FAQs for Library Lovers: Snappy Answers for Grumpy Uncles and Other Haters

People misunderstand libraries. The majority of them don’t do it deliberately, they simply haven’t thought much about the institution. A quick conversation is usually enough to bring them around.

There are, however, those out their who are purposefully mean about libraries. The reasons vary: Some had a bad library experience as children, some are intimidated by anything intellectual, and some…Well, some are just assholes. These people make me angry.

Why? Because librarians, as a group, are not people who seek negative confrontation. Librarians build people up, we don’t tear them down. We interact with a public that’s facing challenges every day, and we do our best to help them. So when some stranger, or even relative, sarcastically diminishes a librarian’s work out of spite. I don’t want that librarian to be tongue-tied in response. I want all librarians and library lovers to be able to defend libraries with vim and vigor!

The fact is, when you’re sitting around the table and your slightly drunk uncle starts in on libraries and librarianship, you won’t convince him of anything. No matter how many statistics and examples you give him, his opinions are all but fossilized. Don’t worry about him.

Your actual goal is to teach the rest of the table about libraries and librarianship. Just tell him, “bless your heart,” and aim to leave your audience better informed. One way avoid getting thrown off by his potshots is to have some talking points in mind beforehand.

To that end, here are some of the most common questions about libraries, and some quick answers:

Q: “Do people even go to libraries anymore?”

A: I love this question. I answer it in almost every article I write. Here’s the short answer: “Are you kidding? According to the latest statistics, libraries in the United States are visited 1.4 billion times a year!” Sometimes this will be followed up with something about the internet changing things. No worries read this: Library Visits Have Gone Way Up Over the Last Two Decades. If, however, the follow up is:

Q: “Yeah, but isn’t it all just homeless people these days?”

A: All sorts of people come into the library for different reasons, young families come to get their kids excited about reading and help them develop fine motor skills, older adults come for computer classes and social interaction, and people of all ages come to develop job skills and search for jobs. Everyone of these people, including the homeless, have to adhere to the same code of conduct and have the same rights to library service.

Q: “Last time I was at the library, all I saw people doing was surfing Facebook and looking at porn!”

A: That’s too bad. During the 40 hours a week I spend at the library, I see people searching for jobs, doing research for school, writing novels, communicating with faraway relatives (sometimes on Facebook!), and many more perfectly legal activities. It may be weird to look at porn in public, but it’s not illegal, and most libraries support free access to information. Starting to censor information is a slippery slope we wouldn’t want our country to go down.

Q: “Libraries are only for [kids], [old folks], [poor people].”

A: Why? (wait for answer, it’ll be something silly, and then share 1 or 2 services that your library offers, for example) Libraries are great for kids, but we get plenty of adults attending our free classical music concert series — the last concert had an audience of 40 people of all ages. Lots of non-kids also love our online language learning programs…Some people pay hundreds of dollars for Rosetta Stone because they don’t know they can get Mango Languages from libraries for free. When they find out, they’re stoked!

Q: “That’s great, but won’t the internet solve all of those problems? Soon people won’t need libraries.”

A: The internet is great! We show people how to use it all the time. Believe it or not, the average person is really inefficient at online research. That’s why fake news is so popular! Librarians teach people of all ages how to find credible information that is tailored to that person’s needs. Google can’t tell the difference between a 10-year old doing science homework and a 65-year old searching for medical information, librarians can.

Q: “Books are all going digital. And no one reads anymore anyway!”

A: You do know that libraries have been offering e-books for at least 15 years, right? Readers, and there are plenty of them, have been using libraries to borrow digital materials at monumental rates for a while now. So I think if physical books go away, which they won’t for a long time, libraries will do just fine. And as far as reading goes, studies show that rates of reading among all ages has fluctuated since the 1960s, while rates went down in the 90s and the early 2000s, they’ve been bouncing back up for the last ten or so years! People love reading!

Q: “Speaking of reading, I’d love to have a job where I could sit around and read all day!”

A: Me too! But I’m too busy… [Choose one, or come up with your own:] a) …Planning programs to get kids excited about science, b) …Teaching older adults how to avoid online scams, c) …Finding just the right story to get a kid who doesn’t like reading excited about books, d) Helping students make it through their PhD programs.

Q: “Why do you need a Master’s Degree to be a librarian anyway?”

A: For the same reason executives of large companies need MBAs, architects need a Masters of Architecture, and Doctors need an M.D. — there’s specialized knowledge that’s required to organize and navigate information. Library school teaches us to understand people’s information-seeking behavior, how to choose the right information-retrieval system and how best to structure searches within that system, and what metadata schema to use when cataloging books and other objects. We also learn about the reference interview…

Q: “How hard can it be to read books to kids?”

A: Well, the reading part is easy if you’re not shy. The hard part is selecting the right books for each group, finding age-appropriate rhymes and songs, keeping the themes interesting, and staying excited about it several times a week for months. Because both kids and parents know if you’re faking it, and it’s not pretty. Also, you do realize it’s a totally different program for babies, toddlers, preschool, and school-age kids, right? Most parents don’t understand early literacy development. Librarians do, which is why storytime is just as much for the parents as it is for kids.

Q: “Isn’t it nice to have a calm and peaceful job?”

A: The library is definitely calm and peaceful…Before we open and after we close. In between, it’s like most customer service jobs, except we help people with complicated, difficult, sometimes emotion-laden problems. People come to libraries when they’re frustrated and angry, and they take it out on library staff. Most libraries have been insulted, yelled at, propositioned, and much more. Despite all of that, we do our best to assist people, and sometimes we manage to turn their day around. That’s a great feeling!

Q: “You need to go to school to learn to shelve books?”

A: Actually, shelving books at a library doesn’t require a Masters degree. Paraprofessional or support staff usually do that. It’s like when you go to a doctor’s office — neither the people at the front desk, nor the ones weighing you, taking your blood pressure, or drawing blood are doctors. Many people with different skills run a library, and only some of them are librarians.

Q: “Why should my tax dollars pay for a service I don’t use?”

A: You don’t drive on every mile of road or every bridge. Should your tax dollars only be used to fix the roads or bridges you personally use? That’s not how taxes work. If they did, schools would close because people without kids would refuse to fund education, police and fire departments would dissolve since most people rarely personally call the police or fire services, and we’d all be overrun be marauding hordes because some would refuse to fund the military. Taxes work for the common good, and libraries provide social and economic benefits even for people who don’t use them. Libraries are a smart investment. (I cover this more in-depth in my article “Libraries Are Not Free, and They‘re Worth Every Dollar!”)

Q: I can’t believe you’re getting rid of books, why would you ever do that?

A: Public libraries balance space (which is often very limited) and the needs of the community in maintaining their collection. In order to keep a collection that is vibrant and useful for the general public, we often remove books that are in bad condition, not longer current, or haven’t been used in a long time. Think about it this way: How useful is a handbook to investing in the stock market from the 1960s, a travel guide for a journey to the Soviet Union, or a ratty book about a fad diet from 20 years ago? While some books may have historical value, holding on to those books is the work of university libraries. To wit, most library patrons don’t routinely explore how-to books on programming a 1970s mainframe computer.

Q: Why can’t volunteers run the library?

A: (The answer to this is actually #3 in my article, “7 Insidious Myths About Libraries and Reading (the first two kill me)”).

They can, if you manage to “…find enough competent, punctual, and consistent people simply to run the basic services: Checking items in-and-out, shelving them correctly, providing reference and book recommendation services (and not just for the genre one reads), materials purchasing and processing, running events for children, teens, and adults, book-keeping and budgeting, scheduling workers and supervising, building maintenance. Oh, did anyone think that libraries only had librarians? Tell that to the shelvers, circulation clerks, custodians, maintenance workers, human resource professionals, accountants, and more.” All in all, while it’s not impossible, it’s a fairly tall order to engage volunteers to run a fully-functioning library that is equivalent to one that is professionally staffed.

Q: “You’re a librarian? Why don’t you get a real job!”

A: I’m a librarian, buddy, I spend all day helping people. What do you do?

There you go, 15 questions librarians and library lovers are often faced with when interacting with naysayers. My suggestion is to adapt these answers to your own situation; include examples that apply to you or your library. Telling incisive impact stories of individuals you’ve helped is a terrific way to demonstrate the positive change librarians make in people’s lives. And if it starts getting too heated, put your hands up in protest and say in your best Robert Deniro voice, “What is this, an interrogation? Lemme eat my dinner in peace!”


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