Welcome to Shhh…Secrets of the Librarians, a 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 Toronto public librarian Michelle Leung.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
Michelle Leung: I was the shy, awkward and lonely immigrant kid that spent their entire childhood in libraries, learning English through books. I found myself being completely captivated by, and lost in, stories and could spend hours exploring the shelves. I was constantly amazed that all this knowledge was free for the taking! As a young girl, my neighbourhood librarian would always “save” me the book kits that came with an audio cassette (I loved being read to!) and she always remembered that I liked Disney princesses and books like The Berenstain Bears and Clifford the Big Red Dog. We kept in touch for many years until she retired and moved to a new city. I will always remember her kindness and generosity, and how I would rush to her every day after school and she was always happy to hear about my school day. After I outgrew Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew, Goosebumps and Fear Street, another series I was definitely obsessed with as a young reader was C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I guess looking back, there would have been no other suitable career. As a high schooler, I got a job shelving books at this same library and, as they say, the rest is history! Through meeting all my smart colleagues and working at the library, I quickly realized what a valuable service we are to so many, especially younger children and families, newcomers, students of all ages and marginalized communities.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
ML: This one is easy! The most meaningful book to me in the last decade is without a doubt Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. I’ve gifted this book countless times since publication and my friends know I can’t stop talking about it. I read a lot of memoirs, and have never been so affected by this story of girlhood rendered so beautifully. T Kira Madden’s sentences are so glorious and breathtaking, I am forever a fan and will read anything she writes.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
ML: A couple of things: librarians need post graduate degrees and professional accreditation from a school that typically has a Library and Information Science faculty. I also think there is a misconception that being a public librarian is a quiet, soothing and—dare I say—easy job where you get to read a lot at work. In reality, libraries can be the loudest community hangout spaces you’ve ever stepped foot in. On any given day, my colleagues are delivering free programs, connecting with the local neighborhood on outreach initiatives, visiting nearby schools, building the collection and general maintenance/weeding, and answering a flurry of customer service and reference questions. This also doesn’t even begin to touch upon the different roles librarians and other library workers are expected to play now: babysitter, social worker, therapist, community connector, editor, and frequently tech troubleshooter— resetting email passwords and printer jam support!
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
ML: I’ve definitely had customers ask me to write (not just edit/proofread) their entire resume and cover letter, help choose their dating profile pictures, and help them write passive aggressive notes to their disruptive neighbors! Also, I’ve passed on many notes and messages of adoration for my colleagues!
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
ML: I truly believe that libraries are more important than ever, as there are fewer and fewer places where you can come and stay as long as you want, without anyone expecting you to complete a financial transaction of any sort. They are truly welcoming of everyone. Living spaces are also getting smaller and definitely less affordable in the city and many refer to our branches as community living rooms. Groups of people gather and hang out to study, do research, participate in a program, learn a new skill, or just read! We are more than books—we also have internet access, and plenty of learning opportunities. Public libraries have always been places where communities can engage and grow. Instead of becoming obsolete in the internet age, we’ve evolved into learning and innovation hubs.
The Covid-19 pandemic has continually proved how important libraries are. Every day I see social media messages and emails from customers about how much they miss us but how grateful they are that they can still come pick up holds and/or access our resources online from the comfort of their homes.
My library system has also played an extremely valuable role in our communities as our closed library buildings began operating as alternate service locations for city food banks. We’ve also loaned out our Ultimaker 2+ 3D printers to a team at Toronto General Hospital to support their efforts to produce personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers and have continued to provide vital internet connectivity to some of our most vulnerable residents. Most recently, we’ve even held vaccine clinics at some branches.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
ML: Giles from Buffy is the best librarian in modern pop culture and you can not prove me wrong. I loved how he was such a father figure to Buffy, not only training her but fighting by her side. He also, like me, seems to have been obsessed with the smell of old, dusty books! I quote: “smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a—it, uh, it has no no texture, no context.”
Michelle Leung has worked at Toronto Public Library for over twenty years both in public service roles and on special community and outreach assignments. She currently works in the Communications, Programming and Customer Engagement department with a focus on media relations. A voracious reader and passionate bookclub leader, she can be found championing her favourite writers on instagram @mishiechau.