Librarians are Wonderful, Not Wonder Woman (Or Superman)...

A student has written a complaint that makes me want to slap her with a fish.

Preferably a pointy fish...

Leora Rosenberg is upset that none of the reference librarians at Bobst Library, the main library of New York University, will recommend a good book for her to read in her spare time. Sure, they're good at their jobs - but they aren't great, because they can't act as reader's advisers.

Here's an excerpt:

The reference librarians are wonderful at coming up with bibliographies for my papers (and sending me research on quirky questions I think up in the middle of the night) but when I tried asking for a book recommendation, the librarian at the desk looked slightly concerned.
Did I want to read for fun? Yes. Had I tried the leisure collection, the area on the second lower level that hold popular novels and non-fiction books? I had, but I want more than shelves with books — I want recommendations from people who love to read. The librarian ended up recommending a website. The whole conversation was depressing. We were surrounded by books, but there was nobody to help me pick one out.

Reference librarians at universities and other academic institutions are not prepared to act as reader's advisers - that isn't typically part of their job description. Some are interested in it, and may, if they have the time and the inclination, give you some suggestions. But I don't think even the most wonderful academic reference librarians, going out of his or her way to provide you with some reading suggestions, is going to live up to Ms. Rosenberg's standards.

...there’s a special role for the librarian who knows your tastes and seems to have read every book in the library. She knows when to hand you a hard book you’d never have tried on your own. She knows (even when you don’t tell her) that you just got dumped and that you need the silliest, most distracting book known to man. She knows because she asks each time what you thought of the last book. Really, the librarian is a full-time conversationalist.

Seriously? That's not a librarian - that's a Mom. A good reader's advisory librarian still has to take time to get to know the patrons, will offer a selection of books for the reader to choose from, and is frankly not likely to care about your love life. Unless the library is extremely tiny, no librarian is ever going to have read every book in the library. I recommend books I haven't read, because I read about books I haven't the time or inclination to read myself. And librarians have a ton of work to do - we don't have the time to be "full-time conversationalist[s]." Especially academic reference librarians, who are busy helping students find information for term papers and group projects, teaching bibliographic instruction classes, preparing annotated bibliographies for professors' research projects,  creating online tutorials, and so much more. We do, believe it or not, have lives beyond the stacks.

The last part of the student's complaint I can answer very easily, though.

There are so many resources [at Bobst Library]...but so few places that encourage patrons to talk. Where are clubs? Where is that teensy bit of connection with a librarian who hands you her favorite book off the shelf? Where do the other people who love books sit? And where is my ideal librarian?

I don't know about your "ideal" librarian, Ms. Rosenberg - I don't think he or she truly exists, given your extraordinary expectations - but the rest?

Try the public library.


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