We Need to Stop Expecting Library Workers to Do Literally Everything

I do not work at a library. But as someone who knows many library workers in real life and online and who is active in the book community online, I cannot help but realize that the expectations that the public (and often politicians) have for libraries and their employees are getting out of control.

When someone applies to work in a library, they are, like everyone else with a job, applying to a position with a job description. Generally, that job description involves things like being responsible for checking out books, providing customer service related to the library collection, purchasing books, creating programming for children or adults, etc.  And yet the public routinely expects library workers to do an ever-expanding set of tasks that they did not apply to do, and which they may have no actual qualifications to successfully perform.

For instance, to be successful at children’s programming, one might be expected not only to know about children’s books and childhood development, but also to have a wide variety of extra talents so they can offer programs on sewing, baking, scrapbooking, photography, drawing, cosplaying and more.  They weren’t hired to be an artist and no one asked about their art skills in their interview, but they’re expected to have enough of those skills to create monthly programs on varying artistic topics.  Similarly, I know library workers who have been asked to offer language or STEM programming. Whether a library worker is fluent in the language used in the program or whether they have any academic background in STEM was not a factor in hiring, and the worker might be trying to teach themselves enough that they can then teach kids.

During the pandemic, libraries were suddenly expected to provide communities with free computers and wi-fi to compensate for the fact that school districts were not providing them to students suddenly asked to learn from home. And, more recently, many libraries have been volunteered as pick-up spots for COVID rapid tests. I’ve seen largely positive responses from the public about this program; it’s so convenient to go to the library to get a test! Yet no one asked library workers if they WANTED their daily workplace to become a spot for people who likely have COVID to constantly walk in—and, just like the rest of us, they probably do not.

I have a completely non-healthcare-related job. My coworkers have been COVID-averse throughout the pandemic, and many are still resisting return to in-office work. If my job (which, again, is not related to COVID or healthcare in any conceivable way) told us to return to the office AND become a location for people with COVID to pop in to get a rapid test, there would be an employee riot. People would quit. They would demand to continue working from home in order to avoid infection. Caring for public health is not in our job descriptions. It’s not in any library worker’s job description either, yet people expect library workers to simply pivot and do it.

There is room for libraries to expand their roles, of course.  Many don’t offer just books, magazines, and movies.  They might offer notary or passport services (which their employees are actually trained to do), and they might let patrons borrow anything from board games to baking pans to seeds for their gardens.  But, please, let’s stop expecting libraries to do EVEYTHING, especially things they didn’t sign up to do and are not trained to do.  If a town wants a community center that provides tax preparation, a food bank, mental health services, COVID rapid test pick-up, and classes on computer programming, the town should build an actual community center and hire people with degrees in social services, healthcare, and computer science to staff it.

Disclaimer: I know in some library systems, particularly bigger or better-funded ones, that there can be experts that come in and run these programs and services instead of the library staff, but that is not true at every library, and there are too many places where, yes, library workers are asked to do anything from help do taxes to teach a chemistry class.

Briana

14 thoughts on “We Need to Stop Expecting Library Workers to Do Literally Everything

  1. Krysta says:

    I think there are a lot variable at work for libraries becoming catch-alls for all sorts of social services. First of all, I think it is an indication of a lack of infrastructure. Instead of funding the appropriate organization to do something, local government uses the library. After all, it’s already there and they can get the workers to do this extra work free.

    Secondly, the public often distrusts government, so people figure it’s best to make the library do stuff. People already go there and they trust libraries more than they trust other organizations.

    Finally, libraries (staff and admin) really buy into vocational awe. Many of them WANT to become pseudo-social service organizations either because they genuinely want to help people or because they fear becoming obsolete. Witness the start of the pandemic when libraries refused to close, both because some libraries really thought staff should be willing to risk their lives for their communities, but also because they were deeply afraid of being thought of as “inessential.” No one wants to fund something inessential, right?

    I also think there is a sort of library identity crisis going on because libraries fear becoming obsolete. Librarians are supposed to be “information professionals” and libraries are supposed to provide equal access to credible information. But libraries are desperate to tell people that they have more than books. They have EVERYTHING.

    But what is the library then, when it starts becoming a library/food kitchen/health care center/recreational center? And why aren’t other organizations like food kitchens being food kitchens? That’s the question we have to ask. Along with whether it’s actually preferable for libraries to do everything instead of funding the proper organizations. Libraries doing social services are just a band-aid solution to a bigger problem. Instead of celebrating libraries for stepping in where local government and charities have failed, we should be asking for more funding for the services we need.

    Because, and this is something the public probably never thinks about, the library staff do not usually get paid more for taking on extra jobs. For instance, the first time I walked into a library with a notary on staff, I was surprised. I asked questions. I found out staff don’t get paid more for being notaries. In fact, they may have to pay out of pocket to be a notary because, if they want notary insurance, the library won’t pay for it. (The argument being that the staff might be notaries on their own time so they should take on the cost of the insurance.) The staff get to spend money to do this extra task or they get to risk facing legal action with no insurance.

    Let that sink in. Library staff are potentially paying out of pocket for the privilege of providing this extra service for the community. How many other jobs can you think of where your boss would just tell you, “Hey, now you’re a banker/notary or chef/notary or professor/notary?” How many other jobs are there where people are actually willing to PAY to do part of their job instead of BEING PAID to do it? If you really stop to think about it, it’s extremely unusual and not something the average employee would even consider doing.

    When the public celebrates librarians for doing it all, they often don’t realize the cost. Worse, however, there are plenty of library staff willing to let this happen because they’re, well, nice and they want to help people. Their desire to help others is being used as a way to get them to keep doing more–for no extra compensation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think there are some people who specifically work in libraries “to help people” or who come to see generically “serving the community” as their goal once they are hired, but I think many people take the job because they “like books” or “like working with kids” or something like that, and then there can be a lot of pressure to act like they really love doing other tasks that are not in their job description because “it helps people.”

      I’m all for helping people, but I also think it’s fair to say that certain professions shouldn’t be expected to do everything because the community is failing people. Like it’s fine if a teacher primarily wants to teach the subject they were hired to teach and not act as a mental health professional for their students and not want to spend their own money giving kids breakfast. And it’s fine if a library worker wants to help people research things and find books instead of handing out COVID tests or teaching people to ballroom dance.

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  2. Miranda Banana says:

    I couldn’t agree more. However, I also share some of the same opinion as Krysta. I truly believe libraries are afraid of becoming obsolete. My library for instance, now has local musicians come in and play live music on some week nights. I would have never imagined that when I was growing up. I miss the way libraries used to be. Super quiet, peaceful and full of people seeking information or just having fun reading.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, and I think it’s really a shame that libraries have to worry that their main goals of providing information and books/media and helping with research “isn’t enough!” It’s unfortunate that funding the library to be a library and not a catch-all hub for community services apparently doesn’t appeal to enough tax payers or politicians.

      I do think the programming thing is interesting. I get that, in some sense, it’s supposed to “get people in the doors.” A library I used to belong to, however, had a conference room that could be accessed directly from the lobby or directly from outside. It was possible — indeed most likely — that someone would go to the program (say, a screening of a family movie like Frozen) and literally never walk into the main library or past any of the collection. So they certainly weren’t going to be suddenly inspired to check out a book while they were there to see the movie!

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      • Krysta says:

        I think ideally library programs are meant to highlight resources the community can use. So if there is a craft program, there should be craft books for checkout. If there is a music program, there should be music books/CDs/databases being advertised. It comes back to focusing on the mission of the library and why libraries do what they do. Is it enough to have concerts just so the library can record higher stats about bodies walking through the door? Or should the program be oriented towards more than having people in the building for the sake of having people in the building?

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  3. danielle pitter says:

    I was a library associate earlier this year, and while we did offer contactless pickup and answered most questions we could, there were a lot of random questions asked that made me think, Is this a library or a homeless shelter? Not that we can’t turn homeless people away when they want to use the library, but they’d stay after hours thinking they could sleep there… It was weirddddd lol. I LOVEEE my libraries down, but with every librarian or library worker I’ve talked to, they talk about their issues with being asked to do extra stuff.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, I get the impulse to help people, but library workers are generally not paid much, and I think it’s absurd to ask them to do tons of things they were not hired to do. No one walks into MY job and says I should do random things “because it would help the community” and I should be a good person who wants to do it. I get the benefit of just getting to do my job. And I get paid more than if I did work in a library.

      Teachers get the same of course, and I can sympathize a bit because when I was teaching in grad school, there were always these discussions about help much we should help students outside of what I was actually hired to do in terms of teaching a class and having office hours. No, I don’t think I should be their psychologist, especially at a university where there are actual mental health professionals. But you get guilted into thinking you’re a bad person if you don’t want to spend hours listening to a student’s personal issues.

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    • Krysta says:

      This makes me think of the movie The Public, which I heard library friends enthusiastically recommend as being realistic. I suppose the representation of “reference” questions was amusing and probably true to life, as was the scene in which library workers have to deal with a nude patron. I was sort of troubled by the end message, though, which celebrated the library staff getting arrested because they refused to close the building at the end of the day. That’s what is expected of library workers? What if they have kids to pick up at the close of day? Or they just want to go home and rest before they do it all over again in the morning? They aren’t good enough librarians if they aren’t willing to stay at work all night? (Probably unpaid, too!)

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    • Krysta says:

      I have to admit that, much as we love to celebrate libraries, I have met more than my share of librarians who refused to help me, or were extremely grumpy about it. Especially when I was growing up. Kids apparently don’t count as valued library patrons.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I literally had a librarian ask if I couldn’t just read a different book one time I asked for help, I definitely have mixed feelings about how great librarians are lol. And when I was in college, a different one kept trying to give me a book I wasn’t asking for that had a similar title and wouldn’t believe I knew what I was talking about and that was the wrong book.

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  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Oh yes, libraries do all of this… and more! 😂 I don’t mind a lot of it- it keeps things interesting at least 😉 And I think people that work in libraries are so used to being expected to do a million things, that it no longer surprises anyone. In fact, you’re expected to be an expert on books, a children’s entertainer and an IT instructor all rolled into one… Oh and don’t forget be a first aider and (I kid you not) have some medical training (some members of the public expect you to administer their medication etc!) As I said, I don’t (broadly speaking) mind this.

    For me, there’s a few reasons why this causes issues. 1) A lot of people don’t know what they’re signing up for/the job has changed so much that they now find themselves doing things they never signed up for or expected. 2) You’re thrown in at the deep end, usually without training for specific things (2 years into the job and I might actually get some proper IT lessons soon! 😂) 3) The worst thing of all is when other local authority and government departments send people to libraries for help *when they are the ones with the forms and information*. This is the bane of my existence. Everyone- from housing to healthcare to pensions- sends people to the libraries for help *instead of just helping the people themselves*! I don’t understand why, since we’re not actually prepared for it in any way and it’s *always* the very people who *are supposed to help people with these things* referring people to libraries. Ok, rant over 😂

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes! I do think some library workers like the aspect of helping the community in a wide variety of ways, but the least libraries could do is make these tasks clear in the job description and then train people to fulfill them! And I do think it ends up blurring boundaries, which is something I’ve seen librarians talk about on Twitter a lot. Like, ok, a library worker might be find with distributing COVID rapid tests, but they DO NOT WANT TO ADMINISTER IT TO YOU. But people are so used to library workers doing so many things they aren’t always clear on what is a reasonable ask or not.

      I’ve also heard complaints about the city sending people to the library! “Oh, you need to know about a building permit? Ask the library,” says the Building Department. It’s crazy! And apparently now pharmacies are telling people to go to libraries to get COVID tests when the libraries don’t have any in stock either!

      I think one of the most annoying things in the US must be the tax forms. Sure, the library has forms in stock. The library may not know which forms you need based on what kind of income you have, and they certainly aren’t going to fill them out for you! I was a shelver briefly and people would ask me for help with taxes. Uh, I don’t know. I hire someone to do my taxes because it’s confusing; I don’t know how to do yours!

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      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes absolutely! We’re here to help, we like to help, but give us a break, there are limits!! (Also when it comes to COVID tests, we stopped stocking them a long while back in my borough- so it’d be nice if doctors and pharmacists stopped sending people our way!! They know more about it than we do!!)

        Yes exactly!!! We get so many people from housing, disability, social service… Sent to us by those departments?! Why?!! (Haha yes exactly!!!)

        Hahaha that’s hilarious!! Not been asked to do that… Yet! Always a first time for everything! The funniest thing for me when I’m shelving is when people corner you and get you to help them fill in forms there and then (I work in lots of different libraries and the most extreme example was in the biggest one, where I ended up in the stacks for half an hour helping someone complete a driving licence form!)

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