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The Important Emotional Labor of Librarians Most People Never Think About

For librarians, as with many other professions, “Other duties as assigned” is code for tasks that are distasteful, off-kilter, or just plain gross.

I’ll be blunt: Almost every librarian I know has a story or three about retrieving something odd (think half-eaten food, cigarettes, live animals) from the book drop, cleaning up feces or other bodily concoctions, or finding members of the public doing foul deeds (clipping their nails, bathing naked in the bathroom, masturbating) in the library. But that’s not what this article is about. For librarians, “other duties as assigned” has another meaning, too.

Most people intuitively understand the emotional load taken on by professions like social workers, nurses, 911 operators, and teachers. Rarely, however, do people consider the emotional labor of librarians. Spend a day at the service desk of a busy library and you’ll see people on their best and, too often, their worst days. Spend a few months and you’ll begin to follow the lives of your repeat visitors — you’ll be privy to, and sometimes help them solve, life’s hardest problems. Remember, though, you are one person and they are many so don’t get too attached. Spend a few years and it becomes increasingly difficult not to become emotionally involved; you are now a member of the community, hearing about and witnessing the tragedies of everyday life, families breaking up, accidents, the decline of your favorite wisecracking old lady, and death. Plenty of death.

There’s plenty of good, too, though. You get to see cute three-foot tall 2nd graders grow into furtive gangly young adult giants, seemingly overnight. You hear about (and sometimes get invited to) weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other important life rituals. And throughout all of that, you keep up a running dialogue about books, movies, vacations, life! You feed the curiosity of your community, and if you’re around long enough, they come back and tell you about your influence!

There were a few librarians that saw me grow up. I don’t know all of their names, but I remember their faces, and recall the joy with which they served. Ours wasn’t a large library, it was just a small branch library in a neighborhood. But a child isn’t very big either, so I was never at a loss for something to read.

It was Senior Librarian Hannah Kramer that put me on the path to becoming a librarian. She was kind, and paid attention to all of the kids. As I grew into my teenage years, she didn’t tell me how to be a yea-saying librarian, she exemplified it every day. Only later did I learn how hard she fought to establish a Russian literature collection for our community of Soviet refugees. It should be noted that Hannah did not read a word of Russian, but like a perceptive librarian, she noticed highly literate immigrant parents bringing their kids to the library and recognized a need. Thanks to Hannah, my father could relax a little after his 12-hour workdays, reading before bed.

In 2004, our little library closed and re-opened as a new, much larger building, on a busy street. There, I watched Hannah treat everyone with compassion — runaways, drug addicts, the homeless, those experiencing mental illness, and more. Every interaction began with kindness, but if people acted foolish, she, a tiny lady, stood up to them for the good of everyone else’s library experience. I worked at that library for years, learning from Hannah with every shift. And in the same month in 2007 when Hannah retired, I became a librarian.

Today, I was at the reference desk and a patron told me that it’s like she’s been asleep for years and it was time that she woke up and started learning about the world. Can you believe my luck? Purely by chance, it was I that was going to help her do it!

Being a librarian is not an easy job, and it’s not because we occasionally have to clean up vile messes. It’s not easy because, like Steven Assarian explained in his article, “As a Business Librarian, I Help People Find Their Passion,” people sometimes come to us at a crossroads. They’re afraid of making a mistake that may put their lives in turmoil. Heck, sometimes their lives are already in turmoil. Librarians take on that chaos; we have no choice but to face down the power, joy and suffering both, that people bring into our space. That’s the emotional labor of librarianship. It’s not something we often talk about to the public, or even that much to each other. But it’s real, it’s hard, and it’s important. Thank you for letting me share a little about it.


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