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 Detroit-based author and public librarian, Annie Spence.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
Annie Spence: I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by family. We all lived on the same dirt road. So, from the get go, I was in a tight-knit community. There was never a sense of “you’re on your own.” When someone was down, someone else could pick up the slack. I always had a place to go where I felt like I belonged. What an advantage this was! And I watched it spread. Our house was tiny, but we were always hosting youth Little League teams and teenagers who wanted to run away from home (but not too far) and all the stray animals. When I think about the library, it’s like a more organized version of that same idea: if we’ve got it to give—be it space, information, safety, a pleasant conversation—we’ll give it. Because it lifts everyone up.
I’m not saying I thought about librarianship in these terms as I applied to graduate schools. I probably thought something like, “Oh, books and helping people!” But my family instilled in me the values of community, service, and helping your neighbor that are the bedrock of (my vision of) the public library.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
AP: I don’t often recommend the same books to people because I’m trying to tailor my suggestions to the patron’s reading tastes. However, if someone asks specifically for a book I have read and loved, I am always recommending Heartburn by Nora Ephron because it’s well-written, heartfelt, and funny and it’s hard to get all three in one novel. I also find myself suggesting Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi’s memoir, The Time of My Life, on audio (read by the authors). That book is so sweet and surprising. Swayze was known as a macho man, but he embraced and respected femininity as well. He was a rare gem. I don’t think people talk about Patrick Swayze enough. Ghost? The. Best. Movie.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know.
AS: As with most things, the reality is a lot different than the cultural depiction. For one, I don’t think people realize how radical the idea of the public library is. I always say that we are one of the last institutions you can walk inside of without having to promise to buy or believe something. We don’t have an agenda. We are only here to make our cities and towns, and the individuals who live in them, better.
I’ve noticed a lot of businesses trying to simulate a community feeling among their staff and customers. Join the such-and-such community. Live the blah-de-blah life. But I feel in these cases that they’re asking for more than they’re giving. They want your money or they want to sell your private information. And in return you get a false sense of belonging or you identify with a lifestyle brand rather than the people surrounding you in your actual life. The public library is working to protect your privacy, working to enrich your physical community, working to connect you with real information and real people. Where else can you get that?
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve had from a patron?
AS: From years ago: “Could you tell the couple having sex in the study room that I have it reserved for one o’clock?” Movies always show people getting it on in the stacks. Don’t do it. The real deal is way more awkward than you would imagine and you’re going to get caught. That is my public service announcement.
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
AS: I’m confident that the public library, when properly funded, will continue rising to meet the needs of their communities. As the “digital divide” and other cultural gaps continue to widen, the library will balance providing modern services (e-books, STEM, library as co-working space, etc.) with classic services (books, quiet, safe, warm and free spaces).
But a more interesting role that the public library can fill these days is a place to go to get an honest look at your community and your neighbors. The combination of modern technology and our current political climate make it almost reflexive to rope ourselves off from those with different incomes, different cultures, and different opinions. Your local public library is open to all, which means that you’re not just going to see the other people that a social media algorithm selected for you or the people that shop and eat at all the same places you do. And it’s harder to make broad generalizations about fellow humans when you’re sharing the same space and on equal ground. You can talk to strangers and even if it’s small talk, you’re still making a connection.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
AS: I love the librarians from Party Girl. Mary for her style. Judy for her library-themed tirades. There is also a library love scene in this film. I implore you once again: don’t do it.
Annie Spence has spent the last decade as a librarian in public libraries in the Midwest. She currently lives in Detroit with her husband and two son. Dear Fahrenheit 451 is her first book.