Machines drive librarian to retire


Ruth Lipnik Said "I don't want to be a computer guru," and with that the county library's first reference librarian called it quits. In the end, the computers that began to dominate her work contributed much to her decision to retire Oct. 31 after 26 years on the job.
"I'm not a real people person," she says, "I'm not a patient person," she says.


This article shows two points that are facing today's librarians. First, it is a nice example that customer service can be learned over time and its importance. Second, it does show that technology is changing the profession. You do hear people say that technology will replace librarians, but that was not the case her. At her age, she did not want to learn something new or hurt her patrons and coworkers.

Computers also contributed to me leaving public libraries, but not quite in this way... I found myself, as a reference librarian, mostly assigning people to internet terminals. And not doing too much reference work. I didn't need to get an MLS to take a person's library card, check to make sure it is valid, and tell them which computer to sit at.

In fact, when I DID get a reference question, I was tied to the desk, and to those terminals. I couldn't go wherever I needed to in the library to help them, because I had to make sure that no one who hadn't signed an Internet usage policy (or hadn't had their parents sign one for them) used those computers. Or I would be in trouble. I would have a junior high student on one of the terminals, and his friend who didn't have a signed policy was hiding behind the stacks, waiting for me to turn my head so he could run over and sit with his friend, even for a few seconds while I was helping someone. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.

Several years later, I applied for a sub job in a public library. They basically told me in the interview that's what I'd be doing again. I told them no thanks.

I made the decision to be a librarian in the very early 1990's. I saw public librarians BEING librarians. By the time I got my degree, all I could do was be a ticket-taker/usher.

What struck me was her "I'm not a real people person" quote, seems like that's all too common.

I'm Amazed at how often I go into a public library and get terrible service from a librarian. It's happened to me here and Buffalo, and I saw the same thing in Columbus when I was there. I bet it's about 50% of the time for me that I'm just sad with the service I get, and when I just watch, I see others getting it as well. (This is just my experience, yours may be different)

I've seen it too... If I need to ask a librarian anything, I usually just get a dumb look. Thankfully, I can usually find what I need on my own.

The most common (with notable exceptions) response I've received when I've gone to a reference librarian is that they can't help me because my question is too vauge, obscure, or not well formed. Usually they seem puzzled and/or irritated that I would ask such a confused question.

Well, obviously the question is a bit confused. If I was clear on what I needed and where it could be found, why would I be asking a reference librarian for help, anyway? A large number of reference librarians seem to only want to help with questions that are simple enough that their help is not required.sigh

(These often seem to be the same librarians who are anti-technology because they are scared it will replace them. Well, if the only kind of question you're willing to answer is a simple, googlable question, then yes, it will. But it's going to be a LONG time before technology alone is good at helping people find answers to confused or poorly formed questions...)

Sometimes I feel like my library school (Columbia) was the only one that actually had courses on how to be a librarian. We were taught to negotiate the reference question, to never take ANY reference question at face value, no matter how clear or simple it seemed. It's part of being a reference librarian.

I feel the same way when I read about people who have only now just discovered learning about reference sources AFTER they've become a librarian. Didn't you have bibliography classes? I guess not.

For the record, we did have tech courses (with proficiency exams), too (such as they were back in 1989-91).

Of coruse, I imagine this is why so many people left the program saying it "was too hard."


I took a number of reference courses at Rutgers, and there was a significant amount of emphasis on the reference interview in only one of them. But I am indeed very grateful for that emphasis! Negotiating the question was a significant amount of what I took from a number of other classes as well, which ranged from databases to heavy-duty online searching to indexing to children's services.

I always cringe when a librarian doesn't see her job as a service job. It's the experience, and not always the answer, that'll bring them back.


I think I have your old job. I'd so much like to be a librarian, but it has been at least a week since anyone asked me a reference question (and that was "what is a somniferous forest" -we together feel it was meant to be a coniferous forest).

They are stalling on putting in a time management / print management program for $5K, but they can pay a librarian > 30K to babysit computers.

That is why I am crafting my master plan to get out of public librarianship.

While it is not the same type of service as a cashier at the mini-mart, or your cardiologist, a librarian serves a particular need. That need is unfortunately turning into the computer check out staff, or the hold onto your card until you bring back Morningstar or something trivial like that.

If only my patrons would allow me to provide a good reference interview. I get parents who come to do their children's homework with only the vaguest ideas of what it is about and want books on East Asian religions, or some broad term such as that and have no other information, no children in tow who might have the information, and nothing from the teacher.

I learned at FSU many valuable things- some of which even involve librarianship. Reference interviews, references sources, authority of sources, things that library school is supposed to teach. I work with a student from the University of South Florida - the other library school in Florida and she is being taught these things too. Why are some people such poor librarians? Are they truly degreed professionals or are they just stuck behind the reference desk. After all most of the reference desk work at my library could be done by a circulation clerk.

In my experience, once you have worked in public libraries, it is difficult to transition over to much of anything else. You are considered "tainted" by your public library experiences. A person just out of graduate school with no professional experience seems to have a better chance of landing an academic job than an MLS with several years of public library experience.

I spent several years in public libraries. And I've been told I'm VERY good at what I do. And I have better tech skills than anyone else I've ever met in this field. But no one will consider me for an academic position. As soon as they see "public library" they throw the resume away. Thankfully, I've been able to find other good work, but still... I hope your plan is a good one.

My master plan involves Medical School as I too think I have tainted my library career by putting Public Library on my résumé.

A few years before I got my MLS I was accepted to a Dental School in Chicago. I really didn't want to go to Chicago so I didn't go thinking every other school would accept me. I should have gone.

Now I am looking at a teaching gig that will allow me to go to medical school simultaneously. It is at the University del Mayab -> I want to retire in the Yucatan so I may as well make myself useful before then.

Uhhh.. I worked two years in a public library, including for the WORST system in the United States (and quite possibly the world), and am now an academic librarian. In fact, in the academic medical library where I am working we have 8 librarians and 4 of us came directly from public libraries. Please don't think your experience in a public library is a pox on your resume!

I was asked during my interview what the difference was between public and academic libraries and I could point to research that indicates very little. It isn't like the magic genius fairy waves her wand over that student in her last year of high school and turns her into super-scholar. The dumb-ass high school student you're helping on her history project is our dumb-ass undergrad in just a few short months.

While I do get extremely complex reference questions, I also have to spend a lot of time answering the "where is the bathroom?", "Help my disk is stuck", "how do I print from this computer" questions too. If you are a good librarian, care about providing the best customer service and are able to demonstrate that you didn't stop learning the day you left library school, then you'll still be a good librarian no matter where you work.