Saturday, February 1, 2014

Confessions of a Librarian

“Librarians are the coolest people out there doing the hardest job out there on the frontlines. And every time I get to encounter or work with librarians, I'm always impressed by their sheer awesomeness.”
― Neil Gaiman

“[Librarians] are subversive. You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn't mess with them.” 
 Michael Moore

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Libraries are one of the last bastions of civilization. And libraries would be nothing but stacks of books without librarians. On a more personal level, I know I'm the person and writer I am today because a very special librarian named Mrs. Eizabeth Lewin (now retired), of the North Tonawanda Public Library — who saw a bored kid who'd read her way out of the children's section, and gave me an adult library card and the book Jane Eyre. I never looked back.

But what do librarians really do? I must confess that I have a few images in mind when it comes to librarians. One is the stereotypical mean, shushing librarian. Then there's Marian, the Librarian, from The Music Man, of course:

And then there's Noah Wylie:

But, recently, I was able to spend time with Jennifer Stock, who's the director of a library in Pennsylvania, as she organized a tea for her library's book club readers of MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY and an author talk. First, she never stopped moving. She never stopped multitasking. And she never sat down, I don't think, ever. And she did it all with a smile on her face and the grace of Cora, Countess of Grantham at Downton Abbey. (And, if you're wondering, she does read extensively — but all on her own, not the library's, time.)

I'm hoping that you, like me, are curious about what our intrepid librarians really do (hint: not just check out books.)

Please welcome Librarian Extraordinaire Jennifer Stock! 

JENNIFER STOCK: Susan Elia MacNeal asked if I would write “a day in the life of a librarian”, to which I happily agreed.

I am the director of a small to medium sized library in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My library is one of 26 member libraries in a county system that shares materials, databases and delivery services to all of our library card-holding residents. A typical day finds me at the library by 8:15, turning on lights and powering up the computers. I’ll check that the cash drawer is set for the day, and
record the receipts of fines and fees from the day before. Those fines and fees are quite important to keep the library running. My co-workers, a children’s librarian and a library technical assistant, arrive by 9:00, and we’ll catch up on yesterday’s happenings, today’s plans, or recent Downton Abbey episodes. There are holds lists to run and requests to search for, and overdue notices to generate. One of us will empty the book drop that’s located at our front entrance.

At 10:00, we’ll unlock the front door and let our patrons inside, and the county system’s book delivery van will arrive soon with today’s haul, typically 2-3 boxes of requests and returns. The circulation desk will come alive with the arrival of this shift’s volunteer, a rotation of 50-60 people who work 2-3 hours throughout the week. They handle checking in and out materials, reserving public computer terminals, releasing print-jobs and general questions. Mothers with young children head downstairs for the storytime that begins at 10:15, and a tutor from the local literacy center meets his student in our front reference room for a lesson. The library tech will start processing interlibrary loans and cataloging any new books that may have arrived the previous day.

The public computer terminals in the adult area see sporadic use until the regulars arrive just after noon. Users check email and their Facebook accounts, search job listings, sign up for healthcare, or start their IRS tax filings. The afternoon also brings in the couple who reads the newspapers together in the fiction room, and the couple who split up: one takes a computer and the other heads to the puzzle table. There’s always a puzzle to put together, and we recently moved some shelving closer to that table to hold all the puzzles that patrons bring in to complete. Students arrive after school and head for the teen room, which has its own computer (and a door to contain the volume). Often the kids are just hanging out, but a core group of tween girls will gather each week to do their math homework upstairs in the nonfiction area.

At 4:30, I’ll open the book drop and start the rounds of letting our users know that we’re closing at 5:00. We’ll re-open again from 7:00 to 9:00 with our part-time reference librarian and volunteers, but it’s the end of the day for the children’s librarian, library tech and myself.

I think I became a librarian because I love the written word, and connecting people to information in all its forms. I formulate my monthly book orders with great care, purchasing 30-35 books, knowing I have only so much money to spend for the adult materials in fiction and nonfiction. (A friend from library school works in the collections management department of a large metropolitan library, and we met recently and laughed at the wide gap between our purchasing policies. He’ll buy 36 copies of one title!) I run the day-time book club that meets the last Wednesday of the month, and hold bi-monthly book talks called “Tea with Jen” to inform folks of new releases, particular series or just plain good books that I think they’d enjoy reading (lots of recommendations of Jungle Red authors). 

My job may be challenging at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.    

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you so much, Jennifer, and thank you to all the librarians out there, who help make the world a better place. 

Do you have a favorite librarian? Or a childhood or school librarian who made an indelible impression on you? Please let us know in the comment section. Jen is working at her library today, but is going to make time to drop in and chat with us!


  1. The library is a magical place . . . . I remember the school librarian who, when I’d read my way through all the science fiction books, promised she’d get some more. And she did.
    I have always loved spending time in the library; growing up, my children often spent hours in the library where the librarian would let them check out as many books as they wanted. We would take so many books home with us . . . and we would all read. Books . . . and librarians . . . are the treasures of our world.

  2. I grew up going to the main library in town one day a week. I always checked out more books than I could get through. It was a highlight of my week.

    And I must confess I would love to be a librarian. Your post didn't dampen that idea at all.

    But now I'll have "Marian the Librarian" running through my head. Thanks, Susan.

  3. Jennifer, welcome to JRW! I suspect that every single one of us has a librarian in our past who stoked our love of reading. My older sister and I would read every day after school--and we were regulars at our little library.

    I so appreciate what you and all librarians do!

  4. Welcome, Jennifer Stock!!

    I sing the praises of my local librarians at the Milton Public Library. You can still call with a research question and get help. And I do.

    Libraries are such different places now from when I was growing up (and my main memory is of being shushed). Now it's all about computers, and they do a fabulous job filling the accessibility gap for adults and kids who don't have resources at home to hunt for jobs or do research for their homework.

  5. Thank you, Lucy/Roberta and Hallie! I was honored that Susan asked me to be here. The librarian who sparked my interest was my primary school librarian, Miss Pippitt. She seemed all-knowing, and got to be with books all day long - what a treat! I now know it's more than that, but a library is still a great place to be.

  6. Welcome, Jen! We're honored to have you here! I have to confess, I knew librarians were busy and did a lot of things, but I had NO IDEA until I shadowed you for a day (and I'm sure that was just the tip of the iceburg). What's the most surprising thing you've ever found yourself doing as a librarian?

  7. Welcome, Jen!

    Add my name to those who think libraries are magical places. I have wonderful memories of my childhood library, and a librarian who helped shape me into who I am today. I see books on every wall in this little home of ours, and I'd never have it any other way.

  8. Marian...Madam Librarian
    What can I say, my dear, to catch your ear I love you madly, madly
    Madam Librarian...
    Marian Heaven help us if the library caught on fire
    And the Volunteer Hose Brigademen
    Had to whisper the news to Marian...
    Madam Librarian
    What can I say, my dear, to make it clear I need you badly, badly,
    Madam Librarian...
    Marian If I stumbled and I busted my what-you-may-call-it
    I could lie on your floor
    'Till my body had turned to carrion...Madam Librarian.

    Now in the moonlight, a man could sing it In the moonlight
    And a fellow would know that his darling
    Had heard ev'ry word of his song With the moonlight helping along.

    But when I try in here to tell you, dear
    I love you madly, madly,
    Madam Librarian...Marian!
    It's a long lost cause I can never win
    For the civilized world accepts as unforgivable sin
    Any talking out loud with any librarian Such as Marian...
    Madam Librarian.

  9. Thanks, Kaye! And thank you to Jack for that seranade! Now we're all singing, right?

    Susan, the most surprising thing I've had to do since becoming a librarian is clean the bathroom... it's definitely not all fun and games at work. But those times get shadowed when I meet wonderful authors, grateful library users, and kids whose eyes light up when you introduce them to a new book.

  10. Oh, wow.... Now that's dedication....

    OK, what's the funniest thing that's ever happened?

  11. Also, Jack, thanks so very much.... I know what I'll be singing all day....

  12. Welcome, Jennifer! This is fascinating..

    Oh, my goodness, a reporter, the research departments of the Boston libraries have saved my stories many times! And, confession, I learned that if I was working too late to call the Boston library, I would simply call a librarian in California, and get three more hours of work time!

    (I hope there are no time-zone rules...)

    And I just hosted a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at my local library in NEwton--it was packed! And the library was humming. (Quietly...) So wonderful to see it so busy!

    YOu are indeed a hero, Jennifer!

  13. Jen, Miss Pippitt? That's right out of Dickens, don;t you think?

  14. Hmmm, the funniest? There are always opportunities to laugh when you're working with great people. And finding mis-shelved books is always a kick, like finding romance books in the sexual health section.

    The most puzzling things are what's put in the library's lost and found box. We've got car and house keys, gloves, birth certificates. It's pretty amazing that you'd leave the library without your car keys.

  15. Thanks for the welcome, Hank - I've been to the library in Newton, and did college research at Boston Public. Love that place! Miss Pippitt's name was out of Dickens, that's for sure, but her sensibility was very modern.

  16. I grew up with Jennifer. We were in the same classes, girl scout troop, and invited to the same sleepovers! I always knew that she would be great at whatever profession she selected. She was the best and brightest and continues to be. It warms my heart that she has dedicated herself as a librarian. Her wealth of knowledge, her ability to adapt, problem solve, and demonstrate kindness creates a wonderful role model for eager minds. So proud to know her.

  17. I didn't have regular access to libraries outside of schools until I was 11 or so. Even then there were no librarians to interact with - it was a Bookmobile that came to town every month, and the staff was less librarian than bus driver. But oh, the joy of that shelf-lined bus! I still have my blue plastic Bookmobile library card.

  18. Thanks, Liz! And you know that your mother, sixth-grade teacher extraordinaire, Mrs. Gagola, helped shape me into the person I am. We had a great childhood.

  19. Sandi, I often think about getting a job on a Bookmobile and traveling the world. Glad you have such fond memories of it.

  20. Hi Jenn! So nice to see you here. And Susan, what a great idea to invite her.

    I actually had at least some idea what librarians do and and how hard they work because, when I first started writing fiction, I volunteered at a branch of the Dallas Public Library for several years.

    Your library sounds fabulous, Jenn, full of life and activity. I especially like the couple who come to read the newspapers every day and the husband who does puzzles.

    I started reading in libraries, like so many others. There were no nearby bookstores, no Amazon, no Kindle or Nook. And librarians still make a huge difference to readers AND writers, both by ordering our books and by recommending them.

    My most fun library story? Last March I got my reader's card at The British Library. A lifelong dream.

  21. I love our small town library - The Gleason Public Library - and all the Librarians! I started going to another small town library with my Mother when I was two. Yes I read at that age. I am sending this interview on to one of our librarians. Thanks for a great article.

  22. A day in the life -- what a good life to be a librarian! (Even without Noah Wylie dropping in, or the special powers of Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin!)

    And we haven't even talked about how welcoming libraries are to writers! Jamie Greco and the staff and book club at the Glacier County Library in Cut Bank, Montana made me smile so broadly I nearly flew back home across the mountains!

  23. I too am a librarian have been in love with libraries since I first set foot in one back in Elementary school. After many years of working in both a medical library and a public library, I still love these wonderful institutions. Whenever I visit a new city or town, I almost always make time to visit the library.

  24. Jennifer, thank you for that great glimpse into your wonderful job as a librarian. I have my Masters in library science, but I have not used it to work in a library (but, I keep thinking that there's still time). Joan hit the nail on the head by anointing the library as a magical place. I have been immersing myself in the wonders of libraries since a small child, and I still get a thrill each time I enter our public library.

    The most memorable and important librarian in my life is Miss Donna Root, my elementary school librarian. She helped foster my love of reading, and she is the reason that I finally got that Masters. Her kindness and her passion for books propelled me into always viewing the library as a sanctuary of the highest order. My wish is that every child has such a special librarian early on.

    Thank you again for the inside scoop, Jennifer, and for doing such an important job.

  25. Thanks to Jungle Reds for tweeting about the day in the life of a librarian. Welcome to one of my favorite sites, Jen. Like you, I've been working in public libraries for years, starting when I was sixteen and worked as a page. My job is much different, now, but I still get the chance to do some of my favorite things. Thursday, I have a morning session to chat about books with patrons, and then that afternoon I'm off to a school to read to second graders. For me, libraries are still about books, not just computers. It's wonderful to see your day in the life, Jen. Thank you.

  26. Thanks for making me so welcome, Deborah! And I'm incredibly jealous of your readers card from the British Library.

    I'm so glad that all of you have such fond memories of libraries, and use them regularly.

  27. I'm a Library, Archives and Information technician and I became one because of my love of books. The love was very much nurtured by various school and public librarians and my sister, who loves books as much as I do. Without the local library, I wouldn't have found authors to become new favourites, learn how to catalogue properly (which is my favourite thing to do)or do research on topics for work and school. Thank you so much for this post! It's nice to know librarians and libraries are still appreciated!

  28. Here's one of my favourite library memoirs, from the late Eva Ibbotson, showing the importance of libraries in so many ways.

  29. I once worked as a children's librarian, so long ago that we had a paper card catalogue, and there was no way, ever, it could all be converted to computer. Impossible. Inconceivable. (Did I mention this was long ago?)

    On day 1, my department head instructed me to always "point with your feet, never your finger." Don't tell a patron where a book can be found--walk them to it. That's why librarians keep moving!

  30. Just realized my son will never look anything up in an actual physical card catalog......

  31. So many books?! And you can take them out for FREE?? How could you not fall in love with libraries?? Here's a shout-out for my local library--the Berlin Township Local Library, where the librarians have so much fun that the nurse told them when she came to do flu shots this year that she'd never been to a place where the staff was so happy! And, Jen, they never stop moving. The whole staff is constantly assessing the needs of the community and coming up with new ways to serve their patrons. I volunteered/worked there for a short period of time, and I have to say--the most fun, energizing place I ever worked!