What do people do all day?

Cover image of What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry
What Do People Do All Day?

What do librarians do all day?

The scope of library jobs has expanded over the years. In many places, “reference librarians” are now called “adult services” or “information services” librarians to reflect the additional tasks and responsibilities we’ve taken on. Reference services are still a core part of the job, as is collection management (someone has to buy new books…and get rid of old ones). We plan programs, too, and of course, there are always “other duties as assigned.”

At the reference desk: Now that we have the Internet, what kinds of questions do librarians answer?

We still answer the occasional “ready reference” or simple question about a fact (spelling, grammar, geography, phone number lookup). We answer questions about library services: our hours, where the restrooms are located, how to reserve a museum pass or study room, where to find books/music/movies. We answer LOTS of tech questions and do a lot of troubleshooting: we help people use library apps like OverDrive, we help them print and make copies, we help them scan, we help them check out laptops and use library software, we show them library databases.

We answer questions about books and recommend books based on reader’s preferences (those are my favorite questions!). We help people navigate the internet to find information they need, whether it’s looking for an apartment on Craigslist, looking for love on a dating website, or applying for a job online. We help people in languages other than English. We help people doing research for school projects and college classes, and help people make Inter-Library Loan (ILL) requests for books that are not in our library network. We answer local history questions and connect people with unique local history resources.

Collection development: Where do the books come from (and where do they go)?

“Collection management” or “collection development” is the library term for acquiring new materials and deaccessioning (a.k.a. weeding) others, to maintain a collection that is current and interesting to our users. There is more collection development work now than there used to be, because there are more formats – not just fiction and nonfiction books, and magazines and newspapers, but paperbacks, foreign language materials, large print books, graphic novels and manga, audiobooks on CD and Playaway, digital content (e-books and digital audiobooks), movies and documentaries on DVD, music on CD, electronic databases, streaming services, video games, and more.

Library users may not think about where library materials come from, but someone has to select every title in every format. It’s a bigger job than it used to be, and it takes a lot of time: time to read (or skim) reviews in at least one review source (though there are many – Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, to name a few, and VOYA and The Horn Book for teens and children’s books), time to make lists and order the materials, time to keep track of spending so you’re neither under- nor over-budget by the end of the fiscal year.


Making things happen: What’s involved in planning a program?

You may well ask! “Program” is a bland word. A library program can be almost anything: a book group (and we have five of these, three of which are run by librarians, one of which – mine! – is a cookbook club that does a potluck), a lecture or author talk, a crafting project, a music concert, a film screening, a theater performance, a dance lesson, a tech petting zoo. We have offered computer classes, drop-in tech help sessions, resume and cover letter workshops, holiday card writing stations, game nights, and singalongs (not just for kids! Les Miserables and Pitch Perfect were very popular with adults).

For every program, there is a whole checklist of tasks to complete, in many different places (physical and digital):

  • Reserve event space on the library’s internal calendar (Google calendar)
  • Create the event on the library website calendar (WordPress)
  • If there is an outside performer/presenter, set a date and time and agree on payment or travel costs (e-mail or phone)
  • Add the event to our monthly press release (Google docs)
  • Create a flyer to post in the library (Publisher or Canva)
  • Make another version of the flyer to fit our digital sign (Publisher and Paint or Canva) and upload (Dropbox)
  • Make additional promo materials (e.g. bookmarks or half- or quarter-sheet handouts)
  • Write a blog post (WordPress)
  • Promote on social media (Facebook and Twitter via Hootsuite)
  • Set up event registration, if using, and send a reminder to participants (Eventbrite)

And that’s all before the day of the program itself. On that day, there is the time of the program itself, plus setup and cleanup, remembering to take a head count of attendees, and perhaps asking them to fill out a feedback form to help improve future programming.

The work of program planning, collection development, and creating displays largely takes place during our off-desk hours (the time that we are not at the reference desk), because, as they say, reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated; the library is busier than ever.

Other duties as assigned

Reference service, collection development, and program planning are three big chunks of the adult services librarian job. What else do we do? This varies from library to library. Here, we create displays (we have three display tables, and we create new displays every month, which means that our team of five full-time librarians creates thirty-six displays each year), write for the library blog, offer a variety of “readers’ advisory” services (from our staff picks shelf to our Goodreads account to handouts on specific topics or genres), contribute to the library’s social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter), attend monthly department meetings and other meetings for various committees and groups, and attend the occasional conference or other professional development activity. And of course, there are little tasks that take up time, such as refilling office supplies, cleaning up messes, watering the office plants, and anything else that arises.

So that’s what librarians do all day. Do you work in a library? What parts of your job do you think would surprise people?


MLA Conference, Day Two (Thursday), Part One

I had a hard time deciding which Thursday morning session to go to, but ultimately I chose “On Life Support, but Not Dead Yet!: Revitalizing Reference for the 21st Century” and I’m glad I did. Jason Kuhl of the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library (AHML) and Celeste Choate of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) presented, and both had excellent ideas to share. As most librarians know, demand for “traditional” reference services have been declining, with many fewer “ready reference” questions as well as fewer complex reference questions. Multitudes of column inches in newspapers (screen inches in online publications) have been devoted to whether libraries are relevant in today’s world, and probably an equal amount has been written by librarians and our allies on why libraries are in fact relevant.

But as some libraries shift toward the “library as community center” model, others consider how to highlight the reference services that have always been libraries’ strength. One of the most obvious ways, Jason pointed out, was to make the reference desk visible: put it in a high-traffic area, near an entrance, or just make sure it’s not behind a wall where patrons have to seek it out. Another way that Arlington Heights increased the number of questions answered (by 34%!) was to separate face-to-face interactions from phone, e-mail, and chat interactions; that is, when a librarian was at the reference desk, s/he was only responsible for face-to-face interactions with patrons physically in the library. Librarians away from the desk handled all other types of reference questions. In addition to boosting the number of questions answered, this solution seems to me like a big stress-reliever; instead of trying to answer four questions at once, staff can focus on just one, and give that patron better service.

Jason also talked about a reshuffling of responsibilities at the two desks at the Arlington Heights library. Previously, they had an “Information” desk and a “Welcome” desk. At the info desk, staff with MLS degrees answered traditional reference questions, helped with database research, did technical instruction, and handled genealogy and business questions; at the welcome desk, staff without an MLS answered questions about the catalog, helped with technology, and did readers’ advisory. This distinction was unclear to patrons (most patrons, not unreasonably, assume that everyone who works in a library is a librarian with the same level of expertise), so the desk responsibilities were shifted and the names were changed accordingly. Now, patrons could go to the “Digital Services” desk to ask about the public computers, digital content, technology instruction, and e-readers/tablets/phones, or they could go to the “Information Services” desk with questions about genealogy and business, readers’ advisory, or the catalog. Some staff at each desk had an MLS and some did not. Though it required cross training for staff, the new system was more intuitive for patrons.

Jason noted the importance of “proactively marketing what you can do versus waiting for people to come to you,” as well as the importance of being “nimble and local,” by responding to rising unemployment by offering help for jobseekers, for example. The library also offers technology classes, and staff noticed that attendance at these classes rose even as public computer use declined. The Arlington Heights library is able to offer more than the usual tech classes: they offer sessions on blogging, Twitter, Android vs.  iOS, and where to listen to music online. The library is “not just a grocery store, but also a kitchen,” Jason said, meaning it is not just a place to come get things, but also a place to make things. “Libraries,” he finished, “help people be successful in their lives.”



Celeste from AADL presented next, starting with an overview of the library system. The AADL is one main library and four branches; they have 8.8m checkouts, 1.6m visits, and about 80k attendance at programs annually, but reference questions have declined sharply, from 126k in 2003-2004 to 51k in 2011-2012. The AADL took a hard look at “What job needs to be done? Who is qualified to do it? Who answers which questions?” They have several levels of staff, from clerks to MLS students to library technicians, librarians, supervisors, and managers. Each level of staff spends a certain amount of time on the desk every week (the library is open 74 hours/week year-round), but there is a six-week training program that supports non-MLS staff on the desk. There is also peer-to-peer training in the form of a staff wiki, and a variety of ways for patrons and staff alike to ask questions.


All of these changes seem designed to support library staff’s responsiveness to the public and to each other. Staff create wayfinders and tools for the public, like homework help, and staff and the public also create resources together, like readalike lists. There is also an “on demand” digitization process; digitization can be a long, slow process, so why not let the public decide what they want to see first? Patrons can request digitized copies of articles from old local newspapers, and instead of simply delivering that item to that patron, the item is made available to the public as well. The public also helps tag items in the catalog (crowdsourcing!) with the Points-o-Matic game.

A final small outreach effort was to add a short message to the  “Ready for Pickup” notices that are automatically e-mailed to patrons when their requested items arrive at the library. Instead of just saying that the item is ready, the AADL added a sentence along the lines of “Did you know the library can answer questions?” Because, unbelievably, some people do not know this. (Celeste’s own grandmother, apparently, was one of these people. “What do you think I do all day, Grandma?”)


All of the ideas that Jason and Celeste presented were thought-provoking and inspiring. I especially like the idea of a combination staff/patron chat where staff can provide answers to their fellow staff as well as to patrons (Celeste called this “the channel”), but I have to say my favorite idea is separating face-to-face reference from phone/e-mail/chat reference, and handling the latter off-desk. At AHML, this seemed to have many positive effects: it reduces stress on desk staff, improves the F2F experience for patrons, and allows library staff to answer more questions (a ringing phone doesn’t go unanswered because the person on the desk is helping someone else).

This post wound up being pretty long, so I’ll write about the remaining three Thursday sessions in the next post(s). Stay tuned, and please share your thoughts in the comments!