Two days in a librarian’s life

Librarians have varied and interesting jobs! This librarian works 15 hours per week in a Local Studies post, and has shared with us the enquiries they researched and responded to, with the help of one assistant, in just two days last week:

  • Two separate TV companies want background info for programmes they are making for this autumn.
  • I need info on the founder of a local college for the deaf.
  • Please find me a local newspaper report of the death of a motorcyclist in 1951 (narrowed it down with GRO indexes on Ancestry).
  • Please search local trade directories for me for a pub on the county borders, 1870s to 1880s.
  • A lady from the USA comes in to research her family, who lived at a local manor house. She is delighted with the amount of resources we have on them.
  • Another lady needs help copying an exact small rural area on the 1880 map.
  • A man comes in to research the navigability of the local river.
  • Another man needs intensive staff help to search the FindmyPast site.
  • A lady needs guidance in using newspapers on microfilm.
  • When did a local village magazine start, and how can I write to them?
  • Please can you help us trace the whereabouts of a book containing original watercolours by a Victorian lady artist, which we think we saw in a local museum in 1995?
  • We need photographs and history of a jeweller’s shop in the county town.
  • A colleague from another council dept asks if we can suggest a local book suitable for official presentations? (We recommend a very good one published by ourselves, which will mean income for our photo website).
  • Local man would like us to run off more copies of his little book which we produced for him; his nephew has mentioned it on Facebook & it’s selling like hot cakes.

In addition:

  • Several people just coming in and getting on quietly with their own research, using the resources themselves.
  • Booking people on to computers, website advice, sorting out printing problems etc.
  • Liaising with IT dept re library management system glitches.
  • Ditto the electricians who have come to replace some of lights.
  • Branch library needs me to organise replacement copy of a touring display which should have come to her library and has got lost en route.
  • Is it ok for us to discard this local studies book from our branch?
  • Have you got this book? (x 5 or 6), plus daily request list from our pool stock, copies to find & dispatch.
  • I also normally have an indexing workload (new and retrospective) and am responsible, with my jobshare partner, for management of staff and library.

24 thoughts on “Two days in a librarian’s life

  1. Alice Halsey

    I challenge anyone to read the above, and then effectively argue that libraries are little more than a bookshop with an Internet café attached.


  2. Chris

    These enquiries are absolutely typical of any Local Studies service provided by public libraries, with the librarians more often than not wearing several other specialist “hats”.


  3. Karen

    Ditto above comments and yes varied and knowledgable and experts. Can volunteers really be expected to gain this breadth of knowledge, be consistent in the answers given. Ho hum!


  4. Notalibrarian

    In my local studies and archives centre where I work three days a week, mere assistants like myself and another assistant colleague are expected to deal with enquiries such as listed above for three to five hours a day, alongside ‘librarians’ now renamed Library Customer Services Officers. We are not trained, and have learned ‘on the job’ – and as anyone who works in a local studies centre knows, it is quite a job.

    Unfortunately, we have to deal with a lot of hierarchical prejudice from our colleagues, and are thwarted in promotion attempts, yet when it comes to helping ‘man’ the enquiry desk, we are seemingly valued! Or perhaps, we are merely ‘desk candy’. There are plenty of intelligent and resourceful assistants who are not trained librarians within the larger library service. We are regularly patronised, exluded from decision making processes and spoken down as if we are somehow inferior to our supposedly more ‘learned’ and ‘superior’ colleagues, simply because they hold a ‘professional’ qualification. This sense of superiority needs to be acknowledged, and tempered as it is dangerous, and exclusive, and can – and often does – extend to less qualified colleagues, and also the public who use our services. Needless to say, there are, of course, some lovely, well-balanced, and kind librarians out there, too! Or I would not have stayed in my role for so long.


    1. Lindsay

      I started my career as a Learning Resources Manager without any relevant qualifications, but with a keep interest in the development of our College libraries. I had superb on-the-job training from the staff: professionals and assistants and soon became a pretty decent LR Manager even if I do say so myself. I couldn’t have done it without their support though.
      Since then and while working for another college I decided to “get legit” and did a very good PG course in Information Science at City University. I enjoyed the course BUT I don’t think it made me a better Learning Resources Manager or a Librarian. I still don’t see myself as a “proper librarian” even though I do have the qualification and am an active member of CILIP. My perception of a “proper librarian” is someone who as a walking catalogue can remember the Dewey number for a DVD even when none of the team can remember the proper title etc etc. I know Assistants who can do that, and I have in the past and now work with both qualified and non-qualified staff who can do that. I don’t think any of my qualified colleagues learned how to do that on their courses, but they amaze me and our customers with their knowledge and resourcefulness.

      There is a professional body of knowledge and skills, but it doesn’t come with a piece of paper whether academic or charter. Lets be positive about all our skills and support all of the team members who provide (hopefully) great service to our customers. Long may we/they continue.


  5. Helen

    Notalibrarian’s comments above are very important, IMO.
    I am well aware that for some in the LIS profession it seems very important to communicate the breadth of their skills set and the value they add to what they consider to be a vital service in whatever sector they work. It also seems important to some of them to suggest that a librarian’s skills are impossible to achieve whilst maintaining amateur status!
    The re-branding of librarians in some libraries as Library Customer Services Officers should serve to emphasize to all who work in LIS that service is important. Giving good service, I would argue, will have more impact in carrying forward a positive message than any amount of detailed description of everything librarians do.
    My own experiences of customer service in libraries recently has been pretty poor. Indeed, far from being treated to the text book process of having my reference enquiries properly examined and resolved by the people who were sitting there apparently offering the service, I’ve been fobbed off and given piecemeal information which leaves me feeling, as Notalibrarian writes, patronised by someone who considers him/herself superior to me. Certainly I’ve felt reluctant to return to the reference desk and ask follow-up questions.
    It is not unusual in a service context to hear a customer approach staff with an apology for interrupting them and perhaps I had interrupted the staff I approached whilst they were busy listing all the things they do in a day’s work so they could write terse comments on the BBC’s HYS in response to people who appear to not use or value libraries as much as they ‘should’. I don’t know, I didn’t feel I could ask. One thing I do know is that if you are staffing a reference desk in a library or information service and someone comes along and asks a question, you should not EVER make that person feel like they are interrupting you, or wasting your time. It makes no difference in the end if one is professionally qualified or not – if you are doing the job you should do it well.


    1. Bethan Post author

      Helen, I couldn’t agree with you more. Customer service is vital, and the profession recognises it as such. Every time that someone feels unwelcome in a library, that they are unimportant, or that they are interrupting, we have failed.

      Customer service is one of the important aspects of the training necessary to work in a library. Please note that this site is not only for promoting what professional librarians do, but what trained library staff do. It is this aspect of training that we feel is vital – we most certainly do not undervalue the contribution of any library staff. Our concern around staffing is the moves we see to eradicate trained staff entirely and replace them with untrained staff and volunteers. Regrettably, this is already starting to happen, and may well result in experiences like yours becoming more common.

      I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve had negative experiences recently. Have you considered reporting them to the Head of Service for the library in question? It might well result in training for the staff, and an improvement in service for everyone.

      Please don’t let these experiences put you off using libraries! As the stories on this site show, there are plenty of friendly, welcoming, hard-working library staff, who would love to answer your reference queries.


      1. Helen

        I don’t dispute that there are plenty of friendly, welcoming and hard-working library staff. I even know some!
        However, my recent negative experiences were with trained staff, some of them professionally qualified, and I have heard directly from other service users that, where possible, they avoid using library services purely because of poor customer service. In this respect it doesn’t matter what the quality of a service’s collection may be, or that it is well equipped in other ways (IT provision, for example). Quite simply it is the staff who put off users, so the level of expertise that went into building the collection or maintaining its operational status is wasted.
        Training and professional qualifications are not guarantees of good outcomes for service users.
        I’m glad that this site does not undervalue the contribution of any library staff. I’m only sorry that there are some (professionally qualified, trained, senior staff employed in libraries right now) who constantly undervalue the impact good service can have not only on their service users but also on the morale of their colleagues. I’m not saying that customer service is the be-all-and-end-all in LIS but I am suggesting that without it, people may be more ready to believe that resources could be more effectively deployed elsewhere in these straightened economic times.


      2. Tom Post author

        Thanks for your comment, Helen. I agree, the service you had was poor and is beyond excuse. I once worked with someone who would build a barricade of bound copies of the BNB to protect him from the public when on service desks. I thought those days were long gone.
        You say training and professional qualifications are not guarantees of good outcomes for service users, and that’s true though I would add the words in themselves. But without training and professional qualifications there are no guarantees for the public on customer service, service standards, accountability, ethics and so on. CILIP’s Ethical Principles and Code of Professional Practice for Library and Information Professionals offer a framework for these; arguably we should be harder on those few (and they are few…the public experience of libraries and library workers is overwhelmingly positive) who don’t reach them. What we’re trying to do with VFtL is to highlight the good and life-changing things that libraries and those who work in them can and do do. Would you like to help us spread that message?


      3. Helen

        Sure, I’d like to help spread VftL’s message about the good and life-changing things libraries and library staff can and do achieve! I’ll go into business as a ‘mystery shopper’ and get this whole accountability thing going…Watch out if you are staffing the reference desk from now on!
        Was your colleague ever asked to account for his building of a barricade against the public, either by other colleagues or his line manager(s)? If he was a CILIP member, did that professional organisation ever hold him to account for his behaviour? I wonder how many accounts of other people’s good experiences in libraries it would take to persuade anyone who had had bad experiences to return? If poor performance is not tackled by managers and professional associations, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when customers turn their backs and find alternatives.


      4. martin cove

        If this site (which I like) is about promoting the value of trained staff could they be mentioned as such more – all visible references seem to be to ‘librarians’ rather than assistants


      5. Bethan Post author

        Martin, I think the issue there is that, for many users, anyone working in a library is a librarian. Lots of our stories come from library users, and are told in their own language, which doesn’t distinguish between different types of library staff.

        We’re in the process of adding some more information to the site about library staff, which will hopefully help to show what library staff at all levels do.

        Very glad you like the site 🙂


      6. Martin Cove

        Hi – good to read this. Yes I accept that were all librarians to the public (and I’m trying to become one) but some explicit recognition of other staff would be helpful to morale which is declining here rapidly I feel. Volunteers and ‘community involvement’ are being pushed here in Cambs in a big way – what warm and cuddly words these are ! We are being asked to accept pay cuts of up to 7 % for some staff.
        We are being told volunteers will only do ‘specific’ tasks which are not deemed part of the ‘core’ offer. This is to my mind totally unworkable e.g. what happens if customer wants something that the volunteer is not supposed to help with ? If the volunteer declines then the customer’s need / want goes unfulfilled if the volunteer does help then the quality of such help will likely be lower than with a paid assistant. Either way service quality suffers. This is not to mention the increasing problems we get with rude and even anti social behaviour. Would unpaid helpers put up with this for long ? Is it right to expect them to ? Many have a ‘rosy tinted ‘ view of libraries but my experience is that a thick skin is very necessary today. Without pay / promotion then volunteers will not suffer what we have to for long !
        Is anyone else out there having this thrust upon them ?


  6. Tom Roper

    Barricade man was long before CILIP was a gleam in anyone’s eye, in old days of LA. And in this particular instance, no, he ended up leaving the profession. Did I tackle him about it, only in jest, did others, don’t think so, can’t say about his line managers, but they were too busy attending reiki workshops to do any managing (this was a London authority in the 80s). We all joked about barricade man, we were all appalled, and if we were on the desk with him made sure we were as approachable and open as possible, to make up for his deficiencies; we’d leap in to field the questions before he got involved. So I suppose we colluded in covering up his unprofessional conduct, but we did take steps to mitigate the damage we could see he was doing.
    But the point was that everybody concerned, his colleagues and the public realised that this was not how professionals behaved, and that he was aberrant, so there was a certain collective discipline exercised. If everyone behaved like barricade man, then you’d have a really dysfunctional library…that sounds like the library you encountered, and I do hope you take it further.
    The thing about librarians, with the exception of BM, is that, unlike some professions I could name, we actually want to be accountable, open etc…it’s a fundamental part of our professional culture, coming from our role in making knowledge freely available to enhance life and civilisation.


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  9. Rudi Affolter

    Although I work in a University Library I have to tell you that we are facing drastic cutbacks, with our site Libraries in danger of being reduced from 5 to 3, and our queries are very different, I have to day that I agree with many of the anti-cuts comments above. We used to have several more site libraries in our ‘multi-site’ campus, but they have closed over the years.

    The public library service is one of the jewels-in-the-crown of local authority provision. Perhaps you only want to find an obscure piece of information; perhaps it is the kind of book you will only read once; perhaps it is the kind of book you will borrow many times; perhaps it is out of print or otherwise unavailable perhaps you cannot afford to buy all the books you want, or any at all – I know there are many, many books that fall into all of these categories for me.

    The public library service is vital for all of us. Not everything is available online – and we do not all have access to a PC and the Internet.

    Cutbacks and closures to our public library system is nothing short of cultural vandalism. It is just as bad as the yob’s who seem to enjoy spraying graffitti on anything and everything. Let us not behave like these vandal’s. Let us fight back to save our libraries.

    People reading this are presumably concerned about their libraries. Are you a member of a group fighting to save your library? If not, join now. If there is not one, get together with like-minded people and form one.

    It is amazing what people can achieve if they get involved.


  10. Rudi Affolter

    In response to my own comment, can I urge people to get involved by taking what I can best describe as “alternative nonviolent direct action” to show how valued their library services are:

    *take out the maximum number of books you are allowed under your membership; preferably things that really interest you so that you will read them or look at them if they consist mainly of photographs;

    *renew your books at least once and then return them a few days later;

    *take out another maximum number of books, etc;

    *if you have a family, get everyone involved; get your friends and their families involved;

    *read the newspapers and journals that interest you;

    *use the online/computer facilities even if you have them available at home;

    *ask your librarians for assistance with enquiries for obscure queries concerning things you have always meant to find out;

    *ask about information pertaining to your local community, whether its history, clubs and community groups, local footpaths – come on, you can think of other things yourselves!

    *see if you can use the Library as a sort of community information centre, asking permission to put up notices about forthcoming club and local events;

    *make sure the Library has a source of information including contacts for all the local clubs and groups;

    *flood your local newpapers with letters about your library;

    *in short, REALLY make full use of your local library to make it clear it is used a great deal, valued, needed, and wanted.

    There are so many things we can do to fight back and make it impossible for local authorities to close OUR Libraries. WE pay for them. YOU will miss them if they disappear. For at least 50 of my 54 years I have used the public library services, and I do not intend to let them take them away from me now.

    It is penny-pinching compared with other area’s where we could cut and save billions of pounds – and without losing jobs!

    Fight back now!

    Because once they are gone, they will be gone forever.


    1. Rudi Affolter

      I should have added that libraries do not just stock books. CD’s, DVD’s video’s and audio-cassettes are also popular items available to borrow or to use in the library. Newspaper’s, magazine’s and journal’s are important reference items. Free access to the Internet and general PC use are other important services for those not fortunate enough to own their own Personal Computer’s.


  11. Roisin C

    I am a 25-year-old Irish woman who is just starting out as a trainee librarian in Yorkshire. I just thought I would share with you how delighted I am with the work of the public libraries in my (now) local area of York/Leeds. I made good use of my library growing up in my hometown in Ireland but have become an even more regular public library user since moving to the UK. This is undoubtedly because I was so impressed by the buildings, collections, services, and community involvement, as well as the embracing of self-issue and online facilities (which I had not experienced in the public system before). The libraries here are so much more than book repositories or enquiries desks, but gateways to lifelong learning and-as I recently discovered- a way to make people who are new to a city feel a greater sense of ‘belonging’ to a community. I felt so at ease and encouraged in my local library that I became a volunteer with the children’s summer reading challenge which (sadly) is drawing to a close soon. Whilst I now work full-time in an academic library, where some aspects of the work are very different, excellent customer service is at the heart of any librarian’s job and from my own experiences I will (hopefully) never forget the impact our conduct has on the reputation of the entire library. There is no point in having the best and most expensive resources if people don’t feel comfortable being around them. This has not been the case for me so far, and for that I say thank you!


  12. Gavin D

    I have been employed as a Library Support Assistant at Birmingham Central Library for the last 10 months and I have to say that I have enjoyed every single minute. Attached to the Information Services Group, the workload is varied with an emphasis on Customer Service (after all we are nothing without public support!).Unfortunately, due to budget restraints, my contract together with the contracts of 10 of my colleagues are not to be renewed in November so I will return to being a ‘user’. The work undertaken by Library staff is often over looked as are the unique services offered by public libraries. Keep up the good work and please do not hesitate to pop in and say ‘hello’ if you are in the locality!


  13. Harris

    I used to be a librarian and it’s really much more interesting than people think…. All my friends thought I just stack books and help people behind the desk all day but there really is much more to it and people that go to library are usually very genuine people



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