In library school, I wasn’t really sure what sort of librarian I wanted to be. I flirted with cataloging, contemplated academia, made googly-eyes at special collections, and dated teen services pretty seriously. But the one thing I was certain I didn’t want to be was a children’s librarian. “I don’t like to sing songs and I hate flannel boards,” I remember responding to the instructor in the one exclusively children’s class I took in library school. Children’s librarians were important and necessary, but not my tribe. I couldn’t imagine myself as one of them.
Cut to almost eight years later, and it turns out that I’ve spent my entire professional career as one. What happened? Well, a lot of stuff. The really short version is: I took a job as a children’s librarian right after library school because those were the jobs that were most available, and then I discovered that I loved it.
So, what’s the difference between what I thought being a children’s librarian meant and what being a (good) children’s librarian actually is? And what do I wish someone had told me before I signed on?
- You have to like kids. This may fall under the category of “things that should go without saying” but, alas, you’d be surprised how many children’s librarians I’ve met who seem to despise children. It makes me sad and angry every single time. I can only imagine what it makes the kids who have to deal with them feel.
- You have to master the reference interview. The idea that “most people don’t ask for what they really want” is especially true with children. Frequently, they don’t know what they want. Further, they aren’t always asking of their own volition. They have an assignment. They aren’t sure what their teacher meant or what they really have to do. They heard words wrong or only part of a title. What they do know, they can’t always express. Their skills with language are still developing. That doesn’t mean talk down to them - for goodness sakes, do not talk down to them! - but you may have to do a lot of questioning and clarifying and restating.
- You won’t just work with children. Sure, kids will make up the majority of your customers. Their needs and desires are the ones you’re a specialist at knowing and interpreting. But there are an awful lot of adults who are kid-adjacent. Parents, teachers, scout leaders, grad students, writers. Children’s librarianship isn’t a ticket to avoiding grown-up interactions. And, because their needs won’t always be related to kids, you’ll still need to know what’s up in the world of adult literature, news and information.
- You are an advocate. Like everyone else, you advocate for the library with politicians and decision-makers. When budget time comes around, those pictures of children with homemade signs and heart-wrenching “Please don’t close my library” letters can be awfully effective. Beyond that, however, you’re going to have to advocate for yourself within your library. If you can pull up statistics that show your programs brought hundreds through the door or how juvenile material accounted for over 50% of circulation statistics, it’s going to help maintain your relevancy and your budget. You need to advocate for kids - to your colleagues, to other customers, to their parents. Finally, you have to advocate within the professional community.
- You have to know children’s books. You need to read them and love them. You have to keep up with publishing trends. You can’t read all the books and you don’t have to like everything you read, but you do need to know and be able to evaluate them. Sometimes it’s really, really fun (handing a book you adore to a voracious reader, knowing that they’ll love it too and having them come in a week later and enthuse about it) and sometimes it’s not (this sentimental picture book makes me cringe but I know parents who will adore it). When it works though - when a child clutches a book you gave them to their chest, rushes in for “more like this one” or actually does a little dance out the door, it’s pretty much the best thing ever.
- Some of the stereotypes are true. I smile a lot. I cut things out of construction paper. I sing songs and play with puppets and have to be “on,” even when I don’t feel like it. But that’s because some kids are shy. Crafting is good for them - their creativity, their decision making, and their fine motor skills. Those motor skills, along with pre-reading ones, are why we do fingerplays and nursery rhymes and songs in storytime. Puppets are engaging and a kid doesn’t care if you sing off-key or have a headache or need more coffee.
It turns out that there isn’t one “right way” to be a children’s librarian. Everyone has their own style, skills and preferences. Figuring out what works for you and your community is more important than meeting anyone’s pre-conceived notions of how you should be.
Jenn Estepp is the Children's Librarian at the Glendale Community Library, part of the Queens Library system. She spends entirely too much time playing video games, riding public transportation and streaming British TV shows on Netflix Instant. Hear all about it by following her on twitter @quietjenn.