I recently landed a dream job of mine working in the Michigan Legislature. The work is interesting, exciting, fun sometimes, and I have great coworkers. It’s also a total change of where I was three years ago when working as a Library Director. I have a Masters's in Library and Information Science, four years of experience in public libraries, and I have no intention of going back into the field.
When I was in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. The “career worthy” majors at my college either didn’t interest me, or I didn’t understand what one could do with them, so I have a liberal arts degree which I don’t regret getting, but it’s not great for getting a job. In 2010, I was fortunate enough to get an internship at a public library on a US Military base in Heidelberg, Germany. I loved my job, and I decided I wanted to go into libraries as a profession. Libraries are cool! Despite popular belief, they can be innovative, interesting, help people, and improve communities. Working in one is also nice. You work with people who mostly like their jobs, most patrons are friendly, and they’re not a heavily regulated public entity so you can do cool stuff.
The Social Stigma
One of my many flaws is I let people’s opinions get to me. I shouldn’t listen to what people say, but I have let public opinion bother me over time. I love libraries for what they can be, not what they are, but I slowly found that people wanted them to be what they are or what they perceive them to be. The general public perceives libraries as outdated institutions since nobody reads anymore and you can get everything online. They think that all librarians do is check out books, read during work hours, and shush all day.
I regularly speak to the peanut gallery and when would tell them I was a librarian, they always had to give me their two cents.
“Everything is available online” — true, but not for free. Using libraries saves you money in the long run, and the books you buy don’t clog up your house.
“Do you take old books?” — libraries generally will accept old books, but they don’t want to. They do it as a public service as people get pissed off when you tell them no. Library patrons want new books, not your smelly old ones. If you don’t want them anymore, no one does. Throw them in the recycling. Pages of words don’t make books magical. The magic is when you read them.
“How many books do you read?” — my mechanic asked me this once, and it still bothers me to this day. I responded, “a day, week, month?” He said a week, and I said, “maybe a half.” He was blown away by that answer.
“Libraries are going out of date” — Nope! In a town of maybe 6,000, we had 100 visits a day most days, 500 in the summer even when it was nice out. Some libraries offer things to check out like power tools, life jackets, video games, and VR headsets. Blockbuster has gone out of business, but libraries still offer movies to those without streaming services. Eventually, they’ll probably rent out Netflix passwords or let people borrow digital copies of movies.
I could honestly keep going. The truth about libraries is they are actually top-rated local governmental services. Even if people don’t use them, they still think they’re good ideas and should stick around.
I worked at two different small libraries, and both times the organization did not offer me benefits. I was a library director with a master's degree, and everyone was so surprised that I had no employee benefits. I’ve been using the ACA since it first rolled out, and I’m grateful for the law.
No one (good) is hiring
In 2018, I quit my library director job to manage a political campaign. It crashed and burned badly, and I looked for librarian jobs in the aftermath. The only offers I could find were at small, rinky-dink libraries that didn’t offer benefits. The “good” library jobs in bigger systems are extremely competitive, and I couldn’t get one despite my experience.
I don’t want to return to running a library because there’s too much politics. That’s right, I work in politics, and I am too sick of library politics. You think Congress is bad, try getting a library staff to implement a new time-saving measure or working with a library board to get a new vacuum cleaner. Most library staff members are not full librarians but clerks without the degree. To be a full librarian, you need a Master’s degree, but most people don’t have those, so libraries hire clerks/assistants.
Library assistants generally love their jobs. They make people happy all day by lending them free stuff. They get tons of thank yous, lots of compliments, and few complaints. They also basically do the same thing repeatedly for years on end. Since they do the same thing over and over again, they get complacent and resistant to change. For example, at my old library, we kept all of the DVD and music discs behind the desk and the cases on the shelves. When patients wanted to check something out, the discs had to be retrieved. This was a massive time-waster, so my library bought lockable cases, so without a lot of effort, the disc couldn’t be accessed if someone tried to steal something.
So it was less work for the employees, less time wasted at the desk for patrons, shorter lines, and it made everything cleaner. It costed more, but overall it was worth the money. You wouldn’t believe the pushback and how much due diligence I had to do to implement this. Other libraries copied our idea, and I had to send them videos on how using the lock/unlock device worked. This was a win-win-win, and I’m glad I did it, but it was a huge pain in the ass.
I still think libraries are critical and essential public institutions. I still geek out when I walk through them to see what they’re doing. I don’t want to go back to working in one.