Why I work in a library (and other questions I get asked at parties)

By Lizzy Pennock

Picture the scene – you’re at a party, a gathering or any occasion where you might meet someone new for the first time. You greet each other with awkward smiles, you swap names and as the rules of small talk dictate, you must find out each other’s jobs. That’s just what you do. He works in digital marketing because of course he does, it’s Brighton and he has a beard. You take a breath and you say “I work in a library”.

A flicker of something you can’t quite make out flashes across his face. “Oh wow, that’s cool”, he says, nodding a little too enthusiastically, “So…do you just get to sit and read all day?” Your mind flashes back to the mountain of invoices you typed out yesterday, the student sobbing at the front desk, the time you sang Baa Baa Black Sheep to 40 uninterested parents and babies. “Yeah, something like that”.

To work in a library is a choice made every day in defiance of reason. You don’t get paid very much, job stability is practically nonexistent and everywhere you look society is judging you irrelevant. Government cuts to public libraries have been well documented in recent years and library opening hours in my local area were recently reduced by 25%. In the two short years that I worked in a public library I saw the librarian posts cut by half and then it was the turn of the library managers. We attended a county wide conference where we were told how well we were all doing and how bright the future of the service was, when everyone knew that cuts were coming and jobs would be lost. It’s hard to feel valued and important when you know that all you represent is £16,000 that the council could be saving a year.

When I found a full time post at a university library my first feeling was guilt. I felt like I was abandoning a sinking ship, leaving my colleagues in the public sector to drown in a sea of redeployments and contract changes. Survivor’s guilt. Why would I willingly put myself through this? What makes people in their droves want to work in a library when sometimes it seems like the world has already designated them as a thing of the past?

When I tell people that I work in a library, the most common question I get asked is why? Why? No, seriously, why? What do I really want to do? What do I actually do all day? At weddings, at birthdays, at the hairdressers I have to justify myself again and again. In the three years or so that I’ve been working in a library I’ve had to look at myself, look at my choices and articulate something that I had just taken for granted in a way that I’m sure doctors or bankers don’t have to do. Why do you want to be a doctor? I want to save people’s lives. Why do you want to be a banker? I want to make piles and piles of money.

Sometimes my reply is short and self-deprecating. “Because I like being paid pennies to work in a dying industry with no job security”. People laugh, they like it when you add a little edge of darkness to small talk. It makes them feel better about themselves.

Sometimes it’s nearer to the truth. Because I love libraries and I always have. There’s an unexplainable sense of peace, safety and comfort when you walk into a library. I like that I can fly halfway across the world and walk into the National Library of New Zealand and feel the same odd mixture of calm and excitement that I felt walking into my tiny village library when I was 7 years old. I never feel satisfied with this answer though. It seems far too childish and simplistic, like the vague career ideas you have in primary school. I like animals so I’ll become a vet. I like food so I’ll be a chef. I like books so I’ll work in a library.

Sometimes if I’m feeling impressive I’ll have a go at providing an intellectual answer. Because I believe that in this age of austerity, of dwindling public services and fake news, libraries are more important than ever. Libraries aim to remove all the traditional barriers to knowledge like money, education, disability and provide a space in your town centre where you can just go and be without spending any money. You don’t have to buy a £3 coffee to justify your existence for an hour. Read, write, use the loo, use the WIFI to send selfies, just stare into space – the choice is yours. They are one of the few spaces left in communities that aren’t monetised.

Sometimes I’ll tell them about Tania. I worked in a public library in the heart of a small country town for the best part of 2 years. Whether you want to or not, you become a necessary and sometimes daily part of many different people’s lives. Tania was a lady who lived by herself on very little money. She came to the library and sat by the information desk on an almost daily basis, chatting away to anyone and everyone that was around. Talking to Tania was a delicate balance of trying not to upset her and also trying to get on and do your job while she talked at you for hours. I lost count of the times that she would sit by the desk sobbing and I would quietly murmur to her that everything was OK, everything was going to be alright, to not be upset. This was my own bumbling attempt at comfort as my hands folded leaflets or stamped books.

As far as I could make out, Tania rarely borrowed books or used the computers. The library’s worth and impact on her couldn’t be measured by statistics or numbers. She simply sat with us, day in and day out. Wet and cold from the rain, tired of wandering around town and spending money just to get out of the house. Ill and exhausted, needing a glass of water. Upset and angry after teenagers yelled abuse and threw things at her. Happy and sunny, brimming over with news and gossip. She brought the library staff gifts, gifts that amused and exasperated us sometimes but gifts nonetheless. She made us cakes and bought us sweets, invited us to dinner and wept when one of us left. It was a job for us but to her we were a part of her life. We were dependable, we were open, we were there.

A common misconception about library work is that librarians just deal with books. People think books are our job and also our reason for being. We bury our pince-nez clad noses deep into dusty tomes and lie in bed at night stroking the latest Elena Ferrante. And I’m sure some librarians do and that’s great. But for me libraries are so much more about people than books.

Libraries are physically and mentally messy spaces. They are full of noise, food, children, spilled bodily fluids, rats, pigeons, singing, laughter. They crumble and fall apart and are patched up again. They hold people’s hopes and dreams for the future, their career plans, their studies, their births and deaths and marriages. They see addiction, empty alcohol bottles in the toilets, panic attacks, celebrations, breakdowns, heart attacks, new loves, old loves, joy and pain.

I have been a therapist, an IT technician, a teacher, a researcher, a crossword puzzle expert, a cleaner, an exterminator, a children’s entertainer and many many more. I am all of these things every day and I become more and more every day. That’s why I do it.

6 thoughts on “Why I work in a library (and other questions I get asked at parties)

  1. Really enjoyed reading this post Lizzie! Tempted to print it off and start handing it out to the “do you just get to sit and read all day?” brigade…

  2. Ahem!

    “He works in digital marketing because of course he does, it’s Brighton and he has a beard. ”

    What you sayin’ like?!?!?

    Brilliant piece of writing Lizzie. As a fellow survivor of public libraries it really resonates.

  3. Loved your blog Lizzy it was so heartfelt and true. I loved my time with the library service and I still miss it every day. Keep up your awesomeness!!

  4. Pingback: Why I work in libraries (and other questions I get asked at parties) | Lizzy Pennock

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