5 Misconceptions about the Public Library

5 Misconceptions about the Public Library

All library workers are librarians.

To start, there are various departments in the library and various levels in each department. Some departments may not have librarian positions at all. Circulation clerks (the people who check out your books and handle your late fees), shelvers or pages (the people who shelve returned materials), and administrative staff (the people in accounting, HR, marketing, etc.) are not technically librarians, for example. They have special job functions and expertise, but they may not be as qualified to answer reference questions or do readers’ advisory as they are not trained in these areas. This is the reason stopping an individual in the stacks for an in-depth question may not be your best option–if this staff member is a shelver, for example, they might be instructed to refer patrons to the appropriate departments. You will have to walk to the reference desk, anyway.

Librarians are more likely the ones who do collection development (suggesting purchases and weeding or removing outdated, damaged, or irrelevant materials) and programming. They also answer reference questions and do readers’ advisory. In some cases, such as in smaller libraries or libraries that have moved to the one-desk model, they might also perform circulation functions. However, not all individuals who perform these functions are librarians. For someone to call themselves a librarian, they need to hold a Master’s degree in library science. Even if a non-degreed staff member has the same job as a degreed coworker, they are technically not a librarian.

If your library doesn’t have a book on the shelf, you can’t get it at all.

Interlibrary loan (ILL) is one of the library’s best kept secrets, possibly because libraries do not tend to advertise the service and most patrons who do not see a book on the shelf probably do not go to the desk to inquire about it. But most libraries participate in ILL, meaning that you can request a book and have it sent to your library from just about anywhere in the U.S.

This is not the same as requesting a book from your local or state consortium, which usually can be done by placing a hold in the catalog. Usually, a separate form is required, or perhaps a trip or phone call to the reference desk. The librarians then see which libraries are willing to lend you the book and it is mailed to your home library for pick up. Lending times might be shorter, with no renewals, and most libraries will not lend new releases. But ILL is a valuable service for getting books your home library may not have been able to purchase.

E-Books are cheaper for libraries than physical books.

Many people assume that e-books are cheaper for libraries than physical books because there are no printing costs involved. However, libraries typically pay far more than consumers for e-book licenses, which usually expire after two years or a certain number of lends, meaning libraries than have to purchase the license again. Here’s an explanation from a previous post we did on library e-book prices in August 2019:

High prices and metered access already make it difficult for libraries to build and maintain e-book collections.  In October 2018, Penguin Random House changed from a perpetual access model to a metered model in which libraries can keep a copy of an e-book for two years.  In the process, they also slightly lowered e-book prices (for an adult title) from $65 to $55 according to American Libraries Magazine; YA titles were priced at $45 and children’s books at $35.  The move was appreciated by some libraries who feel demand for titles decreases over time, but was met with more hesitation from other libraries who worry about having to pay repeatedly for a popular book.  Meanwhile, Hachette, according to a July 2019 article in The Washington Post, now charges $65 for most adult titles, also for a two-year period.  And Simon & Schuster announced that they will change from one-year metered access to a two-year model with prices ranging from $38.99 to $52.99 starting August 1, 2019.  Additionally, Simon & Schuster will end perpetual access to audiobooks in favor of two-year access.  In each of these cases, libraries typically pay far more than the average consumer for a title that ultimately expires, making it a challenge for them to provide all the e-books their patrons might wish.

Library workers spend all day reading.

Most library employees seem to have heard a comment or two along the lines of, “It must be so nice to work in a library and read all day!” This is possibly one of the easiest ways to annoy a library worker, since most library employees are actually not allowed to read on the job. And certainly not on the desk where the public can see them and complain about their tax dollars at work. The library workers who seem to have read everything and can provide amazing recommendations for you based on what you have already read are usually reading on their own time. Maybe this should change, especially if we expect library workers to be familiar with tons of books and well-read on important topics. For now, however, the average library worker is probably going to respond to comments about reading all day with something like, “Actually, I am very busy answering reference questions, providing readers’ advisory, assisting patrons to use the computers and printer, purchasing materials, making sure our collection is relevant and up-to-date, performing outreach, planning programs, and earning continuing education credits, thank you very much.” And who could blame them?

Libraries and their patrons don’t pay for books.

Attacks against the public library are often from people who do not use the library and so apparently do not understand how it works. In the past few years, I have already seen two online articles attack libraries on purely economic grounds, suggesting that it benefits publishers and, I guess, capitalism, more if libraries would close and the patrons had to pay for their own books. In July 2020, for example, Kenneth Whyte suggested that libraries are a bigger threat to publishers than Amazon because library patrons aren’t paying for their books. Whyte proposed that library patrons should have to pay a subscription to access the library, or perhaps publishers will have to “ration” their books–putting a cap on how many copies a library can buy. But libraries and their patrons DO pay for their books. In the U.S., libraries are funded through tax dollars, usually at both the local and state levels–less so the federal level. The books are free to check out, yes, but publishers are still making sales. In this sense, Whyte’s proposed Netflix-like model already exists. I pay my yearly taxes, my “subscription fee,” and I get the library in return.

One could argue, of course, as Whyte tries, that each circulation of a book is a lost sale after the first one. But I don’t believe every library goer was ever going to buy all every single book they read in a year. Libraries help publishers in the long run by giving exposure to their books, letting readers try new authors they wouldn’t necessarily purchase on their own, and enthusiastically purchasing and promoting midlist books–the ones Barnes and Noble often does not even stock in -store. Libraries do have an economic benefit–it just is not one that is immediately obvious. And, yes, they do pay for their books. So do you, if you pay taxes.

34 thoughts on “5 Misconceptions about the Public Library

  1. danielle pitter says:

    These misconceptions are so true. I’m in the process of wanting to know more about librarianship and have been doing informational interviews with librarians, and most of them have said they don’t do much reading. They do a lot of more services to the public than just shelving books Lol those are mostly pages and assistants jobs. The more advanced librarians do budgeting, have meetings, teach classes, work the circulation desk, manage the buildings, conduct reading programs and events, etc. It’s a lot of work and definitely more than just reading and telling people to be quiet lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, exactly! There are many positions in libraries. Most of them don’t allow you to read on the job and the shelving is often done by retired people or high schoolers, from what I’ve seen libraries I’ve been to, because those positions are usually low paying/minimum wage. The workers at the desk are usually trained in more things like readers’ advisory, programming, etc.

      And, yeah! Maybe I should have added, “Librarians don’t go around telling people to be quiet all day!” Lol. Most libraries I’ve been to have been fairly loud, with kids playing or programming happening. Not so great for people who want to read or study, I suppose.

      Liked by 2 people

      • danielle pitter says:

        Are you a librarian or do you just work for a library? I was wondering if you or Briana would be interested in doing an informational interview too with me? I want to know everything I can about this field! 🙂


  2. Amber Elise @ Du Livre says:

    Great post Krysta and weird cycles where people suggest libraries are stealing royalties from authors are so annoying.

    I’ve been curious about MLIS for a while since it seems like more and more libraries are going out of their way to hire non MLIS degree holding librarians. Ive seen a lot of positions for specialists. It does drive me crazy to see director positions that only require a BA.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think it makes sense to substitute work experience for a degree because the MLIS is a barrier that keeps people who can’t afford to pursue another degree out of libraries. The option to substitute work experience for a Master’s is gaining more traction recently, I think, because the vast majority of library workers are white women, and people want to see the field opened up to others who may not have the resources to pay for the degree.

      I’ve never seen a director position only require a BA, but I do remember seeing someone complain that the director jobs in their area were only paying $30,000/yr. Considering that you can’t really live on that income, I think it would be even more insulting if they were asking for advanced degrees. How are you going to pay off your student loans on $30,000/yr??


      • Amber Elise @ Du Livre says:

        Oh yeah the director jobs I’ve come across are typically in rural areas and pay about 40k and make me wonder what other staff are paid (if there even is other staff??)

        I dont know that stats on library workers being weight but wasn’t it like 82% of librarians were white and only 8% were Black. We definitely need to take a closer look at how MLIS can shut folks out of the profession.


        • Krysta says:

          It could be the workers on the floor are mostly part-time. I’ve seen that in libraries where they just don’t have the funding to want to pay anyone benefits. Libraries rely a lot on local taxes, so, if there’s not a large local population, sadly the money might not be there. 😦

          Yeah, the latest statistics I can find from the American Library Association are from 2012 and they show about 88% of white librarians versus about 5% of Black librarians. I don’t imagine too much has changed since then.
          So I think there’s work to be done.


        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I was reading a while ago (last year?) about some rural libraries wanting the ALA to recognize some sort of accredited BA or even associate’s library degree because, if they’re in the middle of nowhere, they can’t get people from out of the area who have a master’s degree to move there to work at the library, and the local populations might not generally pursue college degrees at all– so getting a local person to pay for an MLIS isn’t realistically going to happen. They were hoping for some alternative where someone could get at least some post-secondary education and specialize in library work.


  3. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    My experience is that people frequently assume humanities-related jobs aren’t real jobs/don’t involve that much “actual” work. Hence, the assumption that librarians must just read all day because what else would they be doing?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    THANK YOU for this! I am not an actual librarian but I work for the library! Most do need a library science degree if you go higher up but for circulation clerks, you don’t need any college education. Also, I’m so glad you bring up the inter-library loans 🙂 this gets used so often in my library and it is great if you can’t something already. Fantastic post 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bluereadergal says:

    I love this post. There is more than meets the eye while working in a library. I have a certificate in Library Tech Services but one day it would be nice to get a MLIS. I work with Cataloging. There are so many different aspects of the library and it is awesome. I’m glad you brought up inter-library loan because that is beneficial to all.


  6. Kristina says:

    This is such an interesting post!
    ILL is such a nice concept .. now I wonder if our libraries in Canada have that too.

    Wow, as someone who mainly use ebooks from my library, it’s insane to know that it’s actually what’s more pricier for them than physical books.. which I guess does makes sense as it’s probably what’s more popularly borrowed, but still.


    • Krysta says:

      I hope you have ILL in Canada, too! I use it a lot to get kind of niche/academic books public libraries don’t carry, but also to get MG and YA books my library doesn’t buy. It’s so useful!

      Hm. I don’t know if ebooks are more popular than physical books in libraries. That would be interesting to find out! But…if they weren’t before, they surely are now!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Zezee says:

    Interlibrary loan is my best friend 🤣
    I recently (well, before corona) learned about submitting suggestions of books the library should get and sometimes they actually get them, which makes me very happy lol.


  8. alisoninbookland says:

    I’d like to add libraries being a quiet place. That’s the biggest misconception I come across working in a library. Sure, you can’t be loud & obnoxious to everyone else or talk on your cell phone. The chatting that comes from a group of people working together on a project, a grown up reading to a small child, the excitement that comes from playing with LEGOs at LEGO club, hosting a movie program, & concerts? That’s all normal noise to be expected & encouraged in a library. [Or at least it was normal pre-COVID. We’ll see what happens when things fully reopen in the months & years ahead.]


    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good one! And sooo true! Libraries are very active these days! And I rather like it that way, myself. I don’t want to feel too bad if I’m exclaiming excitedly over a new find, after all! 😀


  9. Eden says:

    I absolutely love my public library but I’m beginning to realize how little I actually know about it and all the wonderful things it provides! Thanks for sharing this post…I’m inspired to learn more about my local library. 😀


  10. Nancy says:

    As a librarian, I thank you for this post! Yes, these misconceptions are common, so hopefully, this will make others understand what really goes on in a library.


  11. Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

    I’m so glad you tackled these five things! Also, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that it took me, like, six months working as a circulation clerk before I actually knew we had a title … because no one told me … and I had no idea. xD It’s such a sticky situation, because we need a better name for them. I work in one such smaller library you mentioned, where circulation assistants are expected to perform the functions of librarians … but we aren’t officially librarians (well … not yet, but I’m getting there!).But we’re also not “just” circulation assistants, either. We need a new name. Or, like, a raise. Heck, I’d settle for just a nap most days lol.

    Ugh, yes, the reading thing. We’re not allowed to read for the tax worker thing you mentioned. Which is weird, because isn’t our job to recommend books and be knowledgeable about books?! But it’s a waste of taxpayer money for us to read on the job. Even if we’re otherwise sitting there “looking busy”.


    • Krysta says:

      I find it helpful to look at the letter of employment for the job title because they so often don’t actually tell you. It’s so weird! Like…should I just make a title up? How about one of those fancy, important-sounding ones that obscures what I actually do, but they have a lot of syllables so they sound good? Can I do that?

      Personally, I find the “librarian” distinction a bit odd. If everyone’s doing the same job, they should have the same title. It just makes sense.

      I think it would also make sense to have a bit of designated reading time during the day. It could be in the office where no one could see you. People could do reading for readers’ advisory or continuing education or to prepare for their book club, or whatever. I think if you’re expected to have certain knowledge/expertise, they should give you some time to acquire it, rather than relying on you to do it on your own time. It won’t be perfect because some books are long and some people may read more slowly than others, but it would be something.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

        … *Can* I do that?! I feel like I should be able to. My asst. director officially dubbed me the label queen, so I feel like that should be somewhere on my name tag. Maybe even a tiara as part of the official dress? Yes, I can get behind this idea.

        Yeah, it’s so weird, but I try to be careful and not use librarian too much, even though in some instances it just makes sense to say, yeah, sure, I’m a librarian. I feel like most people don’t understand the distinction, and when I perform the service they’re looking for a “librarian” to do … well, it’s less confusing to just use that term.

        It would be! Especially for people at the desk, though. You can’t leave the desk, and there’s only so much you can do during slow times. So I’d much rather see people reading and being productive rather than just “pretending” to be productive so patrons don’t complain.


        • Krysta says:

          I say if you can use the label maker on your name tag, go all the way and dub yourself Library Queen to go with the tiara!

          Well, I think it makes sense to refer to worker in the library as “librarians.” As in, “Go ask the librarian for help.” People understand what that means. “Go ask the circulation associate for help” or whatever titles people have, is going to be confusing, I think.

          I don’t think most people really care about the title too much? Yeah, sometimes I meet people in all fields who get touchy about their titles and who is allowed to use it and so on, but I think in general, people understand that even individuals without the MLIS are doing the exact same functions as someone with it. I don’t think the title should be used to set up some people as superior.

          Ah, yes, the need to pretend to be productive. The worst.


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