Should You Work in a Public Library?

Sometimes, I leave work feeling like a million bucks. Other times, I almost run out the door to get home as soon as possible. Those instances are usually caused by interactions I didn’t expect I would ever experience while working in a public library.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job most of the time, and at least like it even when things could be better. I stumbled on “The Public Librarian Low-Morale Experience: A Qualitative Study” by Kaetrena Davis Kendrick in one of the many listservs I subscribe to and immediately vibed with much of what was in the article. (The article was published in an open-access journal; so be sure to share it with your colleagues!) This article allowed me to reflect on and, unfortunately, revisit many of the traumatic experiences I have witnessed. Had someone told me I would have to call the cops after an angry patron almost threw a rock at my car while I left my first solo afterhours program, I would have immediately asked for my application to be tossed. This is not indicative on what happens in every library, but it does reflect what can happen.

Within 48 hours of reading that article, I also saw “The Guilty Librarian: Grappling with Job-Related Guilt” in the Programming Librarian’s newsletter. While written with a focus to the COVID-19 pandemic, it touches on many points from Kendrick’s article. The constant pressure to do more while knowing that you’re already at your breaking point can wear you down. Looking at my own projects at the beginning of the pandemic, waking up in the middle of the night to start a new batch of 3D-printed face masks was a toxic behavior. Now, looking for new services and what I should be doing to help my community just causes me extreme stress and fatigue. Had I set up boundaries before, I could have limited myself to a regular work week while still helping my community.

So what do the article and blog have to do with library school? There’s little that can replace the reality of working in a public library, but there are ways to gain a small glimpse into what you won’t learn in library school:

– Once the pandemic is over, volunteer at a public library, not to get real hands-on experience, but to observe staff and patron interactions. Volunteers generally have limitations on what they can do, but when and where they volunteer allows them to see what types of work they would be doing as staff. How to deescalate a tense situation wasn’t taught in any class I’ve taken, but it can be learned by observing before you have to use those skills.

– One step further from volunteering is a field work/internship/work study at a public library. These structured opportunities tend to allow for more learning that volunteering and provide more on what public librarians are actually doing. I realize that this option tends to require free labor, particularly in public libraries, and can be even more of a burden because you have to pay your school to receive appropriate credit. However, this option will give you plenty of information that you can only gain while on the job.

– Take a class from an active practitioner. These instructors have fresh real-life experiences that can provide exceptional value to a course objectives. There is plenty to be learned from the theoretical approach, but recent examples of how they apply to the real world make you more prepared for a job. One critique I’ve heard about these classes is that most instructors are adjuncts and therefore lack instruction skills. While this may be the case for some, their unique backgrounds tend to offset that lack of instruction.

– Ask practicing public librarians for “off the record” information interviews. Candid conversations about the profession can help shape how you progress through library school and may ultimately show you which field of librarianship you want to pursue.

This all may seem like I hate working in a public library, and while I probably would still have ended up in one even after following all of these tips, I would hate for someone to enter this part of librarianship without knowing what it can include. Again, I really enjoy my job. Public libraries hold a special place in my heart. As someone who couldn’t afford a home library growing up, I now see how all of the other services public provide can work to provide equitable access to information and other recreational endeavors. They are absolutely vital to our communities and provide services that can’t be found in other government organizations. This is just my own personal perspective based on my experience.

Feel free to reach out if you have questions about working in a public library. I’m happy to share my horror stories and times that have made me cry.

Conrrado is an online MLIS student at the University of Washington iSchool and an Adult Services Specialist at the Natrona County Library.

Photo by Ksenia K on Unsplash

3 replies

  1. I can completely understand where you are coming from, especially as staff and patrons are stressed and frustrated by COVID and the restrictions it has placed on what we can and cannot do, I don’t think I would change my choice to work in a public library for anything. I have gained valuable experience and seen many more good things than bad. But I do know that it’s not for everyone, so definitely find out more about each type before settling for something just because you’re familiar with it.


  2. Working so closely with the public is tough. Curses, threats, violence, and all the rudeness. However, there’s magic in the public too. A patron slipping you a pack of cookies as a thank you, watching a patron’s eyes light up as they gain understanding, connecting a patron with that one special book just for them. Teachers and Librarians should hang out more, I think the experience is similar!


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