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 the Chicago-based Executive Director of LibraryReads, Rebecca Vnuk.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
Rebecca Vnuk: I will totally (and proudly!) cop to the cliche—I became a librarian because I love to read. I have a B.A. in Musical Theatre, of all things, but I knew I didn’t have the drive to try and make it as an actress, so I always knew I’d end up getting a Master’s degree for my “real” career. Since I was a huge bookworm and trivia nerd (this was back in Google’s infancy, when people still used the reference desk to settle bar arguments and look up random facts), becoming a librarian seemed a good fit. I was a readers’ advisory librarian and department manager in the Chicago suburbs before becoming an editor for Collection Management and Library Outreach at Booklist magazine, and now I run a nonprofit that works with public librarians and North American publishers to promote adult books and reading. I’d say it all worked out pretty well.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
RV: That’s a hard one, because my readers’ advisory training kicks in and wants to know, “well, what kind of book are you looking for?”. However, I’ve sold at least 50 readers on one of my favorites from 2018: Louise Candlish’s Our House. I yelled “HOLY CRAAAAAP” out loud at the big twisty midpoint, then had to put it down at least 3 times before the end because I didn’t want it to be over, and then screamed out “NO NO NO…NO WAY!” when I got to the last page. So, yeah, it was good. Anyone who likes a good twist ending needs to read this one.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
RV: The stereotype of the shy, quiet librarian is such a funny thing. We have to be constantly “on,” ready for whatever question or person comes our way—and act like we know exactly what they are looking for, while scrambling to come up with the correct search terms. We have to be loud advocates for the programs, books, and services we provide. And to work a public desk, you have to be a people person. My acting training really served me well on the reference desk. I was always able to keep a poker face no matter what the question was or how demanding the patron could be. It’s not as easy as it looks.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
RV: I will never forget the woman who came in and literally threw the book at me. She had been looking for romantic suspense, and I suggested the latest Nora Roberts. She was appalled at the level of sex and violence in the book, so when she came in to return it, she tossed it at me and hit me solidly in the chest with it!
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
RV: The wonderful thing about today’s library is that it has to adapt to what their particular community needs. Some libraries are still where people go to get a break from the loud outside world, while others are comfortably boisterous places. Most libraries go beyond books to offer programming, social space, and educational opportunities. More and more, libraries are seen as the only free admission “third place” in their area, and function as a hybrid coffee shop/community center/what have you. It’s fascinating to see how any given library manages to handle all of this while remaining true to the core purpose of offering books and educational information.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
RV: Gotta be Evelyn Carnahan from The Mummy movie franchise. She’s smart, she’s gorgeous, and she ends up with the hunk.
Rebecca Vnuk is the Executive Director of LibraryReads. She has an MLIS from Dominican University and worked for a decade as a public librarian before becoming the editor for Collection Management and Library Outreach at Booklist magazine. Rebecca is the author of three reference books on the topic of Women’s Fiction, as well as a best-selling book on weeding library collections. She was a 2010 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, the 2010 PLA Allie Beth Martin Award Winner for distinguished Readers Advisory Service, and the 2008 Library Journal Fiction Reviewer of the Year. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two tween sons (both of whom still love to read, whew!).