Welcome to Shhh…Secrets of the Librarians, a new series (inspired by our long-running Secrets of the Book Critics) in which bibliothecaries (yes, it’s a real word) from around the country share their inspirations, most-recommended titles, thoughts on the role of the library in contemporary society, favorite fictional librarians, and more. Each week we’ll spotlight a librarian—be they Academic, Public, School, or Special—and bring you into their wonderful world.
This week, we spoke to Washington-based librarian Audrey Barbakoff.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
Audrey Barbakoff: I’ve always loved stories, and the power they have to bring people together and create transformative experiences. I started out in a very different field—theatre lighting design. When I wanted to change careers, I thought about what it was that really made theatre meaningful for me, so that I could hold on to that core value. I realized that I cared about creating community and personal growth through inspiring ideas and shared experiences. Who else does that? Librarians do.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
AB: Oh my goodness—how could I choose? There isn’t really one I recommend more than others. When I’m helping someone connect with their next book, I try to get to know a bit about them and what they want in that moment. As a result, my suggestions end up being different for every person. By the way, your local librarian is an expert in this. If you’re not already asking for personalized book recommendations, you’re missing out! Of course, there are always a few titles I’m enjoying so much that I can’t help gushing just a little bit. Lately, I’ve loved the tongue-in-cheek science fiction of Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series and Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books. I also just finished Tommy Orange’s There There on audiobook, which was beautifully written and recorded.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
AB: I don’t read at work! I’m amazed how many people think that’s part of the job. I often tell them that public librarianship is more about people than it is about books, which seems to really upend their idea of what a librarian does all day. Libraries are active, human-centered spaces. Our days are full of kids and families playing and learning, teens meeting with tutors or hanging out in a safe place after school, entrepreneurs working on their laptops, retirees staying engaged by volunteering or attending a lecture, people asking for a good book to read on their vacation… and usually that’s all happening simultaneously.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
AB: There are too many of these to count. I really should have written them down as they happened—I’d have so many stories. (Future librarians, keep a diary.) This one made a big impression on me because it was the first question I ever answered as a professional librarian.
In my job, the new librarians started out with a few shifts a week staffing the call-in answer line. (These still exist! Have a question? Call your library. Sometimes you can even chat or text.) After a brief training period, my first call alone went something like this:
Me: Hello, thank you for calling the library. How may I help you?
Patron: Hi there. I’m moving into a new house. I just walked in, and there’s a shrew sitting in the middle of my living room.
Me: A… shrew?
Patron: Yes, a shrew. It’s right in front of me.
Me: Ah. Yes. Okay, I’m looking up the number for Animal Control for you now, if you’ll please wait one moment …
Patron: No no no, that’s not what I want. This is a sign of good luck! I want to know what I should feed it.
I honestly don’t remember how the rest of the interaction went, over the internal roar of my own panic that my first patron was about to be mauled by a rabid wild animal. But everyone seems to have survived, long enough for me to answer many more odd questions about how many steps an ant would take in a mile (to settle a bar bet) or what kind of bird a person on the other side of town was seeing out their window. Lesson learned: I stopped making assumptions about what a patron was about to ask me.
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
AB: I take back my answer to Question 2! Because now I have to recommend a book. I adore Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. He talks about the ways libraries build communities, and how those meaningful connections lead to concrete, significant improvements in people’s lives. In a time when information is easier than ever to find but understanding seems increasingly elusive, and when our economic and social structures are increasing our isolation, libraries can bring us together across all kinds of divides.
I’m also inspired by the idea of “library as platform” from the Aspen Institute report Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries. It gets me thinking about the ways that libraries can share power with communities. Libraries have all these resources, and historically librarians played the role of gatekeeper. Instead, we can become forces for equity and liberation by putting those resources into the hands of the community, empowering people with more equitable opportunities to achieve their own aspirations.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
AB: I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, so I’ll have to pick the Librarian at Unseen University. Being accidentally transformed into an orangutan only made him better at his job—it’s so much easier to reach those high shelves. But whatever you do, don’t call him a monkey…
Audrey Barbakoff is the Community Engagement and Economic Development Manager at King County Library System. Previously, she has worked as a public librarian and manager for services to children, teens, and adults. She is a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and the author of Adults Just Wanna Have Fun: Programs for Emerging Adults (ALA Editions, 2016). Audrey holds an MLIS from the University of Washington, and is currently an Ed.D. Candidate in Organizational Change and Leadership at the University of Southern California.