What is real library work, anyway?

“I’m not trying to be a pain, but if someone’s, like, just doing Facebook, can I kick them off? Can you? I have actual work to do!”

That’s the eternal library computer lab question, isn’t it? Libraries struggle with it more than plain-vanilla computer labs, I would guess, in that we have a history with computers in our libraries. When we got them eons ago, they were for our newly computerized catalogs, then for research using CD-ROM resources, and then for searching proprietary networked databases. Computers were few and far between (and sometimes still are), and therefore were hot commodities, and we had a tendency to want to ‘protect’ them for ‘library’ use. Signs and policies sprang up. “NO EMAIL ON THIS COMPUTER” and “ONE HOUR USE” and “RESEARCH USE ONLY”. Librarians began to need to troubleshoot computers, and this only exacerbated the frustration about “real library work” and “the computers”.

That’s all changing (more slowly at times than I think is reasonable). Only slowly have libraries begun putting in fully-functional computer workstations, replete with office software, SPSS, image manipulation programs, and the much a-feared openly available web browser. Only slowly have librarians begun to accept that they needed to understand the hardware running the software that makes ‘real library work’ possible. Only slowly have libraries come to recognize that if they support academic work, they cannot define which academic tasks can be done at their workstations. And still the conversations persist, about how many students are wasting valuable seats (because there are never enough computers, frankly) by IMing, checking their email, and using Facebook rather than doing “real library work”.

I have all the sympathy in the world for the student who just came to the desk, and as he asked his question a computer opened up, I pointed him to it, and the problem was solved. I also followed him, and as his computer booted up told him that if he ever has the same problem again he can tell the reference librarian, and whoever is working will make an announcement that the computers are in high demand, and request that anyone who can do their work later and/or elsewhere please do so in order to allow others to do research. It works better than you might expect. Our students are considerate of each others’ needs, and are kind in their use of our resources. So I’m happy to make that request when we’re packed, in an attempt to find a workstation for a student in need.

What I’m not willing to do is go and solicit specific people to get off the computers — insist that they be freed up for ‘real library work’ — based on what they appear to be working on. That kid with Facebook front and center and several IM windows open might, for all I know, be working on a group project with classmates living off-campus, doing the research portion in the library while they put together the PowerPoint in their apartment, IMing about their progress. Or he might be organizing next week’s chess club pizza social, using campus-provided computing resources to post it on Facebook and print posters. He might be studying for his next exam, asking his buddy for help over IM with a hard question on the review sheet, and checking Facebook as a break. Or might be talking to his girlfriend. I can’t know which one’s closer to the truth, and therefore I can’t intervene. Not in good faith, because I also can’t know if the kid asking for a computer to do ‘real library work’ just wants to send an email to his girlfriend. And I can’t care. Just as it’s not my job to decide which reference question is more important than any other, just as it’s not my job to assess whose information need takes priority, it’s not my job to make one patron’s computing needs more important than another, even if one of them doesn’t appear to be doing “real” library work.

Because what the hell is library work, anymore? If it’s restricted to using databases, searching the local catalog, photocopying articles, and checking out books, we’re dead in the water as a profession. It has to be more than that, be a synthesis of learning and doing and researching and working and talking and living in an information-rich technological age. We have to be more than we were if we want to continue to promote our core values, which means that ‘real library work’ is … whatever the users want to do in the library.

And that’s fine with me.


  1. Here here!! Why can’t I get this through to the staff at my workplace?!

    Altho’ clearly you’re academic. Most of our staff wouldn’t know Facebook if it jumped out and app’d them to death. Our clientele’s vice of choice is Runescape. Oh, and sites sporting semi- or fully-nude women. 😉


  2. The joys of public libraries are multitude, are they not?

    Feel free to print me out and poster the workroom with my ‘wisdom’. See if we can’t wear off any goodwill I might still have in the midwest, five years later. 😉


  3. Great post! I agree with you and I have noticed too that most students (I work at a middle school) when there are deadlines and assignments do focus on their “library” work and also police themselves. If someone is goofing off they usually say something to each other.


  4. When I came to my current position as director of a large academic medical library over a dozen years ago there was a clear separation between the computers that could be used for “library” work, and those that were for general purpose computing. It took me a couple of years, but eventually we moved to a system where all of the computers in the library have access to everything we license as well as unfiltered internet access. (As an aside, this means that we don’t have a need for a “computer lab” — we just have a building with computers scattered conveniently throughout). Still, from time to time, there’s the occasional comment from someone on the staff who thinks we should be more restrictive (a senior reference librarian suggested the other day that we ban all video as a way of dealing with the porn viewers. I could only shake my head and didn’t have the energy to ask her what we’d do about the intern who was trying to watch that embedded surgery video in an issue of New England Journal of Medicine).

    Whenever someone suggests that we need to set up some kind of procedures so that people are only using the computers for “legitimate” purposes, I like to ask them how they would define those purposes and whose job it should be to monitor and enforce those restrictions, without violating the privacy of the individuals involved. Of course, they have no answers.


  5. Anna, thanks! I agree — our students are better social police than we ever could be, and they’ve got peer pressure on their side. Me? I’m just an authority figure. 😉

    T Scott, That’s my question, exactly — how could we possibly define, monitor, and enforce a definition of “legitimate library work”, given our current information environment? We can’t. But some (many?) librarians and library staff still want to try. I think it’s all part of a larger shift in our understanding of the role of the library in the user’s life, and our struggle with what computers are for in libraries is part of our struggle with understanding what libraries do. None of it’s easy, but I think it’s all interesting.

    Which is good, since libraries are what I DO.


  6. Amen! MFPOW never got this, though they did reduce the amount of “Research Only” computer stations over time. It always drove me a little crazy.

    I do admit that it was nice to always have some open research terminals (because they were not as popular as the ones that you could do whatever on) to take people to who needed walking through a resource.


  7. Michelle, we solved that “no open computers” problem by putting two workstations for Staff Use Only behind our reference desk. We use them for one-on-one appointments with students, and to move students from the reference desk to when they’re clearly going to need ongoing help with their research question. It works out fantastically well.


  8. In public libraries this is usually where teens and older adult clash. The genealogy hobbyist is sure she deserves more time on-line than that kid using MySpace. After all, she’s paying taxes. The adult working on a resume doesn’t understand why he can’t boot the tween checking email. His need is obviously more important.

    Same arguments apply… who decides what’s legit, and who enforces it? Those kids’ parents are paying taxes too, and if we’re lucky they’ll vote for us the next time we need a mill levy passed for operations.

    Time management software helps, but we desperately need more computers. I don’t know a library that doesn’t.


  9. Just discovered your blog and wanted to give a kudos shout out. Can’t agree more. I’ve dealt with restrictive policies in a large academic library at which I used to work, and it was one of the most stressful pieces of my job. In that situation, written policy drew a clear line between university-affiliated patrons (students, faculty) and the general public. What this really translated into was staff’s ability kicking the neighborhood teens off of the computers. I would avoid it at all costs, but sometimes I had to do it — it was like a knife to the heart!


  10. […] Perhaps a new model for running could be suggested.  How about we run the library like the military?  All spit-shine and ‘ten-hut!’ and efficiency to the smallest detail.  Like the business approach, this isn’t a serious recommendation to place commando tactics in library administration, but rather an offer that military practices in some areas might be benchmarked, just as those in business, government, non-profits, and even the educational system might also be mined for best-practices.  That’s really all the ‘run it like a business’ suggestions ever meant anyway.  Now let’s all get back to work. […]


  11. Great post! Although I haven’t had to deal with that issue at my current place of employment (no, we don’t have enough computers but I haven’t had anyone ask me to boot anyone off yet), I do sympathize with both sides of the issue. But it also makes me realize how slow people in general are to accept that social networking, while fun, can also be “real” work.


  12. Hello.My name is Natalia.I am Russian and I live in New York.I want to work in library but my English is not very good.Could you explain me what college should I go and is it possible for me because of my English?


  13. Fully agree with you Jenica and others. I work in a regional public library and alot of our clients seem more interested in using our toilets than anything else (lol) – still it is providing a valuable public service!


  14. Hi Jenica
    Have a nice day. Thank you for your hard work. I am from Nepal and working for Community Learning Center in rural areas. For this, we are trying to establish library but we don’t have detail idea about library. We want to publish one hand book about library to easy dissemination. So it would be highly appreciated if you could send some essential doc via email with regarding the following content;
    What is library ?
    Types of library
    Function of Library
    Importance of library
    Operational Procedure of library

    Waiting for positive response.

    With regards
    Dattatray Dahal


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