Hi friends! 👋🏻 Today marks four months since I started my library apprenticeship and while that may not seem like a long time, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot of things in that time.
Apart from the regular learning experience of having a first job, working in a library as a book lover has taught me quite a few things about what being behind the scenes is like.
A little while back, I saw this thread from Allie Morgan on Twitter, and it made me realise that so many library workers have similar experiences so I decided to share mine with you all!
the general public are kinda gross.
If the pandemic has proved one thing to the world, it’s that there are a lot of gross people in this world. And by ‘gross’ I mean unhygienic. It really doesn’t matter how many bottles of hand sanitiser and packs of wipes you leave out for customers to use, there are always going to be people who aren’t going to use them at all. Thankfully, people don’t touch me when I’m at work so that’s one thing that’s easy to deal with.
One thing that I never realised until I started my job was how smells can cling to books because some of the books we get returned absolutely reek. I can always tell when a book was borrowed by a heavy smoker because the smell of cigarette smoke just doesn’t leave them. Ironically, one particularly smelly book I reshelved was a book on how to stop smoking. And it smelt of cigarettes.
Other books I’ve reshelved have had biscuit crumbs lodged in between the pages, I’ve found food wrappers being used as bookmarks, and of course, there are bound to be people coughing and sneezing into the books when they’ve been taken home, but there’s nothing we can really do about that.
I did get a story from one of my colleagues about how a customer returned a book and they’d been using bacon and eggs as a bookmark
library work will crush your soul if you think physical books are ‘sacred’.
I have always been of the opinion that the format of a book is not what’s important but the words inside them are, but there are still a lot of people out there who get very upset when people do whatever they want with their own books (dog-earing pages, breaking spines, that sort of thing). However, when you start to work in a library, you can’t let a book sit out on the shelf until it falls apart. Yes, it has a ‘well-loved’ look, but if the pages are falling out while someone is reading it, it’s going to get thrown out.
And by ‘thrown out’ I don’t just mean a full, somewhat intact book gets put in the bin. By ‘thrown out’ I mean that the cover gets torn off, the book itself is ripped in half, and then it’s put in the bin. If seeing someone dog-ear a page breaks your heart, seeing what we have to do to withdrawn books would give you a heart attack.
libraries are more than just places to get books.
I don’t know how it is in other countries or even in other parts of the UK, but in the library organisation I work in, libraries work more like community centres than just a library. In the branch that I’m based in, we share the building with the council offices and that leads to a lot of confusion because we get people coming up to the library reception asking about council tax and water bills. People from the Jobcentre will take their appointments in the library, there are various clubs, an exercise class rents out of the rooms, and we have a lot of children’s activities.
A lot of people don’t seem to understand how much libraries have changed over time because these days you can go into a library and you don’t have to whisper or else get thrown out. Don’t come in and run around and scream like a banshee because you’ll upset a lot of people, but we don’t mind if people have conversations at a regular volume level. We do get the odd noise complaints every now and then, but most people have grasped that libraries can get loud these days. Especially since last week was half-term in my area and there’s a special event for kids and I have gone home with extreme Autism fatigue every single day because I don’t do well with children…
a lot of adults don’t know how to use a computer.
This is something that kind of shocks me, but I also understand it in a lot of cases. Even though we live in a world where things are becoming more and more digital, a lot of people still don’t own a computer or a smart device that they can access the internet on, and a lot of those people who come into the library to use the computers never learnt how to use one because they either are too old to have had one in school, or they come from a country where their school just couldn’t afford computers.
We had a customer come in all the time to do her job search for Universal Credit almost every day and they told their job coach that they knew how to use a computer when they actually didn’t. Because of the pandemic and social distancing guidelines, we can’t sit with someone for an hour to show them how to use the computer or the printing facilities. Yes, we’re there to help, but spoon-feeding and hand-holding isn’t what we’re there for.
Something that has really surprised me, however, is how many adults I’ve spoken to have actually forgotten how to use a computer because they’ve just been using their smartphones or tablets for so long. To me, using a desktop computer after years of just using a smartphone would be like riding a bicycle, but it’s not that simple for a lot of people.
a lot more celebrities have written novels than you think.
Celebrities writing books isn’t really a surprising thing since memoirs have always been popular, but it’s very interesting to see which celebrities have written (or ‘written’) novels because they often come from fields where you wouldn’t expect them to be very literary. In my library, I’ve found books by comedians (Lenny Henry, David Baddiel, and David Walliams are comedians who are now children’s authors), TV and radio presenters (Tess Daly, Clare Balding, Greg James, Simon Mayo), actors (Tom Hanks, Gillian Anderson), but one that really surprised me was a crime novel by Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Don’t know who Ronnie O’Sullivan is? That’s fine because I wouldn’t expect anyone outside of the UK to know who he is. Ronnie O’Sullivan is one of the top snooker players in the world (snooker is similar to pool but it has different rules) and he co-wrote a series of crime novels. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing that he did that because writing a book is a huge achievement even when done in collaboration with another author. It’s just surprising to see which authors have novels and what they’re about.
We also have some books written by MPs (including the current Culture Secretary) but I don’t consider politicians to be celebrities so we shall move on.
old ladies read some hardcore stuff.
I think the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ applies to people a lot better than it does to books because our clientele tends to be older and while you’d think that sweet old ladies would want to read nice fluffy novels about young girls in Yorkshire during the War, a lot of them go for heavier things.
Crime is probably the most popular genre for our customers since our crime section is so full that we can barely fit anything on the shelves, and they’re what get rejacketed the most. Crime isn’t really a genre I gravitate towards anymore but some of the books we have can get pretty gruesome, unlike your Agatha Christies and MC Beatons.
We also have a dedicated romance section which is 99% Mills & Boon titles. Now, I’ve never read any Mills & Boon books because I’m not a big fan of romance novels and they just don’t seem like my thing, but I’ve heard from some of my colleagues that they can be pretty hardcore when it comes to the sexual side of them. A lot of them have the words ‘pregnant’ or ‘virgin’ in the titles and a lot of them are about “exotic” aristocrats or billionaires, and I’ve heard that the sexual content can be a bit much to handle for soft-serve vanilla people like me. But hey, there’s no judgement from me.
lonely people tend to overshare.
Part of having an elderly clientele is having to listen to people tell you their entire life story when you’ve only got so much time in the day. We’ll always be there to lend an ear when people want to talk to us, but some people do have a tendency to take it a little too far.
I’ll listen to your story about why you returned your book back late, sure, but I don’t really need to be told the entirety of your medical records or what’s been going on in your home life because those things are private and I’m a complete stranger. You don’t know who I could be gossiping with and telling your business to.
library work is still rewarding work.
Even though my commute to and from work takes an hour on public transport (or half an hour in the car but I don’t drive and can’t really afford a car), I have yet to go home thinking that I’ve done nothing worthwhile with my time. Yes, we get some annoying customers sometimes and kids are noisy and we get the occasional group of bored teenagers coming in to cause trouble, but a library is part of a community, and there are good and bad parts of all communities.
talk to me!
Are you a library user? What’s your local library like?