Libraries Work Because People Do

By Rebecca Potance

Libraries that run themselves are the stuff of fiction. A library may feel like a magical place, but, in reality, it takes human labor to keep everything running smoothly.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Too often library workers are invisible, undervalued and ignored. Our visibility varies depending on the nature of our job duties. Teaching, committee work, and research assistance are more visible than technical and administrative duties such as cataloging, organizing, purchasing, doing repairs and supervising other employees. Because I have worked exclusively in specialized libraries with very small staff, I have necessarily taken on both more visible job duties and the behind-the-scenes work. This was not, frankly, what I intended to do when I made the decision to be a librarian. What I found over the years is that directors usually cut administrative and technical staff positions before the public-facing ones. If I wanted to keep my paycheck, I had to make myself more visible. If I wanted the library to function properly. However, I needed to do the technical and administrative work that everyone else takes for granted.

That librarians are undervalued is hardly a new phenomenon. Although it tends to be more prevalent when budgets are tight. A coworker once quipped to me “no one notices your job unless you’re doing it badly”. In other words, everyone expects to be able to go to the library (in person or virtually) and have everything they need available and easy to find, but no one stops to think that it takes a human being to make it that way. It is bad enough when people who never worked in a library minimize the value of staff, but sometimes librarians themselves perpetuate the myth that libraries magically run themselves. I cringe every time I read a report or news story about a library’s activity that someone wrote entirely in the passive voice. Statements along the lines of “the library added new titles” or “the library is now offering a class” are not only bad English grammar; they completely minimize the role that staff play in making those things happen. If the people who control the budget can’t see the work you do, why would they think it is worth paying for? 

Can you see me?

Because I entered the field during a time of flat and shrinking budgets, I learned quickly how to make myself more visible. If you are concerned that your work is not being recognized, there are a few things you can do to change that.

  • If you are using passive voice to discuss the work that goes on in a library, stop doing that! 
  • Sign your name on everything you write, whether it is a research guide, internal memo, inventory etc. 
  • Put your face in as many other people’s as possible so they know who you are and associate it with the library. If you are a bit introverted this may be uncomfortable, but you need to get out of the library and make sure people who are not regular library users see that you are an essential part of your larger organization and not a discretionary expense.

More resources:

“Work made visible : what’s lost when we obscure labor” by Rachel Ivy Clarke: 

“Exactly how to say no to dead-end work without hurting your career” by Laurie R. Weingart:


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.