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 Vermont-based librarian and community technologist, Jessamyn West.
Book Marks: What made you to decide to become a librarian?
Jessamyn West: I wanted to help people but couldn’t handle the dress code or the hours of being a lawyer. More seriously, I’ve always been an information maven and someone who was a bit of an activist. The thing I enjoyed most in my undergraduate life was using the library and interacting with the librarians who were all geniuses. I felt I wanted to do what they did. It really wasn’t until I got into library school that I realized all the activism and intellectual freedom stuff could also be part of my professional life.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
JW: I’m actually not someone who works in a public library every day, so I don’t recommend books to the public that often per se. However there are some books I am often telling people to read and I’m not sure I could pick one. However, the book that encouraged me to become a librarian was The Abortion by Richard Brautigan (it is not mostly about an abortion) about a librarian in San Francisco who lives in the library he works in, a library where anyone can put a book on the shelf. When he wrote it, it seemed a lot more far-fetched than it does today. I’m still looking for that perfect live-in library.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
JW: The library is so much larger than the public spaces that most people see! Often when I go visiting libraries, something I try to do as often as possible, I will often ask if I can see the creepy basement and/or attic. Such interesting spaces.
Also, most people think of public libraries when they think of libraries, but there are many different types of libraries that have a lot of differences as well as similarities. School and academic libraries, law libraries, music libraries, special libraries (at businesses and other organizations), medical libraries and more. And many people getting “library school” degrees nowadays may never work in any of them, doing knowledge management work or taxonomy or various sorts of information technology work. There are so many ways to be a library and information science professional nowadays.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
JW: I worked in a Natural Sciences Library when I was in library school and a guy came in to the library and wanted to know what “fisting” was. And not as a joke (sometimes people ask about stuff just to rattle you, this guy was not doing that). I explained what it was, suggested some Susie Bright books and the poor guy nearly died of embarrassment. It was really clear he’d had no idea what it was and NEVER would have asked me if he had known.
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
JW: It’s a great place for people to stay informed about the topics they want to be informed about and part of our dwindling public sphere. In the United States, we have libraries partially so that people can be part of a democracy and get enough information to be informed citizens and do things like vote. And you need to be able to get good information, from people who are not trying to sell you something, in order to make those kinds of choices.
But realistically, libraries also act as a public space, where you can interact with ALL the public, in a society that is increasingly stratified and where people may only be interacting with people who are “like them” in some regard. You can get things you WANT to read/watch/view or do, in addition to just having access to things you NEED. And we’re paid for, public libraries are, by the public. We’re here for you. We won’t rat you out to ICE, we let you read whatever the heck you want, even if you’re a kid, and we offer a warm and safe space with wifi and a clean bathroom where you can be yourself. Obviously not every single library is like this, but it’s what we as a profession aspire to.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
JW: Probably Jan O’Deigh from The Gold Bug Variations. So serious about her work. So thinky.
Jessamyn West is a librarian, writer, and community technologist who lives in Central Vermont.