Librarians Rock on This American Life…sort of

Slobberingly-addictive radio program This American Life featured Michigan Libraries this weekend. I was painting the downstairs closet (braincell-killing homeowner goodness!) when I heard Ira Glass talking about librarians. I emitted a squee of pleasure, and cranked up the radio, leaving a bright white thumbprint on the volume knob.

Bill Harmer, the Teen Librarian of the Baldwin Public Library had the amazingly fucking brilliant idea to book a really good band, The High Strung (I went to college with vocalist Josh Malerman!) in libraries across Michigan in an effort to reverse the reputation of libraries as uptight, fussy places where No Fun Can Be Had.

Sadly, the segment showed how far we have to go on that front. Though Ira Glass lovingly described the concerts, many librarians and library workers came off sounding…well…like frumpy librarians. I winced when a woman addressed a group of 9-14 year olds with the globally-annoying “Hellooo boys and girls” and spoke to them in a sing-songy voice. I cringed when circulation workers plugged their ears at the icky rock music.

You could HEAR the sweater sets. Are we really that bad?

Still, it was a great idea, and it sounds like it was wildly successful. You should write to Bill Harmer and thank him for not being beaten down by the truncheon of public service and having such magnificent ideas.

For future reference, I’m thinking of putting together a handy conversion chart for librarians on How Not to Sound Uptight. Contributions are welcome. Here’s a start:

Instead of saying: “Hellooo boys and girls”
Say: “Hi you guys”
Pointing out the diminutive age of your audience is rude. Singsong voices reveal your own insecurity.

Instead of saying: “Teens”
Say: Teenagers. People. High school kids. Yutes. Jailbait. Anything but “Teens”.
Lesson: Saying “Teens” makes you sound like a nitwit. You might as well grip a pipe and denounce Communism. I’m just sayin’.

21 Replies to “Librarians Rock on This American Life…sort of”

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  2. Does anyone know how I can find the full version of the song that played for a very short time during the TAL broadcast? I think it was about rules in school libraries or being quiet–having a pass, can’t really remember but I’d really like to find it. Reply with a comment. Thanks.

  3. I have worked with some great older librarians. Lord knows (grin) I’m getting up there myself!

    Unfortunately there are still a lot of people who got into the library business at a time when being a librarian was one of the major job choices for women. For some of them, it was a great thing. But I have run into too durn many children’s librarians who LOOOVE childrens books, but don’t really like KIDS!

    Public work is not a job for everyone. And people who really DON’T like people should not be out there in the trenches. They should be cataloguers, or technical librarians. No shame in admitting you don’t like your work. But it’s a big shame when you admit you don’t like it, but still do it. It makes the rest of us look bad…….

  4. Pingback: Library Shrine » To be or not to be a “young” librarian
  5. Sorry about the double posting. I’m used to ‘unmoderated’ blogs where the reply appears instantly.



  6. Nathan,
    Perhaps if you started with a concert NOT geared towards the teens, but rather a Jazz night (ok, I’m biased!) or maybe a swing combo, one that older patrons might enjoy, that might pave the way.

    And then later in the year, or during teen read week, bring in a teen-oriented band.

    You know, soften them up to the idea first.

    Happy reading!

  7. I thought the American Life piece was really interesting, but I don’t think our administration would let a concert occur on my library’s reference desk. It may work in our public meeting room, or out on the lawn, but even then, we’d probably be hard pressed to get it past the library board (I’m a systems librarian in a brand new Taj Mahal of a small library).

    After I heard it, I emailed the link to the audio from the show to the YA librarian here, and she thinks it’s an awesome idea, but one that would meet with some opposition.

  8. I enjoy reading this blog but it seems to me that many librarians tend to write off other librarians because they are old. I’m 60 and the only thing I don’t like about librarianship, at this point, is this serious ageist crap that seems pretty widespread. This is so sad because my favorite librarians, the people I’ve most enjoyed working with, are currently, 73 (retired), 58, 39, 32 and 25. If you’ve worked for group respect of any group, consider that no older librarian wants to be group labeled, either.

  9. But more seriously:

    When I was a Children’s/YA librarian, for Black History month we had a teen book group on “Bud, Not Buddy”, and to go along with this, I arranged for a Jazz/Blues combo to come to the library the following week and do a short talk on the history of Jazz and Blues in America, and then perform a short concert.

    It was a tremendous success, the short concert stretched on to about a half-hour before closing, it was supposed to stop an hour and a half before that. AND they expressed the desire to come back.

    Sadly, I left the job over a disagreement with my branch managerover a difference in vision over the role and duties of a C/YA Librarian. She thought I should be a circ librarian first, and in my ‘spare time’ work on my programs, book groups, etc. (“You only have to look on the internet and throw something together…it shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes for planning!”) I thought it should be the other way around.

    I am now a reference/cataloging librarian at another system, and enjoying it a lot, although I miss working with youth services, at least my new director lets her staff do their jobs.


  10. But seriously, I organized a Jazz/Blues night at the Library for Black History month this past February, and it was an outstanding success! A local Jazz group came in and gave a brief history of Jazz and the Blues, and then played examples of J/B throughout the years. The teens loved it as much as the older folk (I was the Children’s/YA librarian at the time…I’ve since moved on to another library as Catalog/Reference Librarian).

  11. Ah, come-on guys, it’s fun to tease the patrons! Especially the ones that give YOU a hard time. Don’t be such spoil sports!

    (Although you don’t want to take it too far!)

  12. I listened to that segment again today. It’s worth noting that it’s not just the circulation employees who were covering their ears–the intended audience was as well. And in fairness to the “sweater set,” if the powers that be decided to stage a rock concert during library hours I would probably have taken the day off. I like rock music, alot. But if it was that loud, it could hardly have been a conducive environment to get any work done.

    I think the concert series was a stroke of genius, but to have it during regular library hours (the photo suggested it was in the afternoon), crosses a line to me. I feel sorry for anyone intending to use the library for traditional purposes that day.

    Of course, that I have permanent tinitis from playing too many drums may have something to do with this too :-)

  13. A note in defense of ‘uptight’ librarians. I’m 26, and niftily tattooed and pierced, which gives me a cool rapport with the students at the university library where I work. But we should note that swinging too far into the ‘Libraries are Places for Rock Concerts’ area isn’t a good idea either. I’d love to be able to use the library and its resources to study for my grad degree, but it’s so terribly noisy and everyone’s so afraid of being seen as ‘curmudgeony’ that’s it’s all but impossible. And so I, the young, cool, and hip one, gets to be the Dragon Lady of the library. hey, that’s what happens when you start parachuting live mice off our fifth floor…

  14. Just some discombobulated thoughts.
    I like what Colleen has to say. I too am a tattooed and pierced librarian, which gives me “cred” with the students I work with. It’s funny I didnt know what provided a suspicious glance by an adult would actually get kids to join my comic book club.I am a “Teen Services” Librarian and most of the kids don’t like either title but if had a choice would pick teen over teenager (“Teenager is 80’s Miss and that’s only cool if your doing retro”)at my library. The occasional live concert IMHO is a great idea especially for a talent show that can be linked into a fundraiser for your collection. However I have my limits nobody better steal , run (I hate running) or cause shit in my house cause I will kick them out. I never try to use the current lingo and if I sound a tad dated I find that gives me more cred the trying too hard with a “yo”. I live in the 4th most ethnically diverse community in Canada and try to reflect that in my approach. Respect. You give it to me I give it to you. I have lent out my personal CD’s of music to these kids (Fugazi? Jon Spencer Blues Explosion? Who’s Mastodon?)and they were all returned (and burned I am sure). Opening their minds is what is all about to me and that is what I enjoy most. When the kids see that you are actually willing to help them and you are not some disgruntled, gossipy, resentful librarian (or clerk) they will be more inclined to actually listen. Just maybe they might come in a week before the paper is due not the night before (sighs).

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece on TAL, and blogged it on Sunday. But my first reaction when I heard Ira Glass introduce the story (“Dewey Decibel System” was the phrase he used) I thought, “Oh hell, here we go again…”

  16. My favorite uptight librarian story was when I was at a branch library in Milwaukee. A kid came up to the librarian and asked her if the library had any information on World War Two. The first thing out of her mouth was “Pacific or European Theater?” and you could see the kid thinking “…um I want to know about the war, not about theater” It was either a totally clueless move on the part of the librarian, or a total bitch move, I’m not sure which.

  17. How not to sound uptight (addendum):

    Practise and adopt a southern drawl – not a belle drawl, mind you, a relaxed, friendly, and welcoming “Hey, how’s it goin'”

    Unless you’re in a major North East urban environment, then try for a relaxed “Yo, wuhtcha doin'”

    And for goshsakes, try not to yell – merely speak (mostly) clearly.
    Remember, a gaggle of jailbait can easily get louder than almost anyone – speak softly and carry a big stick

    PS I used to get into trouble for addressing kids as “jailbait” (but I was a bouncer at the time) for all that most of ’em knew what I meant and found it funny :)

  18. There’s no shortage of stuffy librarian stories to go around… let’s just trust that that breed is going to die out Real Soon Now, and new librarians will bring something more attractive to the table (a friendly, outgoing personality would be a good start). Oh, and priggish librarians are not limited to the public library venue; there are even more in academia…

    BTW, I graduate next April from library school…

  19. Then there was the librarian who loved to gossip at great length with her friends over the circulation desk. She would only stop long enough to chastise some poor kid who made the mistake of whispering to a friend. All this was delivered in a booming voice that could also be heard on the second floor and in the basement.

    The old bitch’s behavior kept me out of the library throughout my teen years. I chose to spend most of my allowance on paperbacks rather than dealing with her.

    While I think of it, that same library had their children’s area on the second floor. That meant that whenever kids wanted to get a book a staff member had to climb those many Carnegie library steps to accompany us. Obviously, we here not greeted with smiles and welcoming words.

  20. The whole uptight-ness, sweater-set, non-cool, out of touch, not technically savvy issues that dog libraries accross the land are why I did not last too long as a librarian myself.

    BTW… I love This American Life, and am still pissed off that I cannot stream it at work due to icky firewall issues…

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