping tea and discussing how faithful an adaptation Clueless is.  Most of the time we’re answering simple questions about where a book is on the shelves or how to attach a document to an email.  The most successful librarians are those who have the ability to do boring tasks for a long time without cutting corners and who have some people skills.  No advanced degree required.

18 thoughts on “So What’s It Like to Work in a Public Library? (Guest Post)

  1. auroraviory says:

    “The most successful librarians are those who have the ability to do boring tasks for a long time without cutting corners and who have some people skills. No advanced degree required.”
    Truly agree. Not all of the jobs out there required a high-level qualification. I know some people who are educationally intelligent (straight A’s, CGPA: 4.00/3.98) BUT they’re lacking of working skills, They can’t get a job because of that. I used to look up to them for being the best & smartest students in school & university. But again, it didn’t help them much to get the job that they wanted. Personally, I think those certs & awards are just some additional ‘stuff’ in your background. They are not necessary to be earned or required. What’s the point of having the best scores or grades, if you can’t even start to earn your first salary? And not even being able to find a job? That’s one thing that school never taught me. And I just realize it in my final year at university.


    • Krysta says:

      I think universities in the U.S. at least pride themselves on not being vocational. They want to be that intellectual space where you can theorize problems and think deep thoughts away from the real world. Of course, this model worked very well when college students were all wealthy and didn’t expect to need a job after graduation, but now students see themselves as consumers paying for a product–and they want the product to be not only a degree but also a job after graduation.

      Still, I think we’re seeing more jobs that require degrees just because they act as gatekeepers. When you have a lot of people applying for jobs, one way to winnow down the pool is to say you need a degree. It doesn’t make sense for many jobs–you would probably learn more doing training on the actual job–but it lowers the number of applicants while also allowing businesses to say “Look at our workers! Look at all their degrees and certificates! They’re all educated!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana says:

        I’ve hard people argue that one solution would actually be making high school harder. It’s possible in the US to graduate from high school while being illiterate or being unable to add simple numbers. Since jobs can’t trust that a high school degree means much about what you know, they hope college degree will.


        • Krysta says:

          It’s true that a higher degree is just being expected now and what you note may be part of the reason. I guess I am particularly concerned, however, about jobs that require something like an MA when it’s unclear that the MA or theorizing the job is really necessary for individuals to fulfill the role of that job. It places the burden of job training onto the individual, who is expected to invest their own time and money in the MA, instead of on the business, who doesn’t want to pay for job training, and thus manages to exclude individuals with less money or from lower social classes from the profession–even while it’s unclear that pursuing the MA is beneficial to them.


          • Briana says:

            Yeah, the library science MA is to some degree about requiring library internships, I think. So the library doesn’t have to train you as an actual employee. I don’t see why there can’t at least be an library sciences bachelor’s degree that qualifies you for the job, with an internship built into that.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Stefanie says:

        What you’re saying about degrees being gatekeepers is true here in Belgium too. There are so many jobs right now for which you don’t really need a degree but they ask it of you anyway, just because that way you prove that you were capable of higher education…


        • Krysta says:

          I think that’s a shame because it bars certain members of society from ever getting that job. People who can’t wait four years or more to earn money or people who can’t afford to go into debt with student loans are being told that jobs once open to them are now closed.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Stefanie says:

            Very true, especially in the US where higher education is so expensive. At least here in Belgium it’s not even close to being as expensive. But if you can’t wait for an income it’s still a problem…

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Jordon @ Simply Adrift says:

    It sounds really interesting working in a library! I use to really want to work in a library because I would be surrounded by books and people that are interested in reading etc (And to be honest I actually enjoy admin work and organising things, so the menial tasks wouldn’t deter me if I also got to do the other fun stuff). I mean I definitely have a love of books and discussing them, I would love to help people find books they’re interested in, and I would love to start up some sort of after school program for kids & teens to get them more interested in reading.

    But like you said, I found out you need a specific degree to even be eligible to work in the library. I already had a student loan and most definitely could not afford to start another one nor to do a masters. It’s always made me sad that that was what made it impossible for me!

    At least I can run my own blog and share my opinions on books I love that way.

    Jordon @ Simply Adrift


    • Krysta says:

      I believe there are some library jobs you can still get without a Master’s in Library Science, but you’d probably be shelving and checking out books. Anything involving programming would likely require the degree.


  3. Al says:

    This was a really interesting post. I hear about people wanting to be librarians a lot, but never much about what the actual job is like. Maybe wanting to work in a book store is a little more do-able.


    • Krysta says:

      I think it depends on what you want to do. There are library jobs that you don’t need a Master’s for, but you’d probably just be shelving or at the circulation desk. If you wanted a higher-paying job that allows you to do programming or write grants or something you’d probably need the degree.


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