Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ten Things I Didn’t Learn in Library School, by Eric S. Riley

When I first started working for the Public Library in 2007 there were numerous things that came up over the course of my day-to-day work that were just never discussed in library school. If they were, they were not in the classes that I took. But let me tell you, if there was a "getting real" class, it should have been mandatory. So, here's a quick list of things that I was totally unprepared for:

1. Janitorial Work  

You learn about reference questions, and about customer service, but let me tell you: no one tells you that you will have to deal with clogged toilets, human waste, vomit and God only knows what kind of trash that will be left all over your floors, walls, flower pots... Sure, there is cleaning staff, sometimes, but when a kid loses his lunch, or the toilet is overflowing, you've got to jump into it. Have the rubber gloves handy, know where the cleaning supplies are, and do the best you can.

2. Mental Illness

When dealing with the public, you will be dealing with ALL kinds of patrons. These include people who are delusional, schizophrenic, obsessive-compulsive, those on missions from God, etc. When working with people who have mental illnesses, it's best to treat them the same as every other customer, give them the help that they need, and make sure that they don't disturb the others around them (or vice-versa). Keep things safe and respectable.

3. Public Health

Perhaps my least favorite thing to deal with, after cleaning up human waste, is to field complaints about a patron with a very bad cough or who has serious body odor. Some libraries have a policy stating that a patron has to have decent hygiene, and can be ejected if they have too strong of a body odor. However, I've always found it difficult to ask someone to leave if they seem obviously sick. You have to weigh the risk to public safety (and your amount of sanitizer) against the needs of the other people in the building.

4. Activism

Local activists can be a mixed blessing. They can advocate on your behalf, but they can also be your biggest most vocal critics. It's best to work with them to the best of your ability, and listen to what they have to say. Don't take their criticism personally. It's not about you; it's about your institution. If you have a positive relationship with your local activists they can really help you out when you need it.

5. Complaints

You learn about book challenges, and intellectual freedom, but what about just general complaints? Especially complaints dealing with things over which you have absolutely no control. You have no idea how many times you might hear, "your computers are too slow," or "story time is too loud." Eventually you'll get into the rhythm of having a steady answer, but believe me, it gets old hearing it. Don't lose your cool, you may have heard it a thousand times, but this may be their first.

6. Exorbitant Fines

Sometimes people will come in and try to check something out even though they owe the library hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars in lost materials. Sometimes that person is a child. Do what you can to find a way to mitigate the situation. If it's about missing items, have them bring the items in and give them a break on the fines. If they can't find the item ask them to get a replacement copy or take something else in trade. Fines are there for a reason, but sometimes the rules need to be bent. Use your best judgment when it comes to fines. Keeping someone coming back is better than losing them forever.

7. Sexual Situations

I think we've all heard or seen stories of people who sneak off for trysts in the bathrooms, the hidden corners of the library, the back rooms, etc. Whether it’s for thrills, or it's the only place they can go, sometimes some people will try this in the library. I have no advice on how to deal with this, except to bar them for indecent behavior. If it's really bad, you should get the police involved.

8. Vandalism

Somebody out there think it's funny to be a jerk. They will tag your building with spray paint, use markers on furniture, kick things, break things, all of it intentional. Most of the time vandalism happens when you're not paying attention, or when the facility is closed. If it's gang related or severe enough damage, contact the police to let them know what happened. The best thing to do is to get your cleaning people in there as soon as possible. You can generally clean paint off the side of a building, get marker off of a chair, and windows can be replaced. Be super-careful to not injure yourself with damaged items.

9. Parent/Child Discipline

Some parents still spank their children, or worse, smack or beat their children. When does disciplining the child cross the line in the library? Unfortunately, it's a judgment call. If you feel like a parent's treatment of their child is crossing the line into abuse, you can contact the local police and social services.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are parents who just drop off their children, and leave them unattended for long periods of time, sometimes all day.  If the children are very young, call the police.  It’s not your responsibility to monitor or protect those children. It’s the parent’s job.

10. Violence

Nothing prepares you for when you have a violent incident at the library. Anything could bring it on, jealousy, gangs, theft, property damage, anything. When violence erupts you need to contact the police immediately. If your library has security guards, they should be trained to deal with violence and to fill out reports. If there is an incident, you will be asked to fill out a statement. Write down as much as you can possibly recall, and hand it over to the authorities. Do NOT give any information to the parties involved, any assistance given to them could be construed as aiding and abetting. Keep your cool, and follow the instructions given to you by the police.

Eric S. Riley is the branch manager of the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library, a part of the DC Public Library system in Washington, D.C.  He has worked in academic, federal, and public libraries since 1994.  In 2010, he was profiled by Library Journal as a “Mover and Shaker” for his innovative work in public programming at DC Public Library. He currently writes the “Librarian Exploring the Future” blog.


  1. I smiled reading this:-) It sounds like my world too. Thanks for posting this, it's universal and goes with the territory. I sometimes wonder if danger allowance should be included. We have had to lock down the library a couple of times when police swarm the library carpark during car chase or when a armed gunman shut down the whole area. Yep I agree keep cool.

  2. Thanks for the list and the advice. Everything you said is true. I also work in a public library and we certainly have come across most of the scenarios you mentioned. At present, I'm a new grad student, but I have worked in a public library environment for over 20 years (the last seven as an assistant). Anyway, thanks for making me smile and giving me some giggles.

  3. Lucky for me, I was a special education teacher and worked at youth and family services for a stint before moving into public libraries so many of these issues were easy to acclimate to. Admittedly, the child/parent interactions are the most difficult to handle.

    On the topic of activists, at one library I worked at the issue was a possible open carry protest at the library. That was a strange situation that never materialized. Another was a local church group that insisted on setting up shop in our parking lot to hand out food. The problem was, despite the good dead they were attempting, it was a hurdle to patrons and affected our service. Also was against health codes. Our conversations were terse and uncomfortable.

  4. Excellent post. When I was in library school (2007-2009) I had already worked in public libraries for 12 years so I knew these things. Imagine my surprise when I signed up for a class called "Issues in Public Libraries" expecting to discuss these very issues. Nope! The professor just wanted to spout her post-modernist philosophy and we never touched upon any of these issue once. Yes, I read the course description and no she never mentioned philosophy or western civilization in the description. I am really glad that I already knew what I was actually going to be doing as a public librarian. In spite of these things, I love it!

  5. After working in a public library for over 30 years I can attest to every one of the items on your list. Anyone who thinks the library is always a quiet, safe,clean place is living in another century. Nevertheless, that moment you know you have opened someone's mind, or helped them solve a problem or find an answer, is still a thrill for me.Thanks for the post.

  6. "When dealing with the public, you will be dealing with ALL kinds of patrons. These include people who are delusional, schizophrenic, obsessive-compulsive, those on missions from God, etc."
    And maybe, you have them as co-workers. I am librarian, I am also someone with Aspergers syndrome (actually, this is not an 'mental illness' but we are also some kind of weird).