Ever met the stern librarian?

Published: September 2, 2011

Sour, grim and perpetually suspicious; these are some of the most glaring trademarks of a typical librarian. GRAPHIC SAMAD SIDDIQUI

I often wonder why all librarians, regardless of their sex, appear so grim? Wouldn’t you think that beneficiaries of possibly the best job in the world, who have access to a wealth of knowledge, should have amiable countenances? But that’s not the case. To cast someone as Charon — the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead to the other world — a casting director only has to find a librarian.

Step into a library, and you are greeted with a “why have you come here?” look by a perpetually dour librarian. Instead of being drawn by a welcoming ambience and the attractive smell of books, you are made uncomfortable by the hostile vibes of the librarian.

As you go to browse the shelves, you constantly feel conscious of the librarian’s penetrating gaze following you with such suspicion. So, after finding the relevant book you saunter to the librarian’s desk and put across the book with trepidation. “Eh, one of the pages is missing,” says the manager in a steely voice, while you shuffle your feet in discomfort. “Please, take another copy.” You promptly follow instructions, while once more being painfully aware of the librarian’s scrutiny.

If you have, by any chance, not experienced the horror of dealing with a typical librarian, then count yourself as one of the lucky ones. I have yet to come across a kind librarian in all my 20-something years on the planet. And despite my discomfort in dealing with these grave creatures, I still cannot help frequenting libraries. Since I don’t have a Kindle (or an e-reader or whatever you call it), I have to mainly rely on bookstores and libraries to replenish my supply of books.

I have been avidly visiting libraries managed by unpleasant librarians since childhood. I confess that I am a total book worm. In fact, I chose to go to a particular college because of its splendid library. During my childhood, I had the privilege of attending a school with a magnificent library. In fact many of the students at that school, including me, even had membership of other libraries. Perhaps the access to more books gave us a vague sense of entitlement in those days. But another reason for frequenting libraries outside school was that there were racier books available there. But did we read those raunchy books? Not really. Most of us were a bit turned off by their paperback covers which completely gave away the contents of the story. But many of us were just too weak-hearted to take those books to the loans desk; uncertain of the kind of reaction it would evoke from the librarian.

On Fridays, our school permitted students to take home ‘novels’ — some Victorian tradition of the catholic institution. On those occasions, stern-faced librarians mocked students, who were more interested in fiction, for only showing up at the library on Fridays. The librarian’s sour remarks would make the children’s shoulders sag sheepishly, as they eagerly waited in a queue to borrow the novels.

Since childhood, I’ve been perennially coming across archetypal library managers — austere, grim and bossy. But if I were a librarian, would I have the sense of ownership of all the books? Would I sulk when someone arrived to borrow a book? Would I view everyone arriving at the doorsteps as potential book stealers? I guess not.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2011.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Sep 2, 2011 - 10:50PM

    I am really sorry you feel that way about librarians. As a member of the librarian club for well over ten years, I can say that librarians are the most helpful, kind and adventurous people I know. At this year’s ALA Conference, 22,000 librarians swarmed over New Orleans and I did not meet one that matched the description you gave.

    Your description seems almost straight out of a movie, the stereotypical cardigan-wearing shush machine hoarding and lording over a dark and dismal place filled with books. Being a librarian is the best job in the world for a customer service driven, information loving person who likes to share the gift of literacy and knowledge. In this time where libraries are being downsized economically despite having record attendance and circulation numbers (ironically due to a large area of the population also having a difficult time economically) this type of article hurts my profession and my heart.

    I encourage you not to stereotype librarians (or anyone) in this way, although I cannot change your personal experiences. Let’s focus more on the ambulance-chasing lawyers, the pain-loving dentists, and the cynical, fedora-wearing, cigarette-smoking, out-to-fill-a-newspaper-no-matter-who-it-hurts newspaper writer.

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  • S Zaman
    Sep 3, 2011 - 11:23PM

    Are there any libraries in Lahore, apart from the Quaid-e-Azam library?

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  • Beverly Choltco-Devlin
    Sep 4, 2011 - 6:56PM

    Your experiences are most definitely the exception rather than the norm. I challenge you to NAME the library and librarians to which you are referring. You are perpetuating a stereotype that no longer exists and if it does in your library then you should go to the library Board of Trustees and complain. And if this occurs all the time WHY do you continue to patronize the libraries. I am a librarians and WITHOUT exception, every librarian I know encourages people to come to their facility and access information (including books). I would suggest you have 1) not been in a library for quite some time 2) are going to the wrong library and NOT doing anything about the bad service you are receiving 3) trying to justify cuts to libraries because you don’t like your taxes being used for them.

    I see from your post that you are only 20 years old. If you are referring to school and college librarians you need to go to the librarians supervisors and express your concerns. If it is as you say, perhaps the bad service you have received will be corrected if you name the libraries and librarians from whom you have received bad service.

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  • Moazzam Sheikh
    Sep 5, 2011 - 3:13AM

    There is no such thing as a “typical librarian” exceptin in old Hollywood movies. Most people become librarians because they undertand the value of education and learning. Both academic and public libraries serve a different function. I have been with San Francisco Public Library for 14 plus years and all our policies have been people centric.Recommend

  • Sep 5, 2011 - 8:16AM

    “I have yet to come across a kind librarian in all my 20-something years on the planet.”

    Perhaps your attitude is the problem. I have yet to come across an unfriendly librarian in all my…well, slightly more than 20-something years. The librarians I have met–and I have met hundreds of them, being one myself–are smart, funny, interesting, and unique. We are devoted to our careers and our patrons, and live to make our libraries the best around. Seriously, lose the stereotypes. I agree with Beverly Choltco-Devlin: you either haven’t been in a library for quite some time or you should complain to your library board of directors. Sheesh.

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  • BookJockeyDude
    Sep 5, 2011 - 8:41AM

    You know I respect your experiences. I’ve had my bad/horrible experiences with librarians. But as a student and a librarian, I have to say that we love our jobs. Most of us have a passion for patrons and books that can’t be beat. I’m 22, I’ve had terrifying experiences with patrons, I’ve had my negative outlook with patrons. I’ve worked in two libraries since the age of 15.
    On another note, we have to be stern, we’re a public service, I’m speaking of public libraries in this post, there’s no other way we could have a great system if we were just “free and relaxed.”
    But, yeah, not all librarians are bad, I certainly am not. We just have a lot to do in a single day. Haha.
    Also, public and academic and specialty libraries serve almost completely different purposes… Just give it a chance. being twenty and jumping to a conclusion like this isn’t going to give you much of a positive outlook.:)
    We (Libraians) love you haters. Ha.Recommend

  • kate chopin
    Sep 5, 2011 - 10:03AM

    I work at a library, and honestly some of my coworkers have the worst attitude towards customer service. They become outraged over the smallest things, like a library patron forgetting to bring a library card so that they have to look them up by their id. They seem out to prove the patron wrong or deny them service any way they can, using library procedures and policy like a bludgeon to drive patrons away.

    However, they aren’t librarians and not everyone who works with me is like that. I always try to be helpful, courteous and welcoming. The library director is always helpful and smiling.

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  • Mary Jo
    Sep 6, 2011 - 12:52AM

    I believe Ms. Flowers is a freelance writer based in India. I doubt she is describing American libraries. Perhaps Ranganathan needed a 6th law for his countrymen and women: Smile at the reader.

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  • Tiffany
    Sep 12, 2011 - 7:08PM

    I have to agree with the other comments. I am not a librarian, but I am an avid reader and, being broke most of the time, I have spent a lot of time in libraries. With one exception the librarians I have met are friendly and helpful. The one exception was a rather serious woman who I thought, at the time, was humorless and unfriendly. Upon later reflection, however, I realized that my behavior towards her was less than appropriate. She was just trying to do her job and I was not helping. (I was in 8th grade and trying to be funny–I wasn’t.)

    Most of the librarians I have met recognized me when I walked in, greeted me by name, smiled, and told me about new books that I might be interested in. When I returned to my high school library a year after graduation, the librarian remembered my name, my interests, and even my college major. Not quite the angry, uncaring stereotype that you present here.

    I won’t argue with your experience–maybe you have really been unlucky enough to meet only horrible, stern librarians. But maybe your attitude or perception has something to do with it too.

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  • Heather
    Sep 12, 2011 - 11:46PM

    Come to our library! Our librarians are super friendly–one of them is my best friend. And since I grew up in the community, a few of them even came to my recent wedding–they’ve been knowing me since I was a kid and it felt right to include them!

    Go libraries! And go librarians!

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  • Sarah Howison
    Sep 17, 2011 - 8:25PM

    I’m sorry your experience has been negative, but I don’t think it’s representative of librarianship as a whole. I wouldn’t have chosen it as a profession if I thought all or even most librarians were like the ones you describe.

    Are there bitter, sour people working at libraries? Oh yeah. Are there people who are just marking time until their retirement? Yep. But there are also dedicated and enthusiastic professionals out there, just like any other job. I do the best I can to make sure that every patron finds what s/he needs and leaves in a good mood. (I also dyed my hair pink once at the whim of my storytime kids, so maybe I’m a little too much of a pushover…)

    One important factor is the distinction between librarians and circulation workers–in many cases, the person checking out your books is not a professional librarian. They might not be aware of the ethics that are taught in library school, one of which is that we never criticize or refuse a patron’s reading choices. Anyone who does this ought to be reported to the manager, the director, and/or the board of trustees: It is just Not Cool. Librarians are the last people in the world who should be judging people based on their reading materials.

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  • Haider Hussain
    Sep 24, 2011 - 10:18AM

    Excuse me but..errr….can you tell me what a library is? Such an alien word “library” !!!

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  • Greg
    Sep 30, 2011 - 4:35PM

    I’ve been to a lot of libraries, and I’ve never had that kind of vibe. Are you sure it’s the librarians?Recommend

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