How Has Your Library Use Changed as You Grew Older?

How Has Your Library Use Changed

A much-cited 2017 Pew Research Center survey loudly proclaims, “Millennials are the most likely generation of Americans to use public libraries.” Over the years, I have seen various individuals and outlets enthusiastically point out how younger generations find the public library useful–the library is not obsolete, after all! However, while the study itself posits some ideas for why Millenials in particular said they were more likely to visit the library–including updated offerings such as computers, meeting spaces, and technology–I have a different theory. Millenials visit the library more often because they have young children. And, indeed, the survey also finds that parents of minors are also more likely to use the library than others.

My sense that Millenials in particular are attracted to the library because of their children comes largely from my anecdotal experience. Many individuals seem to say things like, “I used to love going to the library as a kid.” Or, “My parents would bring me to the library every week.” These same people, though they have fond memories of the library, are not all likely to be current library users, however. They went to the library when someone brought them–perhaps because their parents thought reading was good for them, or maybe because they had a school assignment to complete–but they somehow fell out of the habit as they aged. Maybe they became busier, or had no transportation, or stopped reading as much. For whatever reason, the library is but a distant golden memory.

My own experience is that, as I aged, my parents were less likely to be willing to give me a ride to the library. Eventually, I started walking, biking, or taking the bus, but the reality is that these means of transportation take much longer than simply driving. And because the library was less accessible to me, I was less willing to go often, because that meant I would then have to go back in order to return the materials. I would also take out fewer items, because I had to carry whatever I checked out back home for several miles.

During one memorable visit, after I had walked all the way to the library, only to realize that I didn’t have my card on me, I told the librarian to simply return the book I had on hold. I wouldn’t be back, because I wouldn’t have time to walk there two more times in the upcoming days–once more to get the book, and once more to return it. My lack of transportation truly prevented me from using the library. (And, yes, I did offer other forms of identification, but the librarian was grumpy and refused to look me up in the system.)

Eventually, getting to the library became somewhat easier for me, and I started using it more regularly. There was, however, definitely a time period when library usage became difficult for me, and I could see how such difficulty might be the moment that a person stopped using the library altogether, perhaps even causing them to forget about it as the years passed. That difficulty might be a lack of parental transportation. Or a move to college, where students don’t realize that they can apply for a library card in their new location. Or just a stressful time in one’s life where reading and the library just aren’t on a person’s mind as much.

So that raises the question: Have you found your own library use changing as you grew older? Did you ever stop visiting the library for a time period? Or perhaps altogether? How do you use the library now versus when you were younger?

12 Things You Didn’t Know the Library Could Assist You With

Here are 12 things the library can assist you with that you might not have known about!

Star Divider

Standardized Test Prep

Most people probably know that there are books full of tips and practice tests for the standardized tests encountered in high school or to get into college and grad school. However, many libraries also subscribe to online databases that offer practice tests and strategies, as well.

smaller star divider

Career Test Prep

Many fields from teaching to cosmetology to the postal service requires tests from applicants. The library may have books to help but, more likely, the library probably offers an online database with practice tests. So if you are thinking about changing careers or entering a new field, check the website of your local library.

smaller star divider

Computer Skills

Libraries often offer online databases with videos, posts, and even interactive tutorials that can help individuals learn basic computer skills for things like email, spreadsheets, and word processors. Or they might even offer appointments with a librarian who can offer personalized assistance.

smaller star divider


Just as many libraries subscribe to online databases with practice tests for high school, college, and career tests, so they may offer practice materials for the GED, as well. So, before you buy a book, check out the website of your local library or ask a librarian for assistance.

smaller star divider

The Citizenship Test

Libraries offer study guides and practice tests for citizenship tests, too! There may be books or flashcards available for those who prefer physical materials, but there will likely be online databases offering assistance, as well.

smaller star divider

Family History

If you do not want to pay for a genealogy site, check your local library’s website. Many public libraries subscribe to special library versions of the most popular family history websites.

smaller star divider

Academic Tutoring

Some libraries offer in-person tutoring. Some pay for online tutors. Either way, if you need some help with your homework, check out what the library is offering before you look elsewhere. After all, the library is free!

smaller star divider

Notary Services

Not all libraries offer notary services, but some do. Check your library’s website or give them a call to see if you can’t get two errands done at once on your next library visit.

smaller star divider

Museum and Park Passes

Want to attend a local museum or park but don’t want to pay? Some libraries have passes for the community to check out free!

smaller star divider

WiFi (at Home)

Certainly you can access the internet at the library, but did you know that many libraries now offer WiFi hotspots that can be checked out? Borrow one for home, if you don’t pay for internet, or consider taking one on the road.

smaller star divider

Tablets, E-Readers, and Laptops

Now that you have a WiFi hotspot from the library, you might need a device to use it with. Many libraries now offer devices to be checked out, as well!

smaller star divider

Borrowing Things That Are Not Books

Yes, libraries have books, music, movies, and video games. Some have more, though. You might find tools, seeds, baking pans, telescopes, board games, and more to be checked out. So before you buy something you might use once, see if your local library has a “collection of things.”

What are some services you were surprised that the library offers?

Should Libraries Go Fine Free?

Should Libraries Go Fine Free

In the U.S, an increasing number of libraries are considering going fine free. The argument in favor of this move says that it will increase library usage among low-income individuals and families who may not be using the library currently, either because they fear accruing fees, or because they have already accrued fees that they cannot afford to pay. Dissenters worry that removing late fees will give patrons no incentive to return books on time. Additionally, some libraries rely on overdue fines to supplement their budgets. Either way, the topic can raise strong feelings. The research, however, currently suggests that going fine free can create more benefits than negatives.

What does it mean to be fine free?

Some people worry that removing late fines means that patrons will no longer return materials, making them unavailable for others who may need them. It is important to note, however, that removing late fines does not mean that people can keep out materials indefinitely. Typically, libraries allow patrons to keep materials a certain number of days after the due date. After this extension, the patron is charged the full price of the materials, as if they are lost and need to be replaced. Returning the materials will erase the replacement fee from the patron’s record. In the meantime, the replacement fee, if large enough, may create a hold on the patron’s account, meaning that they cannot use their library card until they return the items. Grace periods vary by library, and presumably affect how available items are on the shelves. I have seen libraries give grace periods anywhere from one week to six weeks.

What are the benefits of going fine free?

Proponents of fine-free libraries argue that it promotes equal access because low-income families and individuals may be deterred from using the library by the prospect of having to pay. Additionally, many are particularly worried about the impact of fines on children, who may not be able to use the library, either because their caregivers worry about fines, or because their caregivers have already accrued fines (possibly on the child’s card). Going fine free is a way to encourage people to come back to the library and to use it more often.

Why do some people not want to abolish fines?

Some people worry that abolishing overdue fines will mean patrons will no longer be incentivized to return materials on time. Others worry that getting rid of fines will remove a source of funding for libraries, which already tend to be under-funded. However, a study by the Colorado State Library suggests that there is not enough data on fines and patron behavior in order to make an evidence-based argument that fines work. A 1981 study by Hansel and Burgin (referenced by the Colorado study) found that fine-free libraries do not have higher overdue rates than libraries with fines, but also that fine-free libraries tend to have higher overdue rates in the short-term, but lower ones in the long-term. In other words, patrons of fine-free libraries may be keeping their books past the overdue dates, but at least they bring the materials back eventually, instead of deciding to keep them forever once they accrue too many fines. A 1983 study by Hanel and Burgin later found that overdue fines only worked if they were high.

In addition, the Colorado State Library study suggests that libraries can break even or potentially save money by eliminating fines. While libraries may believe that fines are important for their budgets, removing fines can result in reduced costs because libraries are no longer investing in technology used to collect fines.

Is Fine Free the Way to Go?

A lack of studies on overdue fines and patron behavior makes it difficult to say with certainty if going fine free will either create or solve problems. However, the current information available suggests that going fine free could mainly create longer wait times for materials, at least in the short term. The question is then, whether having materials available to all patrons more speedily is valued more than making the library more welcoming to individuals who might not use it at all, if they fear accruing fines. Currently, it seems like more libraries are interested in expanding equal access by removing fines.

What do you think? Is your library fine free? How did the transition go? Would you like your library to go fine free?

How to Get Your Friends to the Library

Avid readers tend to love the library, but not everyone goes to the library frequently. In fact, even some enthusiastic readers might never enter the library doors. In many cases, this is because people have misunderstandings about what the library offers or how it works. Getting someone to the library is thus often a simple case of identifying a need a person has, and then explaining to them how the library can help. And, yes, this means thinking beyond the books! So if you have a friend who could benefit from the library, read on to discover how you can encourage them to visit.

Star Divider

Determine the individual’s needs.

The first, and main step, in getting a person to the library is to figure out why they need the library–not necessarily why you go the library. You might be a passionate fan of dragon novels, but they might not have read a book since they graduated high school. That’s okay! Identifying a need is as simple as listening. This could be realizing that your friend’s son is failing math class. Or that your grandmother is feeling lonely these days. Or that your coworker keeps lamenting that she can’t afford a streaming service. Or that your best friend is tired of being single.

Once you realize what people are looking for, you can offer a solution. You might hand your friend a flyer to the free tutoring service at the library. Sign your grandmother up for a book club or a knitting group. Inform your coworker that the library offers free services where they can stream movies and documentaries. Or invite your friend to the singles’ mixer at the library branch downtown. You don’t have to be–and shouldn’t be–pushy about it. But you can let people know their options, and that you are available for questions. And questions they may have, especially if they thought all the library does is circulate books.

smaller star divider

Clear up any misunderstandings.

Once you invite someone to the library, you might have to clear up any misunderstandings they have about how it works. Some people think they need to pay to use the library, or to show a library card at the door before they will even be allowed in. Some people don’t know that they can sign up for a library card online if they don’t have ready transportation. Some people don’t know they’re eligible to sign up for a library card at all–maybe students who are living in the city only for college, or people who live in the outlying area and not the exact city the library is located in. Some people are legitimately afraid that the librarians will remember they returned a book late or damaged 15 years ago. If you can find out why people have not been using the library, you may be able to clarify the process for them–and make the library sound a lot less scary!

However, people might not directly say why they have not been using the library. It might not occur to them, if, for example, they truly believe it’s just commonly known that, “libraries are expensive to join.” Or they might feel embarrassed that they have a late fee they never paid off, or a fine their parents never paid. To help, you can try offering useful information without making it sound like you are directly responding to something they might feel sensitive about. For example, you could try, “I save so much money every year with my library card! My last receipt says I saved X dollars!” Or, “You picked the right time to join! The library just wiped everyone’s slates clean AND went fine free! I’m so excited because I accidentally kept that last book out longer than I thought. Oops!” These are easy ways to suggest that the library is free and open to everyone–and totally forgiving of late items, which can happen to anyone!

smaller star divider

Invite them to go with you.

Many people are lot more likely to do something new and potentially scary if they can do it with someone they know and trust. So consider inviting a friend to visit the library with you. Maybe you can even drive them, and show them where the best parking is, or take the bus with them, so they know where to get off. Then give them a quick tour of your favorite spots. Show them it’s okay to step into the children’s room for a quick browse. Let them know where they can get a pass to use the computers. Hand them a program guide. Walk to the desk with them when they sign up for a card. Whatever you think they would want in order to feel comfortable. You can even invite them to attend a library program with you–a simple and inexpensive way to have fun!

smaller star divider

It can be easy to forget that not everyone is a library pro. Even avid library users may not be aware of everything the library has to offer. So be welcoming! Let people know if there is a service you think they would enjoy. And offer to visit with them, if you can. Because the library is always more fun with friends!

How to Improve Your Library

Do you love the library, but still see areas where you think it could improve? There are ways to make that happen! Read on to learn how you can improve several specific areas in your library.

Star Divider

Find the books you are looking for.

Many library users have commented on this blog that their library routinely does not have the titles they wish to borrow, especially in terms of new releases. On the one hand, this may be because of budget cuts. Libraries in the U.S. routinely face challenges to their usefulness in the modern world, and thus are underfunded by state and local governments. In these cases, simply buying fewer books is one way libraries deal with reduced funding because it is a budget cut that not many people will register. Shorter hours? Reduced staff? The community will likely notice and complain (but to the librarians, not their representatives). Fewer books? People who do not avidly follow the book market and are thus are not looking for specific titles will probably not realize anything is missing. If a library is consistently underfunded, the reality is that, for a better user experience, library patrons will have to write to their representatives, and they will show up to vote for ones who support libraries and vote out ones who do not. They will also have to accept that giving the library more money might result in higher taxes.

However, many people may not want to contact their representatives, or pay more taxes. In this case, they may want to focus, not on improving the collection as a whole, but simply on getting access to the specific titles they seek. To do this, one merely have to put in a purchase request. Libraries have processes in place for this. Usually it entails nothing more than filling out an online form or going up to the desk and telling the staff member on duty that one wishes the library to purchase a specific item. The staff member may then ask for the required information or hand out a form. Because of budget constraints, libraries typically have policies about what they can and cannot buy, but any recently published title that does not seem too niche will likely have a fair chance of being purchased. It’s really that easy!

See the types of programs you enjoy.

Many library users have great ideas about the types of programs and services they would love the library to offer. Why doesn’t the library offer these? It might, again, be because of budget constraints or merely because of a lack of staff interest. However, it may also be because library staff do not always know what the public is seeking. Sometimes, things that may seem very obvious to library users are not obvious to the people who work behind the desk. They just have a different perspective. So waiting for a staff member to get the same idea is not necessarily going to be an effective strategy.

Just like libraries have ways for users to suggest book purchases, they also typically have ways for patrons to suggest other areas for improvement. It might be an online form for program ideas. It might be a survey sent out periodically to library patrons. It might a suggestion box sitting on a table. Whatever the process is, use it! Libraries are always trying to get their usage numbers up, so if people directly tell them they would love to use a specific service or attend a certain type of program, they are likely going to take that information seriously.

The follow-up to this is, of course, that if the library does implement the ideas suggested, people need to show up. If the library sees low or declining attendance or usage numbers, they are going to conclude that certain services are not worth the time and money invested in them, no matter how good the idea seemed in theory.

Get better customer service.

We love libraries here at Pages Unbound, but we have our fair share of library horror stories, just as presumably many others do. Sometimes, a staff member may refuse to help, or simply be so ungracious and grumpy that one feels almost sorry to have asked for assistance in the first place. Sometimes, a staff member may simply give wrong information, no matter how many times you try to provide them with the details of what you are looking for. There are various options here: going to a different desk to check with a different staff member, for instance, or maybe even asking to speak to a manager.

However, if confrontation is not your style, consider going the opposite route. Instead of critiquing negative customer service experiences, praise the positive ones. Leave a glowing review in the comment box (with the staff member’s name, if possible). Or ask to speak to the manager so you can give your praise in person. (You should probably clarify that you are not asking for the manager to leave a complaint!) Let the library know that you recognize and appreciate good service. Hopefully, this will lead to a culture where excellent service is rewarded and poor service is improved.

Have longer hours.

Many library users wish their libraries were open later, earlier, or on weekends. Sadly, many libraries have reduced their hours because of budget cuts. They simply do not have the money to pay staff to be there! So library patrons who want more library hours will be more effective in gaining this, not by complaining to library staff (who likely are already aware that they are underfunded, but cannot do much about it), but by writing to their representatives and requesting that they support libraries financially.

To advocate effectively, patrons should be aware of how precisely libraries are funded. Many people assume that the federal government in the U.S. provides money to public libraries, but libraries are actually usually supported by a combination of state and local taxes. Writing to local representatives in support of libraries and turning out to vote in local elections for candidates who support libraries will likely have the largest impact on library funding. Of course, however, funding libraries sometimes might mean paying more in taxes. Communities will have to decide how much they are willing to invest in better libraries.


Library patrons have more power over the functioning of the library than they may realize. The library exists to serve the community, so library staff tend to take patron suggestions seriously. And oftentimes, the people behind the desk see the library differently, and may forget what it is like to experience the library as a patron. They might need to be informed of what services the public desires because, otherwise, they will likely assume that no feedback equals satisfaction.

Sometimes change is as simple as filling out a form, but many people either do not realize this, or simply hope that someone else will do it instead. But if you can think of changes you would like to see, don’t wait! Talk to library staff! Fill out the surveys! You can even show up to a library board meeting and make your case. (The library board controls the budget, so typically has influence over large-scale changes such as staffing issues and library hours.) The important thing is that being proactive about something you care about will help you see the changes you want much more quickly than doing nothing.

10 Ways Book Bloggers Can Benefit from Using the Public Library

Book bloggers tend to love the public library! But the library can benefit bloggers through more than the lending of books. Below are some ways book bloggers in particular can use library services to step up their blogging game!

Star Divider

Learn how to market more effectively through social media.

Did you know that many libraries offer online courses through databases such as Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, or Universal Class? Many courses are designed for career development, and they may include selections on how to market through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and, yes, even TikTok. You can take some strategies and modify them for your specific audience.

And, of course, you can also look for books on how to leverage social media (or even how to use a blogging platform like WordPress). Just make sure the copyright date is fairly current, since the internet changes so quickly!

Check out “Things I Learned After a Brief Foray into BookTok.

smaller star divider

Check out books for Bookstagram.

Not everyone has the space, money, or even desire for a wall full of rainbow books. However, if you still want to get in on the latest Bookstagram trends, try checking out some titles to feature! Just be sure not to hang on to them too long if you don’t anticipate actually reading them all. Exposure on social media is good for books, but so is being available on the library shelves for interested readers!

Also check out “Do You Use Library Books for Bookstagram?” and “How to Rock Bookstagram on a Budget.”

smaller star divider

Find discussion post inspiration.

There are many ways to be inspired by the library for your blog! You could write some posts about your favorite library memories, programs you would love to see, or books you discovered while browsing. You could do a travel series, where you visit various libraries, view their collection, and rave about their architecture or services. You could even use the library garden as a backdrop for your Bookstagram photos!

Check out our list of “52 Discussion Post Prompts for Your Book Blog!”

smaller star divider

Utilize the library of things to photograph, film, and more!

Many libraries now offer items for check out that are not books, movies, music, or video games. You could check out an art kit to make some background items for Bookstagram. Or maybe borrow a professoinal-grade camera to take photos for your blog, or a video camera to film a clip for BookTube. You might even be able to check out a tablet or WiFi hotspot if you need more internet access for more blogging time.

smaller star divider

Find your next great read through a reader’s advisory service.

Not sure what to read next, or wondering about read-alikes for your favorite books? You can ask a librarian for recommendations, of course, but you can also see if your library offers an online service like the NoveList database, which recommends books based on your favorite authors and titles, as well as other criteria you select. You could even write a review post on your database experience. Did the recommendations work for you?

smaller star divider

Learn more about copyright law.

Blogging means having to follow copyright law, whether that means writing original content, using excerpts from books in moderation, or only using images available in the public domain or licensed for free, unrestricted use. Libraries are a great place to learn more to make sure you are doing everything you can to follow the law, or just to get a refresher lesson to make sure you have not missed anything you weren’t aware of. Some libraries have information about copyright law right on their websites. Other libraries can help you find the information you need if you go to the reference desk.

smaller star divider

Be among the first to grab that new release!

You don’t necessarily need to pre-order a book to have a copy in your hand right when it is released. Library users can put a hold on a title as soon as it is in the catalog, even if it has some sort of label like, “On order,” or “In transit,” or “Being processed.” Check the library catalog frequently for any new releases you are interested in, and you might be the lucky person to be first in the holds queue! If you are even luckier, the book will be on the shelf on release day. It all depends on when the book is delivered and processed, of course, but it’s worth a try!

smaller star divider

Unhaul your ARCs.

Many bloggers do not know what to do with all the ARCs they receive once they have read and reviewed them, since publishers ask that ARCs not be sold. Bloggers can consider donating any unwanted ARCs to the library, which can use them for prizes or reading incentives.

smaller star divider

Save money.

This is probably obvious, but using the public library saves people money! Bloggers tend to read a lot, and many won’t be able to afford to buy every new release in hardcover. Borrowing books, ebooks, and audiobooks from the library allows people to try out new authors and titles without making a financial investment they might later regret.

smaller star divider

Meet authors.

You don’t have to attend an expensive book conference in order to meet famous authors! Authors visit libraries all the time. Keep an eye on the calendars for your local libraries. You might be surprised at some of the big names they are able to host! Then consider writing up a post about the experience.

What are some other ways book bloggers in particular can benefit from the public library?

How Has Your Library Use Changed During the Pandemic?

Many bloggers are avid library users, perhaps returning each month or each week– or even more frequently– to browse the collection, pick up holds, and attend library programs. When the pandemic started, however, most libraries eventually shut down (though many held out longer, regardless of safety concerns, presumably due to “vocational awe“). Programs were moved online, browsing prohibited in favor of curbside pickup, and buildings closed to the public. Each library system has reacted differently, with some moving to near “normal” operations by the summer or fall of 2020, others choosing to open by appointment only, and still others opting to remain closed to the public for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the path chosen, however, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed both the way libraries operate and the way people view them and use them.

For my part, I had to accept that the closure of the libraries meant no more browsing. In some ways, this did not affect me overly much. I am already familiar with how the online catalog works and the procedures used to place a hold on an item. I also follow the book industry and thus am positioned to be able to look up desired titles fairly easily, unlike many others who presumably do not follow authors or publishers online, and many only realize their favorite writer has released a new book when they see it on the shelf. Even so, I still enjoy browsing. I still find titles I might have otherwise overlooked, perhaps because of limited marketing or perhaps because somehow the title did not catch my eye when I saw it online. For me, some of the joy of serendipity was lost when the libraries closed.

Additionally, I had to switch over to e-books for a long time. Although I do own an e-reader, I much prefer to read hard copies of a book, especially if the book is longer or contains weighty material. I did not particularly enjoy the days when I was forced to read digital copies only. And, of course, because digital materials are so much more expensive for libraries to purchase than physical copies, I had only a limited selection of titles to choose from, with long wait lists on top of that. Services such as Hoopla, where libraries pay per borrow, are nice, but not every library has them and libraries still put a cap on a user’s monthly borrows. Because I read extensively, I cannot rely only on a service like Hoopla.

For some, I imagine that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way they use the library. Some people may have realized that they can place holds on books from other libraries and have them delivered to their home library. Some people may hope curbside delivery continues and they never have to step foot in the building again. Some people may have realized that they can borrow e-books and will continue to do so even once the libraries reopen fully.

As for me? The pandemic has changed how I use the library, but not in a way I wish to continue. I long for the day when I can browse the bookshelves freely again, when the processing department is not a month to a year behind in putting new books on the shelf, when I can read only physical volumes and ditch the e-reader. And, yes, I long for the day when I can meet people in-person during programs, and not only see them on a screen. (Bonus if we get free snacks!) The pandemic has changed the way I use the library, but that has only made me appreciate the library and all its services all the more.

What about you? Has your library use changed? Will you keep these changes going forward? Do you see yourself, for instance, borrowing more e-books in future or attending virtual programs?

What Should the Role of Libraries Be During the Pandemic?

In a previous post, I explored the potential impacts of librarians’ vocational awe on the community. I used the definition of vocational awe found in Fobazi Ettarh’s “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” to question whether libraries had lost their focus by taking on tasks best performed by other organizations trained for and dedicated to those tasks. The pandemic, of course, has made such questions even more relevant, as libraries attempt to pivot to answer the needs of their communities, and to continue to provide services during stay-at-home orders. Some libraries responded by refusing to close back in the spring, or by attempting to reopen fully back in the summer or fall. Many libraries have responded by offering curbside services and virtual programming. However, in the July 2020 of School Library Journal, Mega Subramaniam and Linda W. Braun argued that libraries should be providing social services in an article provocatively titled, “Wake Up, Libraries: Curbside Pickup is NOT the Answer.” This article is a telling example of the way in which vocational awe has been ingrained in the profession, with librarians chastising their peers for not risking their lives and pivoting to become social workers during a time of crisis.

Before we explore the arguments put forward by Subramaniam and Braun, we should first look at Ettarh’s definition of vocational awe. Ettarh writes that, “‘Vocational awe’ refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh goes on to illustrate how job creep, or the expectation that employees will take on increasing job duties with no additional compensation, is one of the primary ways vocational awe manifests in libraries. Because libraries (and their employees) see themselves as upholding a “sacred” institution that provides equal access and protects democracy, they are willing to takes on roles they have not been prepared for or trained for in the name of meeting the needs of the community. To refuse to do so would be unthinkable, because the sacred mission of the library must never be questioned or critiqued. Those who speak out against job creep are seen as unwilling and unable to make the sacrifices necessary to be a “good” librarian, and treated accordingly.

Under this definition, we can see how the proposals Subramaniam and Braun make are a prime example of vocational awe. In their article, they proclaim that libraries have been “focusing service on low-hanging fruit by reformatting traditional offerings” (creating virtual programming, offering increased WiFi access, starting curbside pickup, etc.) and have thus failed to meet the true needs of their communities. They argue that libraries need to, “Shift emphasis from physical access to the library and technology (i.e. curbside pick-ups, summer reading programs) and instead focus on how to establish relationships with the community irrespective of the library physical space.” They propose that libraries do this by focusing on key areas such as meeting insecurities (such as lack of food, clothing, employment, etc.), supporting schools and learning, supporting youth employment, encouraging activism, and providing accurate health information. In other words, libraries should pivot from providing access to information and materials to providing social services.

I think that Subramaniam and Braun’s proposals likely come from two places: a place of caring and a place of fear. Librarians are trained to help people and, during a time of crisis, they understandably start thinking how they can meet people where they are. In some cases, this may indeed mean moving away from an emphasis on the materials collection and towards an emphasis on other services and community partnerships. I also think, however, that libraries fear that closing during the pandemic means government officials will see their work as “non-essential” and believe that the library is truly irrelevant and outdated. If they want local officials to continue funding libraries, the workers need to find a way to show they are necessary during a crisis. So workers stop thinking about how to circulate the latest YA releases and start wondering what they can do to make their importance visible during a time no one can enter the building. Subramaniam and Braun suggest the answer is to offer social services.

I would suggest that this type of thinking is both unfair to librarians and to the communities they serve. Librarians are trained to be information professionals, and not social service workers. What they can offer is probably not as good as what a trained professional or organization can offer in their place. Furthermore, librarians did not ask to be social workers. They did not go to school for that job or apply to that job. To ask them to take on that kind of work–especially with no training–is not right at the best of times, but even worse now. Librarians probably did not go into their line of work imagining that they might have to literally risk their lives or the lives of people they know and care about, in pursuit of serving the community. Telling them that they cannot simply offer curbside pickup and virtual options during a global pandemic, but must go out into the community to provide social services (because you can’t really offer food security or employment services if your building is closed to the public) is to ask them to perform a job they never signed up for. Maybe we would like to believe that the average librarian is willing to risk their lives to offer job help, but I do not think we can blame them if they are not. After all, how many of us would be willing to do the same?

The type of thinking exemplified by the Subramaniam and Braun article is, however, more than a prime example of vocational awe. It is also an example of libraries losing their focus in the attempt to be relevant. Very often, libraries try to be relevant by meeting community needs that are currently unfilled. During the pandemic, this might mean handing out free food and clothing, offering to read and review resumes, creating youth activism clubs, and more. But what happens when the pandemic ends? When the need is met? Libraries lose their relevance when it becomes clear that they are not really a soup kitchen, not really a career center. Then they must pivot again, to find a new, unfilled need that they can meet.

This raises the question: “What is the core mission of the library?” Is it really to take on any community need, as that need arises? Should workers expect to pivot constantly from one job to another, with little or no training? Or can the core mission of the library be re-imagined as something more stable, something that libraries can constantly refresh as community need and engagement changes, without having to redefine their entire job function?

These questions have been circulating around libraries for awhile, as they seek to transform with the times and to demonstrate their relevance in a constantly-changing world. However, I think the pandemic has heightened the dialogue around what libraries are and what they demand of their workers. The pandemic has shown that library administrations, local officials, library workers, and their communities have all, in various places across the U.S. expected at one time or another that libraries would reopen as a matter of course, despite the safety risks. Librarians were literally willing to risk their lives–and those of community members–in the name of serving the community, simply because it was so unthinkable that the library, the place where people gather, read, find information, and access the internet to do anything from applying to jobs to applying to government aid, would not be available. This is vocational awe taken to the extreme.

I believe in libraries and in the work they do. I believe that circulating books, paying for database access, and providing internet access is important work–even if it is work that cannot reasonably be safely done during a global pandemic. I do not think that we need expect librarians to become social workers during this time simply to prove their worth. Libraries still have a role in the community as places where people can find reliable information. In a time of crisis, I think libraries should be able to pivot to find ways that they continue to provide that information–without asking their employees to take on new roles they are not trained for and did not sign up for.

Suggesting that library workers continue to provide information about resources instead of handing out those resources themselves may seem uncaring. It may seem to threaten the very existence of libraries, or even to personally attack the desire of library workers to help when needed most. However, we need to resist the pull of vocational awe. We need to ask whether we can, in all fairness, really ask librarians to risk their health and maybe their lives to reopen buildings during a time when it may not be safe to do so. The library is important, yes. But is it more important than the people who work there?

Might Librarians’ Vocational Awe Have Negative Effects on the Community?

Librarians' Vocational Awe

Regular readers of our blog know that we are huge library supporters here at Pages Unbound. Over the years, we have enthusiastically discussed all the wonderful work libraries do, from providing a safe space for those experiencing homelessness to hosting public forums to providing classes on everything from art to gardening. However, in my latest post, I mused that, despite all this, the library is still primarily associated in the public mind with books. Any TV show or movie, for example, is likely to portray libraries as book repositories and places to do research, not so much places for the local biking club to meet or for teens to try out the latest video games. And I suggested that this was not a bad thing, but something libraries could embrace to distinguish themselves from other community resources.

I understand the incentive for libraries to point out all their non-collections related activities (and here we can understand the collection to mean books, films, music, magazines, databases, etc.). Many public libraries in the U.S. have been struggling with funding for years (often since the recession around 2008, if not before). They feel the need to justify their existence by pointing out everything they do, from serving as a place for people to cool down in the summer to offering kickball games after school to offering free tutoring services and free Zumba classes. They proclaim that they provide computers, printers, WiFi, and fax machines to people who otherwise would have no access. They offer resume-writing and job search assistance to help people find work. They teach English to English language learners and other languages to the community. Libraries are truly the place for everything!

Usually, libraries and their supporters point out these expansive services as a good thing. Libraries have made themselves indispensable to the community. But what if it’s not good? What if all the services libraries have taken on over the years and the subsequent job roles librarians have had to take on, actually have large-scale repercussions that may be barely noticeable, but still important? And not good at all? Specifically, I want to talk about the idea of “vocational awe” and how this encourages libraries and their staff to take on increasing job duties, which they arguably may be ill-equipped for and should not be bearing the burden of in the first place.

In “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” Fobazi Ettarh describes vocational awe in the following manner: “’Vocational awe’ refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh goes on to explain that vocational awe leads to the expectation that library workers will “sacrifice” themselves to their jobs, often taking on additional job duties with no additional compensation. Workers who cannot perform to a high level due to personal or medical reasons may be viewed negatively, along with those who complain about the job, since the “sacred” work libraries do to provide safe spaces and serve democracy must be upheld at all costs. Vocational awe obviously can lead to things like burnout, as Ettarh notes, but might its negative consequences go even farther?

Ettarh mentions the existence of “job creep,” in which one’s job duties slowly expand, without recognition from the employer. Aspects of the job that were once voluntary, for example, become mandatory, with no additional compensation. Ettarh gives as an example how library workers once might have trained voluntarily to administer anti-overdose medication, but now are regularly simply expected to do it as part of the job, regardless of their comfort level. This is but one example, however. I believe that job creep has been occurring in libraries for years, to the extent that much of the work that libraries do now, is really an example of job creep.

Librarians once were–and are still described as–information professionals. In theory, the job of the librarian is to help guide individuals to the information they seek. So, for example, if someone has a legal question, a library worker can show that individual where to find the answer, although they cannot interpret the answer for the individual. If someone is looking for information on a certain moment of history, a library worker can show them the appropriate shelf in the stacks, show them how to use a relevant database, and explain to them how to use keywords to find relevant websites. If someone has lost their job and needs financial help, the library worker can give them addresses and phone numbers for the appropriate local agencies that can help. The librarian is not there to teach the person history or to get them a new job or an emergency loan, only to show them how to find more information about it. And this is because the librarian has been trained as an information professional, not as a lawyer or a historian or a social worker. They can’t be expected to do the jobs of other people, which they have not been trained to do and are not qualified to perform.

This job description has changed a lot. I have visited many libraries and I speak to a lot of library workers. Some of the job duties libraries now perform include:

  • Teaching yoga story time (even though they are not registered yoga instructors)
  • Tutoring children in writing and math (even though they are not certified tutors)
  • Teaching homeschooled children classes on science, art, and coding (even though they are not certified teachers)
  • Teaching children and adults Spanish and ASL (even though the librarian is still learning the languages themselves)
  • Assisting individuals to write their resumes and apply to jobs (even though they are not job coaches)
  • Providing anti-overdose medication, agency referrals, and a sympathetic, listening ear (even though they are not trained social workers)
  • Offering kids football and basketball games, video game tournaments, art activities, and more (even though they are not running the local community center).

Now, I understand that librarians are generally proud of this work, and that they want to do it. I understand that suggesting that they not do it goes against everything they have been trained to believe in. After all, they want to help people. They don’t want to walk away from that woman who needs a new job to feed her child, or that teenager who might end up on the streets if they can’t help him graduate. They are the saviors of the community. The ones who do all the work to give the community what it needs, to keep equal access available, and democracy afloat. But that’s vocational awe speaking.

The reality is that, in taking up all these extra job assignments, librarians are taking on the roles of other professionals who should be doing this work instead. Librarians are often (understandably) proud of their degrees and certifications, and they do not like when other people try to do their jobs for them. This is in part why using volunteers in lieu of paid staff is so controversial. While some see it as a way to keep the library doors open, others realize that having a volunteer do the job is not the same as having a paid professional. It’s the same in reverse, however. Having a librarian act as a tutor or a teacher or a social worker when they have not been trained to do so, is not the same. Worse, it gives local leaders an excuse not to fund initiatives that could help the community.

When librarians start tutoring on their own time, with no extra compensation, they are saying that the school system does not need to pay for more tutors. When librarians start offering kickball sessions and Ping Pong tables, they are saying the local council does not have to invest in a community center. When they begin acting as job coaches and social workers, they are saying the community does not need to fund other agencies to do this work. In taking on extra duties (for no additional compensation), libraries are usually responding to some sort of need in the community that is not currently being met. But, in so responding, they also suggest that the need has been fully met–when it hasn’t. Library staff are not the same as trained professionals in their chosen fields.

If libraries truly want to serve the community, partnerships are the answer. As one of the last few, public spaces where anyone can linger without paying, libraries are a natural gathering space. They also remain a trusted public institution, even when individuals do not really trust their governments anymore. This makes them an ideal space to provide all the services they provide from free lunches and showers to homework help. But if libraries want tutors, they need to ask the school system or a local college to provide them. If they want yoga, they need a registered instructor to teach it. If they want to provide social services, they need to get a trained social worker embedded in the building. Librarians should not be asked to take on all these roles. It is not their job. And they have not been trained to do it.

Suggesting that libraries go back to the focusing on how to access information may seem ridiculous, if not downright threatening to libraries and their staff. But it has always ostensibly been about the collection. That bike club? It’s supposed to introduce cyclists to resources on biking. The craft night? It’s supposed to circulate some of the crafting books or introduce people to the crafting database. It was never supposed to be about librarians learning how to cycle in a few weeks or teaching themselves a new DIY skill every month because they need a reason to attract people to the building, and the administration does not want to or cannot afford to pay an expert. It was never supposed to be about librarians “saving” people who might otherwise roam the streets looking for trouble, if there is no library program on Tuesdays. The fact that libraries and staff often do not even want to entertain the idea that libraries maybe should change is an effect of vocational awe, prohibiting critique of the system and its “sacred” work.

I understand that librarians are proud of the work they do, and that many do it voluntarily, out of the goodness of their hearts. They may even enjoy using that old math degree to tutor the children after school or getting to teach Zumba on Friday nights. But librarians need to ask themselves why they are being asked to take on additional roles–even the roles of other paid professionals–for no additional compensation. If the answer is, “But the community needs it!” Or “No one else will do it!” Or “I feel personally responsible for that woman who lost her apartment!” that is vocational awe speaking. And libraries and their supporters should think carefully before they keep asking staff to do more and more, without training or recognition. It is not the job of libraries to save the world. And they should certainly not be trying to save it alone.

Libraries’ Brand is Still Books

Libraries' Brand Is Still Books

Over the years, libraries have sought to fight increased budget cuts by proving their value as a community resource by moving beyond the books. Most, if not all, public libraries today in the U.S. now offer an assortment of services from public computer and internet access to 3D printing to recording studios to art classes to running clubs to gaming consoles to resume writing and job search assistance. They are community centers, meeting spaces, maker spaces, and job centers. It is not unheard of to hear about libraries considering moving their books off the public floor, to create more space for computers, studying, or hanging out. Despite all the enthusiasm for “transforming libraries” and “bringing them into the 21st century,” however, I believe that libraries are still primarily associated in the public mind with books–and that is not at all a bad thing.

Every so often, someone will begin to wring their hands and bewail the death of the printed word. Libraries are seen as obsolete since “the internet has everything” and “you can buy books on Amazon.” Libraries have, I think, been sensitive to this criticism, even when they insist on their continued relevance. But libraries do not need to pivot away from a focus on books because, in spite of everything, books are still popular, books are still the one thing they provide that is somewhat unique to them, and books are still the one thing most people think of when they hear the word, “library.” If people need a book, guess what? They’re headed to the library.

Having a library that provides meeting rooms, a gaming center, impromptu games of kickball, and yoga classes is great, but libraries need to be aware that, in many cases, such services are already being offered by other organizations. People may be able to go to a community center or a local park for athletics, an employment resource center for job help, or even their local bookshop for morning story time. Libraries are in constant competition for other organizations when trying to get people into the door. But the one thing that they have, that most other places don’t? Free books.

Book lovers looking for fellow readers, trusted recommendations, new releases, and bookish events are naturally going to be drawn to the library. Libraries should take advantage of that! Instead of bemoaning the lack of readers, libraries should work to engage the ones they have. And let’s be real. Maybe that doesn’t mean book clubs. Maybe it means more author visits or literary speed dating or literary trivia night or the ever-popular [insert title of bestseller here] book party. The possibilities are endless! But I believe libraries should continue to celebrate their books and the fact that they have them. Having and loaning books is not a shameful, outdated practice that needs to be hidden behind all the advertisements to try out the new VR equipment.

This is not to say that libraries should stop offering all the wonderful services they provide. Libraries are still a trusted public organization, a place people go to for information when they may be wary of other sources. And plenty of people appreciate being able to go to one location for their passport application, bicycling club, movie night, and audiobook rentals. Still, these things do not need to take away the emphasis of libraries on books. Books are still precious to the community! It doesn’t matter what century we are in. People still love books. And they still turn to the library to provide them.