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 Brooklyn-based public librarian, Rita Meade.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
Rita Meade: My first job in high school was as a library page at my childhood library on Long Island. I was only supposed to shelve/organize the books and help with craft projects, but my favorite part of the job was secretly answering the questions patrons sometimes asked me (we as pages were supposed to direct all reference questions to the librarians). I always found it very rewarding to help people solve their problems and find what they needed, and that experience planted the seeds for me to become a librarian. Although I didn’t immediately go to library school after college (I took a few detours, including a separate Master’s degree, a job teaching high school English that quickly showed me I was not meant to be a teacher, and a stint as a waitress, which was probably the most useful thing in terms of developing public service skills), I got my MLS eventually and my first official librarian job was honestly like coming home. Public librarianship is the best of all worlds in terms of a career for me because it exists in the middle of the Venn Diagram of things I’m passionate about: working to serve the community, working with kids, and working with literature and information.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
RM: Readers’ advisory is complex because people are complex, but lately my go-to answer to the general “read any good books lately?” question has been So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Racism has always been a horrible problem in this country and it’s a horrible problem now (just look at our president’s Twitter feed). Oluo’s book is very useful for gaining introspection and to use as a jumping off point for conversations that are essential right now.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
RM: One thing is that there are many different facets of librarianship (public, academic, school media, archival, etc.) and many different kinds of library workers (not just librarians, it takes the whole team—clerical staff, custodians, shelf organizers, everyone) that work within those facets. I can only speak from my experience working in my own little corner of public librarianship (context: I am the assistant manager at a very busy branch in Southern Brooklyn, directly supervising librarian staff and also providing children’s services), but I think a lot of people don’t realize the amount of behind-the-scenes action that goes on in libraries, how many moving parts there are, and how much library services depend on funding, staffing, and support from the city or community in which the library operates. Running a library successfully is like playing a game of Jenga—if one piece doesn’t fit correctly (e.g. weak infrastructure or being short-staffed), then all the other pieces are in danger of falling. Ultimately, library workers are doing the best they can with what they have, but most of us wish we could do more. (Tip: you can always speak to a local library staff member to find out how to best support their work so they can keep supporting you. And a heartfelt “thank you” goes a long way!)
Also, one thing specific to NYC: New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library are three separate library systems (NYPL = Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx). A lot of people don’t seem to know that, even city residents.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
RM: After 12 years of working in public libraries, it’s near impossible to pick one question that is the weirdest or most memorable. That said, there are moments that stick out more than others: I’ve gotten a few marriage proposals, which is always awkward at best (this could lead to a discussion of sexual harassment in libraries, which I’m guessing we don’t have time for now). There was the time a gentleman nonchalantly approached the desk with a huge macaw perched on his shoulder. My favorite comments and questions, though, are invariably from kids. They are always illuminating and frequently hilarious and I like to chronicle them on my Twitter feed sometimes because they really are the highlight of my job. Some recent gems:
“How do I get computers to do, for example, anything I want?”
“I took sooo many books. I wish I could levitate back to school.”
“Who knew it would be fun doing something with the librarian?”
“Ms. Rita, when you came into the room, it seemed to smell better.”
And then there’s this exchange:
Teen: “If you were a YouTuber, I’d subscribe to you.”
Me: “Aww, that’s so ni….”
Teen *interrupting*: “Of course, I’d probably be your only subscriber.”
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
RM: I’ve written and erased about five answers to this, and I still don’t think I can do it justice—it’s a huge question that doesn’t have a singular answer. If you had asked me ten years ago or even five years ago, some of my comments might be different, but one part of my answer would be consistent: the role of the library is to serve the community in whatever form that means in the moment and depending on who is standing in front of the reference desk, literally and figuratively. It sounds simple because it is simple (though implementing it is admittedly a more complicated venture).
There are some people that think libraries are dying out, becoming obsolete, and have no role in contemporary society, which is just demonstrably untrue. The other side of that coin is libraries being described as the “last beacon of hope and democracy in the world,” and how librarians are superheroes and wizards and rock stars or whatever. While these are nice ideas, I don’t subscribe to this sort of grandiose way of thinking anymore, even though I think our jobs are very important. Librarians are people, after all, and people are inherently flawed and biased and working under all sorts of constraints as I mentioned earlier. That being said, the majority of library workers I know have a deep commitment to serving the public, to developing relationships and connections within their communities, and to creating a safe environment that fosters education, recreation, and strives to meet the needs of library users as much as possible. I wholeheartedly believe that library workers have the opportunity to impact lives in many different positive ways, even if we’re not performing outright magic
I want a kid to be able to come to the desk and ask any question they want without feeling judged or shamed. I want someone to be able to easily get information about how to become a citizen or register to vote or how find resources to care for their sick loved one. I want to walk away from each reference transaction knowing I did everything I could to help and do the right thing, whatever that may be, on a human level.
A lot has changed since I was a library page in high school, but I still get that same thrilled feeling when I help a someone solve a problem or achieve a goal. That will always be the role of the library for me.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
RM: Rue McLanahan guest starring in Murder, She Wrote (Season 1, Episode 18.) Her resting librarian face was on point.
Rita Meade is a public librarian who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of Edward Gets Messy (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers), which was awarded the inaugural Anna Dewdney Read-Together Award recognizing a picture book that is “both a superb read aloud and also sparks compassion, empathy, and connection.” Rita was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn” by Brooklyn Magazine, has served as a judge for The Story Prize, formerly hosted the “Dear Book Nerd” podcast for Book Riot, and has written for several publications and literary sites including School Library Journal and Reading Rainbow. She can be found on Twitter @ScrewyDecimal.