5 Life Lessons from Being a Librarian

Dustin Koski
10 min readMar 17, 2021

It’s been an honor and a privilege to work for the River Falls Public Library since 2011. Even before I was officially hired it was one of my favorite places to hang out while growing up and get work done after I had grown up. It’s also taught me many invaluable lessons, and I don’t mean anything the books, videos, magazines, or videos had to teach. Well, maybe they’re somewhere somewhere in our inventory. I mean, I haven’t watched all those bass fishing DVDs.

Public Domain

This may come as a surprise to you, but working at a library doesn’t involve putting your life on the line on a regular basis. I know, with how brazenly some people abuse computer lab privileges or how obsessed people can get with their favorite series, you might think it’s only a matter of time before some humble librarian has to tell someone to leave for their last time. So these aren’t the kind of lessons someone learns while staring death in the face or which yield vast riches, but they’ve still been a distinct part my life’s direction. For better or worse.

5. Tea Fights Must Be a Thing

For a lot of 2020, I was transferred to doing check-ins where I had to quickly yet thoroughly inspect returned items for damage. Whether it be dirt smudges on the outer edges or a single smudge on page 323 of a 620 page tome, I found them all with a consistency I was quite pleased with. Naturally it also got on the nerves of my coworkers.

Now, what do you think was the most common stain? Cheeto dust? Spaghetti sauce? Chocolate? Water?

Nope. Far and away it was tea.

Public Domain

This surprised me too, remembering as a child just how smudged my Garfield or Hank the Cowdog books would get as I thoughtlessly thumbed through them with chocolate, ketchup, etc on my fingers. It’s not as if books for kids had any trouble getting checked out in our library. Even hardcover Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books that looked like they were printed for my grandparents get checked out on a pretty regular basis. That’s why they’re still on the shelves. But no, kids these days seem to treat books with startling deference compared to older readers. After awhile one in ten to fifteen books being returned with a new tea stain would have seemed about normal to me.

Now I understand that accidents happen and that as people get along in years they might be more prone to spills as they’re absorbed in another large print story or mystery. Still, the fact it was tea much more often than say wine or other spirits made me speculate that it wasn’t just accidents. There must have been a number of patrons who were getting into tea fights. Whatever else you could say about such a practice, it would have livened up some reading circles.

4. The Most Fiercely Fought Battles Are Often the Ones that Aren’t Worth It

No American needs me to tell them what a contentious, politically charged election year 2020 was. Sometimes it feels like then tension has barely gone away. I’m sure in some circles it has cranked way up. But I want to highlight the smallest, silliest battleground in America, the site of a months long struggle which pitted wills daily.

In the River Falls Public Library all the new books for adults are shelved on a freestanding shelf roughly in the center of the main area. To make it a little more eye-catching, we put certain randomly selected books with covers appropriate for general readership on the top of the island. Some have tilted mounts for them, but most are just opened to a 30 degree angle.

Sometime in the Winter of 2019–2020, the flow of political agitprop books increased from its usual flow to a deluge for our library. This coincided with one of our patrons becoming convinced that it was up to them to win hearts and minds for their party. I’m not naming authors or political parties, and I probably don’t have to. This person would take whatever books we had placed on the top of the shelves and replace them with a collection of books pushing an agenda they shared. This was not something that was supposed to be going on since our library was publicly funded, while both parties were to be represented by having their rhetoric available, preferential treatment was forbidden.

Since I was shelving books and pulling requested books for interlibrary loans at the time, it became one of my unofficial side duties to undo this anonymous patron’s praxis by replacing their partisan selections with my unprovocative, or at least politically neutral choices.

Their selections were back up there by my next shift. Every. Single. Time.

The spot where the 2020 election was actually decided.

I wish I could pretend I was above this petty squabble, but in truth, whoever this was they got on my nerves something fierce. I was a supporter for the other side, after all, so while initially I just replaced their choices with such benign subject matter as handicraft or ancient history books, eventually I started wanting to get into some good trouble. I started putting up books about the Holocaust, American slavery and its persistence to this day, fiat currency, etc. I wanted to find the most provocative books from the other side of the spectrum that our library had in stock and put them up there to… Well, probably not really win anyone over, but to make some kind of a point.

After months of this back and forth, I broke down and put the most radical book up there I could find. It was a book which challenged every aspect of the American status quo. The most rabble rousing piece of non-fiction published the whole election cycle if enough people could learn of it and open their hearts to its message as a result of seeing it on top of the New section.

Then five seconds later I took it back down and replaced it with a book about color coordination for home decor. What had I been thinking? If their choice of book was always available, that meant no one was ever checking it out, so this impersonal nonverbal shelving battle was all the more pointless. Besides, I was the one only doing taking part in the whole thing because it was my job, so I had more to lose. Not much more since probably the most I would have gotten was a finger wag, but it was still more.

Like so many things, it all came to an end with the pandemic, which caused the library to be closed to the general public. I’m surprised that as far as I know that patron never tried to sneak into or even storm the library just to check whether the books of their favorite authors were being given preferential treatment. If they had, they would have seen how I, who kept working inside the library all through lockdown retrieving requested items, had replaced every nonfiction book on top of the new section with books from advocates for the party they hated.

3. Fictional Scottish Men Are a Favorite for Romance Readers

If you would have figured that the internet or America’s supposedly loosening morals would mean that paperback romances are considered quaint at best, I can assure you they are not. Maybe the days where a semi-competent series like 50 Shades of Gray can become culturally inescapable are gone, but those books in general are still checked out at a decent rate, at least from our library. We have four standalone racks of them, which makes the selection about the size of our decently popular fantasy/sci-fi section.

And my god, are a lot of the books that get checked out from there about Scottish guys. Specifically, they’re about Highlanders, of which it turns out there must definitely can be more than only one.

Ballantine Books

More beefy hunks in kilts have gone in and out of our library than the Edinburgh International Airport. I have no idea what this is about. It’s not like every romance reader in our consortium had a moment of awakening while watching Braveheart or Outlander. Is reading “cannae” instead of “can’t” really such an enticing improvement?

This is by no means the only kind of romance paperback we have in stock. It’s not like our horror selection which was 95% all donated by one very intense guy who liked his horror movies… edgy. There are plenty of books in there about firefighters, ranchers, executives, werewolves, etc. All of them are left can eat the dust of Highlanders, or they would if Scotland weren’t always so damp that it’s impossible to kick up a good dust cloud over there.

As it happens, this transitions perfectly to the next subject:

2. Authors with Certain Gaelic Last Names Should Use Aliases

Alright, so you’re shelving books in a fiction section. Tell me, what order should the following authors be shelved in:

  • Collen McCullough
  • Alistair MacLeod
  • John MacDonald
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Eloise Jarvis McGraw
  • Susan MacNeal
  • Tom McNeal


Trick question.

Because no matter what answer you gave, it turns out the patrons don’t uniformly know the answer, so they jumbled them all up out of order by the time you had to shelve them again anyway. In fact if you try to sort through the mishelved books properly you might only succeed in slowing some patron down because they had a system in their head that they prefer to the one your library has adopted.


This is such a cruel burden to put on the poor librarians of the world. I can only imagine how much of a bother it was for workers at Amazon fulfillment centers who had to deal with those backbreaking deadlines!

So a humble request to all the authors of the world, published and aspiring: If your last name has a Mc, a Mac, a MaC, or some other variation on it at the beginning, please use something else, like your middle name if it doesn’t also have that on the front. The weary people doing inventory will not be able to thank you enough for your sacrifice, so it might seem as if they’re not bothering to try. Trust me, there’ll be that subconscious gratitude.

1. Those Little Thank You Notes Really Do Make a Difference

Public domain

During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, there were many months where there was only one employee in the library at the time, checking in and retrieved requested items. The beeps of the scanner seemed to echo all through the gallery. The only way to distract from the loneliness for some of us was to work extra hard and fast. Or to sneak a companion in, but let’s be real, we probably wouldn’t be librarians if we weren’t a bunch of goody two-shoes.

One day in November, though, I received a wonderful thing. Someone had taped a note to the front of a book they’d left in the drop box. It was on written in blue ink. The patron told us about how important what we were doing for the community in general was and them in particular.

I don’t want to get overly sentimental, especially not after the silliness that’s permeated this list up to now, but it was like a breath of fresh air, a pat on the back from a proud parent, and the first rays of the rising sun on a bright new day all rolled into one. Up to then all the notes were legitimate complaints about how discs didn’t play or books had crumbs in them (caused by the tea fights, no doubt.) But this made the job human and emotionally rewarding in a way the grind and isolation had kept it from being for so long.

Unfortunately I can’t share a picture of the note because I messed up and left the note on the break room table for everyone to read, and I think what happened was someone put a box of snacks on it without noticing the paper, and the two were thrown away together. But that was me being a little prone to screw ups. I heartily recommend to everyone out there that if you have the time and got some really worthwhile service, a personalized message of any kind, even an email, is always worth a try. I know it’s a memory I’ll always treasure.

Dustin Koski loves books so much that he helped Jonathan Wojcik write one called Return of the Living, a post-apocalyptic comedy about the first sighting of a living creature in a world where everyone became ghosts long ago. He can be followed on Twitter too.



Dustin Koski

Dustin Koski is a stagehand with IATSE Local 13 and a librarian who has written numerous articles and scripts with millions of views.