“Shh,” and Other Phrases

The love language of public libraries, as told by a tragically un-sexy library worker

Illustration by Breanna Lopes


I am blessed never to have even touched a retail job with my delicate millennial fingers; I went from school to part-time work in a cushy city government job at my local public library. When I first stepped behind the circulation desk at the library where I had been a loyal patron (not “customer”) since I was able to walk, I told Facebook it was akin to getting behind the scenes at Disneyland. And like a Disney “cast member” (not “employee”), I’ve had most of the magic sucked out of me over the last two years.

Before you gripe about this piece as another whiny screed from a person at such a position of privilege that they never had to deal with the public’s most belittling and disgusting side, I will ask that you consider this: Think of the people who frequent the public library in a rapidly-gentrifying blue-collar immigrant neighborhood. Odds are it’s not you, and if it is, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the homeless. The disenfranchised. The jobless and disabled. I’m talking about unattended children, whose working parents cannot afford childcare after school and send them to the safest place they can think of, which is really not all that safe. I’m talking about the elderly people who don’t speak English and come in for the Chinese Daily News or La Opinion (an honest-to-God real-life paper). I’m talking about the computer illiterate who ask you to walk them through applying for disability or food stamps or a job.

And then there are the people who come in and ruin it for everybody else.

First there are the little slights, annoying but easily solved with a gentle reminder of the rules. There are the people who kick off their shoes and put their smelly feet on the furniture, sure (and the one guy who asks you not to put him “on blast” for doing so); people who furtively eat their stinky snacks behind open books and act offended when I point out the crumbs all over our carpeting as proof, and of course the unwashed, hormone-fueled teenagers who come from the high school across the street to hide in corners and make out (or make noise). Those, I can deal with, granted plenty of hand sanitizer and mindful breathing.

Then there is the guy who coughs up slime that he then wipes on the furniture. The older man who had a restraining order against him (for good reason) but came back as soon as it expired, who now lies in wait as staff members watch his every increasingly-creepy move. The guy in black, who sexually harassed a female employee so much that they moved her shifts to the kid’s room so he wouldn’t bother her anymore.

The public library is a free public service. Unlike a school library, which is full of like-minded individuals who are there to quietly study or respectfully mill around between classes, wondering what a library is for these days, a public library welcomes every member of the public; the ugly and the great together.

Instead of entitled jerks yelling at me and my coworkers, I am besieged by entitled jerks who also get to yell that they pay my salary with their taxes (which I pay too, by the way). There are people who talk loudly to the voices in their minds, people who walk in reeking of urine, people who wait quietly with all their belongings for the doors to open in the mornings, quietly set up shop for the day, and quietly leave at closing time.

A library worker will be surrounded by books they are not allowed to read on the job. Patrons will walk in and demand services the library does not provide, and yell at them when they cannot do the impossible. A library worker will discover that a patron does not understand the concept that fees are non-negotiable no matter how much they scream or threaten not to come back.

It can be scary. It can be terribly sad. One day I noticed the benches outside the library had dividers put in to discourage the homeless from sleeping there. A higher-up laughed about it and I seethed.

Sure, the magic is gone. I saw Mickey without his head on, but that doesn’t defeat my stubborn optimism about public libraries and the potential they have to serve the community.

A library worker will see the sparkle in the eyes of a child who was just handed the mother lode of Geronimo Stilton chapter books (a rare find). A library worker will see a person empowered as they take their first steps toward literacy or competence in a new language. They will see a person giddy that they got the newest copy of the latest Stephen King novel.

My favorite patrons are those who haven’t been to a library in years, who suddenly need a photocopy or to complete their passport applications. They ask how much it costs to use our computers, and I gleefully explain that it’s free, all free, for them, their children, their parents, their friends. I get to be the person who delivers the Good News, gushing about the services we provide — a space for the community to talk about civic concerns, a place where you can begin your journey to learn almost anything, a place where you can sit quietly in the climate-controlled space where you are not kicked out until closing so long as you don’t bother anybody else.

Beyond the complaints and the weird things I see every day, beyond the rudeness and curious bounty of smells I get to smell, and beyond the feeling that libraries are a failing institution nagging at the back of my mind, there is a deep-seated bit of magic that won’t be extinguished no matter what happens in that building while I’m on the job. The little girl who saw a wall of picture books and was floored is still in here somewhere, joyfully handing one to a grateful, if germy, child.

I may not have retail experience, but I have library worker experience, which is all about cleaning up people’s messes, hand-holding through simple tasks and patiently explaining that they cannot shout into their phone as someone else shouts back on speaker, even if they do pay my salary.

Given another chance, I might let my birdlike millennial hands touch a different soul-sucking job at a capitalist giant chain store and learn about real life that way. But I wouldn’t be here, cradling the silly idea that serving a community is a loftier goal than serving a latte for textbook money. Given the chance, I might tell that little girl in the picture book section that she won’t like it behind the counter all the time. When I put on my name tag, though, I commit to weird happenings and clueless patrons, hand sanitizer and rubber gloves. I commit to working at a place that still holds some magic for some people, and that magic is what keeps me going.