Thursday, August 16, 2012

So, You Want to Be a Children's Librarian, by Jenn Estepp


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.


  1. This is a great post Jenn, particularly the most basic point: you have to like kids. I'm with you in that I've met children's librarians who seem to hate working with kids. WHY are you a children's librarian too.

    I think the most surprising thing for me about this job, and that you articulate so well, is how many kid-adjacent people I deal with. Really and truly, being a "kid" librarian is serving just about EVERYONE in the community in some way shape or form.

  2. I agree with all of these 100%. One thing I'll add - you have to be okay with attention. I do a lot of programs, and wasn't ready for all the singing/dancing/etc. I get shy. But the other day I had to dress as Batgirl and run around singing "nanananananananana batman!" with the kids. You get used to it. ;)

  3. Sarah, I don't know how many times I've wanted to ask "Why are you doing this job?" to people. Social norms have prevented, but I can't help but wonder. And yes, working with children really does mean you're working with everyone in the community, some way or another.

    And Lauren, a big old YES to the performance thing. I couldn't fit everything into the post but did try to allude to that slightly. I'm pretty introverted by nature and still get nervous when doing presentations and such for adults, but performing for a roomful of kids? No problem. In fact, kids are one of the best audiences, I think. The fact that sometimes we get to wear costumes is just a bonus!

  4. This is fantastic, and reassures me I am making the right decision in pursuing my wish to become a children's librarian!

  5. Well, Jessica, I am not a young librarian but was drawn to your blogspot because of my darling five year old granddaughter, who like me, finds her love for reading and storytelling consuming a good part of her day. Forty years of collecting books, a good many of them for children, has brought me to a lovely place. All four of my grandchildren live nearby and spend lots of time at my home. All my collection of children's books are getting another round of loving attention! And now my little librarian, Grace, whose favorite places are libraries, museums, bookstores, and of course my home full of books in every room, wants to help me organize my library and of course, she wants to create a real lending library here for all the family and her speciAl friends. I came to your page as I've been gleaning ideas for our home library. I know the books must be organized and inventoried first and I wonder what you would recommend as library software or an internet app to get us started. Also places to find FUN library supplies that I can purchase in smaller amounts. I must get all my Christmas things put up in the next couple days because Gracie won't allow me another week of slack! "Let's get started today!" She may be just be the best up and coming little information specialist in the making! Thank you for your suggestions and advice and for the fabulous blog you share. Marlene Kaim, Houston, Tx

    1. I don't know of anything that could help you. That's not really my area. Maybe your local public library could help you find something?

  6. I am one of the anger-inspiring children's librarians who dislike children. Unlike you, after I unexpectedly became a children's librarian several years ago, I subsequently burnt out. I don't like kids at all and the only reason I'm still a children's librarian is until I find another job. The thing is, it's really not the kids' fault. Some libraries are just over-programmed. I feel like a school teacher. If that's what I wanted to be, that's what I would've gone to school for. Hence the burnout. But I don't want to be bad at my job, that's why I'm looking for a new one.

  7. Just wanted to add my two cents from the "other side" of this coin.