Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

What Explains the Trashers?

In the comment section of my last post, Will Manley asked, “why do librarians love to trash library work?” Another commenter responded, “because it’s a thankless job,” to which Will replied, “whose fault is that?”

There are plenty of librarians who do trash the work, whether in the comments section here, their own pseudonymous blogs (wouldn’t want to be caught criticizing librarianship under your real name!), and occasionally in person.

Even if they don’t trash library work itself, a lot of librarians are very unhappy with their work. I’ve met or heard from lots of librarians who are stressed, burned out, overworked, and generally depressed by their jobs, even if they don’t connect the malaise over their own job with the profession in general.

I have some hypotheses about why people do and do not trash library work, and you can test them with librarians you know.

The librarians least likely to trash library work are the librarians who, by some definition or other, are successful. They could be directors of major libraries or directors of libraries in communities with lots of money and library support. They could have their dream job, whatever that might be. Perhaps their job isn’t that great, but they spend so much time writing and speaking for big audiences they don’t care. Whatever we call them, it’s the group of librarians who have been successful on their own terms, and probably in the eyes of others as well. They don’t trash library work because libraries have been kind to them.

There’s another big group of librarians who don’t seem to care one way or the other. They plod their way through work, probably unaware of their mediocrity. They’re sometimes diligent if not effective. They’ll never be anyone’s star librarian, but they show up every day and do a little bit of work and shuffle home in the evening without griping too much.

And then there’s a third group, which is where the trashers come from. They haven’t been successful in their own eyes or the eyes of others, but they are incapable of the bovine bliss of the majority. What explains them?

Their lack of success isn’t necessarily a personal failing, though sometimes it is. Dream jobs are hard to come by. There just aren’t many of them, and if one does come along it takes a bit of luck to be at the right time and the right place and not facing competition from a hundred other overqualified librarians.

Some people are geographically challenged. They might complain about their job and the profession, but it’s not the profession’s fault if they choose to keep their family together rather than move away for a job.

These are sometimes librarians who, under the right circumstances, would love their jobs if their jobs didn’t suck. They’re often hardworking, dedicated, intelligent, and honest. Then they’re stuck with an evil boss and mediocre coworkers and they feel trapped and wonder why they ever became librarians. They’re surrounded by mediocrity and indifference.

And then they start “trashing library work.” Should they?

In some ways, it’s hard not to. There are a lot of mediocre librarians plodding along who are an embarrassment to the profession if we identify either them or ourselves with “the profession.” Frankly, there are some who are an embarrassment to the human race. Sometimes a number of them get concentrated at one library. But is it fair to trash libraries in general because of this?

Or maybe there’s a concentration of these folks in most libraries. Incompetence at the top, mediocrity at the bottom, and a few bright lights in the middle, most with little hope. When the standard for success at a workplace is mediocrity, excellence gets you vilified, not promoted.

Or maybe most people are mediocre and most jobs are unsatisfying because they’re not the sort of jobs that inspire people. I can understand the appeal of being a gardener or an auto mechanic, of creating beauty or restoring order, but is being a clerk at a supermarket or a fast food store anyone’s idea of a dream job?

But librarianship should be different, right? It’s not just a job, but a noble calling! A vocation! A career! Librarians educate the people and help the poor and ensure democracy and all that jazz.

Some people are drawn into librarianship by talk like this, only it turns out a lot of library work isn’t any more inspiring than being a supermarket clerk.

Maybe the third group, the trashers are the ones who were the most idealistic, and whose fall from grace was the hardest among us. They’re dedicated people who want to do something meaningful with their work who find themselves amidst mediocre indifference.

Or it could just be that they’re cranky people with sucky jobs who want to blame anyone but themselves for their professional unhappiness. I’ll let you all decide.



  1. A lot of unhappiness I’ve seen amongst fellow graduates who got out at the height of the Great Recession has had to do with perception of the field going into libschool and a series of unpleasant reality checks upon graduation.

    1. You won’t get rich, but there will be steady employment.

    Employment has been picking up, but anyone who reads this blog should be well aware of the current imbalance between how many grads are being pumped out of library schools versus how many jobs are opening up.

    2. You won’t get rich, but there will be a decent paycheck.

    Of course decent varies by region, but a lot of the entry level jobs out there are nothing more than glorified paraprofessional jobs that pay peanuts. And recent grads have been so beat down by the dismal job market that they take those peanuts and are happy for them which in turn depresses wages for everyone else in a vicious circle that you’ve touched on.

    3. Rewarding work, noble calling, etc.

    Talking with people on the public side it seems like they’re dealing with a retail “the customer is always right” situation where their budget and their jobs are held at the whim of public opinion via elected officials. I can see where that would cause some stress.

    Does all of this justify the complaining? I don’t think so. Every job has its perks and every job has its downside. There’s just always going to be a vocal minority that likes to complain about those downsides. Might as well let them have their fun.

  2. Pepe Lemieux says:

    For some reason, I am reminded of an old Wilco song

  3. I think A.L. and Andrew have hit on some good practical reasons why library work ends up being disappointing for many. I think there is something more abstract at work here too. Libraries have lost their focus and by losing their focus they are trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing. We tend to jump on every bandwagon in hopes of seeming current and cool: cheesy framed art prints, video games, garden tools, seeds, ebook readers, metadata, open link data etc. The list goes on and on. Where does it end? We have lost our singleness of purpose. The golden age of librarianship is over. It’s grab bag time. We’re in frantic mode. The future looks ominous with everyone holding a library in his pocket. Where’s the nobility in that? We’re scared…and angry…and the laptop schools keep churning librarians out by the thousands. Yikes.

    • Good points. As for librarians being rudderless, I figure there’s always going to be a need for curated content whether we’re talking physical books or electronic databases. We live in a world where there’s easy access to a lot of information but no guarantee that any of that information is good information. That seems like a good niche for future librarians to fill.

    • “…there’s always going to be a need for curated content whether we’re talking physical books or electronic databases”
      Yes, there is a need, but not a want. Most people have no idea that all that content out there is not equal and, more importantly, don’t want to know, which means they don’t see someone like a librarian as the least bit important. Add to that the current mentality of “if it doesn’t make a buck, it’s ain’t worth a dime” and librarianship doesn’t appear to have a robust future. And personally, after 20+ years of work, I’m tired of trying to convince people that what I do has some value to them.

  4. Andrew, I agree the future belongs to electronic data curation, but where’s the romance and the nobility in that? You don’t need beautiful gothic buildings filled with beautiful rows of books to do that. That is cubicle work.

    • “The golden age of librarianship is over.”

      You need to watch Midnight in Paris–there is no golden age

    • And I work in a cubicle in a nondescript squat government building doing just that. Does it have the same romance as working in an old Carnegie legacy library? Perhaps not. Although from talking with family who do work in one of those old buildings they’re welcome to it. Does it pay the bills and do I enjoy my work? Definitely.

  5. annoyedlibraryworker says:

    Often, people outside the profession (or those looking to enter it) assume work in libraries is like working as an educator. Personally, I’ve found it to be more like being a bartender. I spend a lot of time on my feet, cleaning up in between orders, and regardless of how much effort I’ve put into sourcing small batch locally produced spirits and reading up on the latest trends in mixology, most customers are coming in for a lite draft beer.

    • alsoannoyed says:

      Beautifully said and how true!

    • That’s exactly what my friend and I tell people: being a librarian is like being a bartender.

      Especially at this bar we go to, where the bartenders perform a reference interview to figure out what drinks to make for you.

  6. Will, you have totally hit the nail on the head. “Libraries have lost their focus and by losing their focus they are trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing. We tend to jump on every bandwagon in hopes of seeming current and cool”.

    It’s very hard to enjoy your career (note, I didn’t even say job) when you have NO idea where you are heading.

  7. Arthur Sellers says:

    I think the library schools that are STILL perpetrating the myth of librarianship as noble work that provides stable employment are bordering on fraud. I remember when I went to my library school’s orientation session in 2004 the school’s representative touted how “flexible” an MLIS is and how respected it is in the private sector. That is just a laughable statement. I can’t tell you how many interviewers asked me “What exactly is an MLIS?” And these were companies that theoretically should have known better. I was lucky that I was able to work my way into a marketing position at my company, but it had nothing, repeat, NOTHING to do with the fact that I held an MLIS.

    I am still on my school’s listserv and am appalled that they are STILL perpetrating these myths, with the caveat that you probably won’t find a job unless you join student organizations.

    Frankly, I think it’s time that MLS programs (and other graduate programs) are slapped with the same kinds of regulatory requirements that for profit schools have to abide by. And not just to protect the students, but the taxpayers who ultimately eat the loans when a poor library graduate defaults because she can’t make the payments working a 15 hour/week job as a parapro in Paducah.

    • That’s a nice notion but it will never happen. If public universities started facing that kind of scrutiny then people would start asking about their horrible attrition rates and the employability of all those liberal arts and bio majors and the whole house of cards would come crashing down.

    • Arthur Sellers says:

      The whole house of cards may come crashing down sooner than you think.

    • quietly says:

      I don’t think any educational program outside of the Ivy League has been able to guarantee stable employment over the past few years. And I can’t comprehend why so many people go into library school based on the claims of an info school itself or the ALA. If you do even the tiniest amount of research online you’ll discover sites such as this one that let you know finding employment will probably be difficult. You’ll certainly find communities of bitter grads complaining about the fact that they haven’t yet landed a dream library job. At the same time, you’ll find hordes of people who seem really passionate about and satisfied by library work. It’s silly to blame an institution for selling a service to educated people. If some students remain incapable of critical thinking and self determination after obtaining their bachelor degrees then they’re bound to make poorly-informed decisions, but it’s difficult to blame that on library schools, which seem to genuinely believe in their value.

  8. I think that when you look at it, there are a lot more people in that top tier than you would care to imagine. We’re not all incredibly successful, and we might not all have our dream jobs, but some of us are happy with what we’ve accomplished, regardless of the reward. I landed my first professional position about a year ago, and now have the pleasure of running my department, with all the collection development and programming work it entails. I’m also pulling in under 30k before taxes, so there’s that to consider as well. The director at my library and I both know that I’ll be looking for other work if I ever decide to settle down and raise a family, because while I’m comfortable with the money I make, I’d have to give up most of my paycheck to have anyone else covered under my health insurance. Are these things to complain about? Maybe, but I’m happy where I’m at in my professional career and live a lifestyle that suits my means.

    I’m also keenly aware that for one reason or another, other people aren’t that lucky. That’s nothing unique to librarianship, neither is wishing you were paid more, neither is complaining about your job from time to time, and neither is the accusation of entitlement toward people who worked hard for a degree they thought would get them a job doing what they love. Everyone has a bad day from now and again, and sometimes folks just want to blow off some steam. There are a lot of people who aren’t library superstars and don’t feel the need to rage about “the profession.” Likewise, there are folks who are perfectly competent and do complain, sometimes for valid reasons.

    So, as the writer of a pseudonymous blog, who is describing a large set of librarians as “unaware of their own mediocrity” or “an embarrassment to the profession,” what’s your reason?

  9. I don’t trash librarians. Most librarians I have worked with have been conscientious and hard working. But I do occasionally ‘trash’ poor university library websites. An example is this post:

    That post was read by the admin of the university concerned, who decided to do something about it – I believe they allocated funding and effort to completely revamp the website.

    If my post hadn’t been public, I doubt if it would have had the same effect, so something was achieved through the ‘trashing’.

  10. Robert Farwell says:

    Libraries are in a state of…transition? evolution? renewal? There is considerable wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over what libraries will become if they survive. Certainty reigned: We had a fairly consistent model for library services and a function that most people understood and acknowledged as “important” to the common weal. Libraries were part of the community fabric, librarians gatekeepers with an almost mystical ability to provide access to information. Well, that’s the sepia toned image anyway. A lot of that certainty has disappeared. No wonder some library employees are bitter and scared. There is opportunity however to create a new community role for libraries, but it will not be easy. At least in our urban environment there is plenty of work to do supporting public education, providing access to technologies still beyond the financial grasp of our members, providing the sorts of communal spaces and literacy programs that are already in short supply and acting as a public forum. I am not convinced that we have lost our focus but I am sure that what we focus on needs to be reassessed and libraries repositioned to meet specific community needs. That includes developing operating models that based on assessments of community needs.

  11. Overworked Librarian says:

    I thought my story was unique but the more I hear on forums and from classmates the more I see how other people have similar experiences in this field. I got a job as a library assistant in a public library. I was given a lot of freedom and responsibility. I began doing work that was normally delegated to a degreed librarian. I was making 7 dollars less per hour than librarians in the library where I was working. (By the way, due to a rough urban community, this library has had a history of difficulty keeping good librarians). So I trained a few newly degreed or librarians before I decided to pursue my MLIS so I could command better compensation. Within a year of enrolling in graduate school I was offered a librarian position at my library. The catch was that I needed to finish within 3 years and that I would get 3 dollars less than the posted salary for the position, and it’s part time- no benefits… but the entire time I’ve been scheduled for 40hrs a week.
    There are times when I feel like this whole thing was a mistake. This is due to the poor working conditions, administration and local politics. I LOVE so many aspects of my job however. (Planning programming, collection development, teaching workshops, administrative duties; ie leading teams and managing support staff) So I still dream of landing a job in a community that would spend more money on their library and I am looking into academic librarianship. I know I won’t be content to be a good librarian. I want to be in industry leader, a library director or a professor in information science.

  12. Overworked Librarian says:

    Also I hate to say it but oftentimes I am crafting a response to this forum between reference questions and pulling books for patrons. A few minutes ago I trained an older woman on how to search our catalog. She giggled with delight when she understood how to locate a book on the shelves using the call number she pulled up on the catalog. But then she said, “These computers are going to put you librarians out of a job!” I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. I muttered ‘Who do you think catalogs the books and…’ I decided my words would be wasted on her.

    • It”s funny for her to say that after you gave her a quick info literacy lesson so she could use the computer that’s gonna put you out of a job.

    • Well, they are. That is what computers do: put you out of one job…into a different sort of job. If computer geeks like me were doing our jobs right, we’d be automating away the boring bits and leaving you more time to spend on the more interesting ones.

      Sadly we tend to automate what’s easy to automate, not always what’s best to. Please never stop telling us what would be most helpful to you and the people you serve. I’d like to think that I can make things better, not just more twinkly.

  13. Joe Schallan says:

    “There are plenty of librarians who do trash the work, whether in the comments section here, their own pseudonymous blogs (wouldn’t want to be caught criticizing librarianship under your real name)…”

    I’m sure I’m scarcely the only reader of the Anonymous… er, Annoyed… Librarian who finds this a bit rich.

    But I do appreciate irony.

  14. library worker bee says:

    I think the bitter folks are those who entered the library workforce as their first “real” career (i.e., not part time job). They have no basis for comparison. Those of us who’ve worked elsewhere know that the unpleasantness is universal. Workplaces are filled with mediocre, nice people who “shuffle” (AL’s mot juste) home at the end of the day. The workplace is rife with terrible bosses and cranky customers (internal, external, whatever). The pay isn’t what it should be. The economy is causing budget crunches, etc.

    This is the workplace. No job or field is immune to it. Here’s the reality. If you like this kind of work, then you’re in the right place. I think the bartender analogy is spot on. If that’s not what you want, then change jobs. You are doing no one any favors by staying.

    If you say (as some will) that you just can’t change jobs because you need to make a living, well then you just proved something: apparently library pay isn’t THAT bad…and perhaps you aren’t worth as much as you think you are if you have no other job skills. Harsh? Yes. True? Yes. Economics is a dismal science.

  15. Carl Marx says:

    I am a burnout like the other fools you describe! I loath, detest, hate, and despise my job. My administration is taking my job and making me teach paraprofessionals, (strike that, some of these people do not even have a high school deploma) how to perform reference searches. I see the end of my profession and hate myself for ‘hanging in there’ when I sould be out looking for a new career. But, I am too old to change. What a pathetic whimper for a wonderful profession. God bless the Kindle. Yours,
    Shafted in Seattle.

    • annoyedlibraryworker says:

      I don’t think anyone has a high school “deploma”. And your insinuation that paraprofessionals and people who didn’t graduate high school can’t preform a simple reference search in the age of “google it” shows your heightened sense of self importance.

    • Many people who were graduated from college or university can’t “preform” a simple sentence.

  16. People can respond injudiciously to what’s perceived as an existential threat, myself included. Maybe Will had my post in mind when thinking about the “trashers”. Frustration and fear can fuel some powerful emotions, and I think a lot of people are terrified of having to start over from scratch. I think a good question is if this fear is justified.

  17. Overworked Librarian says:

    This profession cannot die! I am almost done with my MLIS! I have 15 credits left and I am done! I plan to work in an academic library. Perhaps college & universities will hang in there longer than the public libraries.

  18. Not every community values libraries and the services they provide, and that is something they don’t tell you in library school. Any seminar you go to these days is fronted by a librarian from a library with a large budget, a receptive community, or both. There is never any mention of those communities that are indifferent to media of any kind – the industrial, boozy, blue collar pockets that are too numerous to go unmentioned by library professionals. It is in the libraries that service these areas that good ideas are left to languish in programming purgatory. Not because of unsupportive administration or even lack of funding, but because there is little to no patron interest in such things. Add to that that we are often a timid lot and not confident enough to muscle our way into a position of prominence and ask for a shot to prove our worth.

    I think the assertion that those of us who have achieved professional success are happy is untrue.

    As a young public library director who has lead a flailing district to surer footing, on paper I fall into that purportedly happy group. Being successful in the field and well-compensated doesn’t make you happy or fulfilled. It just allows you the opportunity to buy nicer groceries and not feel embarrassed at high school reunions.

  19. Justanotherlibrarian says:

    First of all, I’d just like to reiterate Library Worker Bee’s comment.

    To illustrate my own thoughts on the “trashers”, allow me to express my sentiments to a hypothetical coworker who might peruse this comment section from time to time (if he were real, of course).

    Our library is not ideal. We both know that. While our current funding situation is fairly survivable, the pervasive climate of fiscal fear handed down by our illustrious legislators has made our director too timid to support a lot of the innovation we’d love to see. Our beloved institution is inundated by a culture of buck-passing and head hiding which renders the administration unwilling to intervene in even the nastiest, most prolonged bouts of interpersonal conflict… which brings me to you, my anonymous, not-so-hypothetical-after-all counterpart.

    Did I mention everybody knows about your top-secret blog? The one where you villify our boss and our peers with colorful nicknames? The one where you dramatically recount (and elaborately embellish) every e-mail and morning meeting that rubs you the wrong way? Yeah. Some of us have known about it for years. We’ve sat with you in those very same meetings, waiting for you to express ANY of the sentiments you’ve penned under your cinematic pseudonym as you sit at the reference desk. Even though you’ve changed mediums, you can never erase the hateful things you said. We do appreciate that you’ve made your latest takedowns more private, so we won’t find ourselves in awkward conversations at the next industry conference we attend. P.S. Your Twitter account wasn’t the problem (although we weren’t too impressed by your constant whining there, either).

    The thing that might surprise you, dear Innominate Itinerant, is that many of us share your same frustrations (ad hominems and libel notwithstanding). You might have realized that if you bothered to get to know any of us. Many of us share your ideals as well, about freedom of information, outreach, and what this library could be. We actually value a lot of your skills, including your immense knowledge of Latino literature and culture, your deep compassion for oppressed minority groups, and your prolific web presence. We might also have professional experience in the library world and beyond that you could take advantage of.

    Maybe – just maybe – we might achieve something meaningful together here, if you took a moment to reach out to us instead of reducing us to petty objects of gossip. The director is not going to intervene (that’s pretty obvious), but YOU could. You could stop trashing our professional reputations and belittling us to your department colleagues. You could stop bemoaning how bullied and maligned you are. You could start speaking up at meetings about your concerns and ideas instead of blithely nodding your head. You could start asking for help with or input on outreach events. Heck, you could even just start communicating to us what you’re doing and when. You could join forces with any one of the hard-working, creative, artistic individuals you’ve long maligned to bring about the kind of changes you want to see.

    Until that day – the day you reach beyond your cubicle, the day you try to effect positive change, the day you decide to fully participate in this workplace – until that day, Mr. Book Dancer, YOU are part of the problem. And you’re ruining it for the rest of us.

  20. The ones who are trashing library work the most are the well-paid administrators who cut in half the few professional jobs left and then downgrade them to “paraprofessional”.

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