Authenticity rant

I just finished reading a book that’s popular on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” (The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams), and although I quite enjoyed the concept of someone finding someone else’s reading list and following in their steps by reading all the books on it, and also sharing and discussing the list with others, some of the simplistic details of the book were so flat-out wrong that I feel the need to correct them here, at least.

For any other venue or atmosphere chosen as the backdrop to the action in a book, the author would probably take at least minimal pains to research the details of the world-building. But everyone in America apparently believes they all know how libraries work, and this presumption has perpetuated a lot of stereotypes that are highly inaccurate. Even those who profess to love the library, as both the author and the characters in this story do, are doing their local library and its staff a disservice when portraying them in this way. The flyers being passed out to “Save our library!” in this story become necessary when people fail to realize exactly what a library is or can be, depending on who staffs it.

One of the two main characters in this book, a teenager named Aleisha, gets a part-time job for the summer at the local branch library. Her brother, Aidan, has always loved the library, so when she can’t get the retail job she’s been trying for (clothing discounts being important to teenagers), he encourages her to take the position at the library. She designates it in at least one conversation as a “shit summer job,” and is no way invested in it, to the point where she sits at the information desk with headphones on and pointedly ignores a patron (the other protagonist, Mukesh, an elderly Indian man) who can’t figure out how to operate the automatic door opener. When this man then approaches her at the desk to ask for reading recommendations, she summarily dismisses him by saying she doesn’t read “stories,” she only reads true things, so she can’t help him, sorry.

Throughout the rest of the book, this person is referred to, by both the public and by her co-workers in the library, as a librarian.

It should be obvious, but I’m going to make it crystal clear: Not every person who works in a library is a librarian, just as not every person who works in a law firm is a lawyer. Just as with a lawyer, a librarian is a trained professional. Being a professional means that your work depends on special skills and qualifications you have acquired through study and practice, and involves holding that work to a specific standard.

In order to achieve the title of “librarian” in most related venues, you must have a bachelor’s degree in an unspecified area (English literature, art history, or science are helpful, depending on your future plans), followed by a two-year master’s degree in library information studies that will include acquiring such areas of expertise as cataloging, collection development, services specific to a particular demographic (for instance, children’s librarian or teen librarian), and readers’ advisory. There are also a variety of categories and kinds of librarian—archivist, information specialist, public librarian, college or university librarian, law librarian, and so on—that require further special training in that area of knowledge.

I have that master’s degree, plus at least half a dozen upgrades via individual classes in specific subjects, and I also teach in the masters program at the University of California in two areas of special knowledge—Young Adult Literature, and Readers’ Advisory. And the idea that the way librarians recommend books, as is presented in The Reading List—they read the books themselves so they have something to recommend—is inaccurate and misleading. Do I recommend books I have enjoyed to others looking for a good read? Sure. But I don’t do so without first performing an extensive deep dive into their personality, reading preferences, and previous reading experiences, because until you know with what kind of reader you are interacting, it is impossible—unless you’re exceedingly lucky—to hit on the perfect book for them. Further, if I relied only on the books I had actually read in order to satisfy the requests of my patrons, it would be severely limiting to what’s actually out there in the world. A trained librarian finds books for any and all purposes and tastes, regardless if she has read them or not.

This is one of the things that frustrates me about such interactions as “What Should I Read Next?” on Facebook. Someone puts out a reading request with minimal parameters, and 300 people immediately proffer their favorite book. No one stops to ask, What kind of experience are you looking for? What elements of a book are most important to you: characters? world-building? mood? Are there specific genres you like, and why? Do you read to gain knowledge or to experience emotion? and any of the dozens of other questions that make it possible for one person to recommend a book to another with any hope of success. What people without librarian training fail to realize is that the recommendation of a book must be preceded by knowledge about that reader.

Why is success so important? Well, what happens if this person hasn’t been much of a reader but is resolved to do more reading? They take multiple recommendations from people touting their own favorites and, one after another, find them disappointing because the books are not to their taste. Do you think that person will become discouraged and maybe believe that reading just isn’t for them? That’s what happens with many children or teenagers who get frustrated after the second or third book that doesn’t resonate. They give up on reading forever—or maybe, if luck plays a hand, they come around to the idea again in their 40s when some book grabs them by surprise.

Although I certainly wouldn’t put librarians’ level of professionalism on the same par with, say, a doctor or a lawyer (considering their many extra years of study and also the relative importance of their actions), it is every bit as offensive to us as a profession for others to assume that anyone could do our job. Furthermore, the misrepresentation of every library employee as a librarian would never happen in real life. If you work in a public library as a page (one of the people who shelves books and does auditorium set-ups) or a circulation clerk (one of the people who checks books in and out and maintains the integrity of the books), one of the first things you are trained to do, should a patron ask an information-related question, is to send them to the reference or information desk to speak with a librarian who is qualified to answer that question.

Non-librarian staff are sometimes even discouraged from providing simple directions, because they can’t know what informational needs back up that query. Someone might ask, Where is the history section? and you as a page know where it is, so you escort them there. But what they really wanted was guidance in finding a book about a particular battle that took place during World War II, and being escorted to the history section did exactly nothing for them on that quest besides narrow down their choice of books from millions to thousands or from thousands to hundreds. If they had been directed to a librarian, who would have drawn them out about the exact nature of what they were looking for, they would be standing in the history section with three books on that subject in their hands for further consideration.

So, Sara Nisha Adams, although there are parts of your book that are personally compelling, evocative, and engaging, you have done yet another disservice to the profession of librarian by perpetuating all the misinformation that puts our libraries in constant peril of being shut down. Yes, a library is (or can be) a dynamic community space. Yes, it can serve many functions for its neighborhood. But the reading-specific needs that it fulfills are best realized by the participation of real librarians, whose purpose in taking on this career is to find the right book for the right person by using training and experience, not random personal preference, as their methodology.

2 Comments on “Authenticity rant

  1. Thank you for reinforcing this distinction between professional librarians and library support staff. As a professional (in another field) who also volunteers at my local library, I see this mistake all the time. I always gently correct patrons when they mistakenly call me a “librarian.” It is incomprehensible to me how Adams could make such a grievous error.


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