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.
As our inaugural librarian interviewee, we’re delighted to welcome author, beloved Lit Hub columnist, and Access Services Librarian at Barry Law Library, Orlando: Kristen Arnett.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
Kristen Arnett: I’d always loved being in libraries—hanging out there, smelling all the books, pulling them out in stacks and taking grocery bags of them home with me. My family hardly owned any books and the ones they did have were all Christian devotionals, so libraries gave me the opportunity to read everything I could get my hands on. Working in libraries is not reading, as I well know, but it’s still doing that exciting “question answering” work that reading always provides. It’s being with books and information, but it’s also helping others. It’s about community building. All of that really resonated with me. Also it’s one job where you’re never, ever, ever bored. It keeps you on your toes! Never know when someone is gonna stuff crayons in the copy machine or bring pizza into a bathroom. I wanted a job where I could do the things that I liked best: take care of my community and also do some crazy people-watching!
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
KA: I would say I recommend a wide variety of books to people, because all of us have very different tastes, especially the broad spectrum of patrons we get coming into the library. There are some books I just love so much that I’ll push them on everybody, even if it’s not their typical read! Without fail I recommend Alex Chee’s Edinburgh to everybody I meet, because it is gorgeous, incredible, tender writing. I also push Joy Williams because I love for people to try out short stories if they haven’t before. Tommy Pico and Morgan Parker for beautiful, wonderful poetry. I also love for people to read more Florida writers, so I have recommended Lauren Groff. I could spend all day recommending books! That’s the fun of library work, meeting a person and kind of teasing out what it is that they’d like best. Everyone is so wildly different!
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
KA: That it’s a job that’s less about books and more about people. It’s a community service kind of position; one where you make decisions based on the good of your patron base. So yeah, we care about books a very great deal, but most of the work that we find ourselves doing is helping others and answering questions and providing what’s actually needed. Sometimes that’s books, for sure, but sometimes it’s children’s movies, and sometimes it’s programming. Librarians take care of people.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
KA: Probably when a patron asked if they could have my used tooth brush?? Though to be fair, I’ve gotten many, many other weird questions during my time in libraries! Ask any librarian and they’ll have something just as wild to tell you, and probably even weirder!
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
KA: The library is for the community. The role it plays is as a hub for everything that’s going on in that particular area. It is a morphing, changing organism that adapts to what the patrons need. It is a social animal. It is a helpmate. I would say that it is all public service, all the time. And it is a necessary good.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
KA: This is a really hard one! I just decided to go with one of the first ones I ever remember reading as a kid and that was the librarian in Matilda. I strongly identified with that need—of being a young reader in a family of non-readers who just wanted to learn and grow. That librarian definitely stuck with me. She’s one who immediately sees a problem with a person and decides to help. I hope I am that way with patrons, too.
Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She’s a bimonthly columnist for Literary Hub and her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour,TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, will be published by Tin House Books in June 2019. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett