Columns > Published on September 14th, 2021

Library Lightning Round

Because I worked in libraries for a long (long, long...dear god, so long) time, I figure I'm the right person to answer some common questions about libraries.

The idea here is to answer the questions pretty quickly, so please excuse me for being a jerk. It’s jerkiness of brevity, not true assholery. For true assholery, please see, well, anything else I’ve ever written.


Is the library open, what with COVID and all?

Depends where you live, but for the most part, libraries are open in some capacity. Lots of libraries started up curbside services during the shutdowns last year, and lots of them beefed up their online offerings.

Can library books spread COVID?

Libraries were all over this shit and geared up the REALM project early in the pandemic. REALM stands for...something, I don’t care, libraries fucking love acronyms, and I’m over it.

REALM started with a focus on whether materials could spread COVID, so we could figure out whether it was safe to reopen libraries and museums (shit, I think I just figured out ¾ of that acronym…). In brief: it’s theoretically possible to get COVID from a material that someone with COVID used, but it’s also theoretically possible that I could fall into a timewarp and have love affairs with all three of the Catwomans from Batman ‘66.

If I want to be extra safe, should I just microwave my stuff?

If you want to die in a fire instead of taking the extremely low risk of getting COVID from a library material, that’s a great way to do it. Library materials contain metal tags/stickers most times.

What’s the best library hack anyone can use?

Let’s say you check out an eBook and send it to your Kindle. And let’s say you’re not quite finished with that book when it’s set to automatically return. If you were to accidentally, by chance, have your Kindle in airplane mode before that return date, the title wouldn’t be returned until you reconnected to a network of some kind, and yet the book would be back in digital circulation. So you get to keep it and someone else could check it out. There is no punishment or way for anyone to know this is happening, and I only tell you this because I would hate for you to do such a thing accidentally without realizing that you’re committing a victimless, harmless, impossible-to-trace crime.

Do libraries throw away books?

The good libraries do.

There’s a thing libraries do call “weeding.” This is removing books from the collection. It’s called weeding because it’s comparable: weeds are plants that show up in your garden, but they’re not desirable plants, and they use up the resources that the desirable plants require. To an outside observer unfamiliar with gardening, it would look insane to rip living plants out of a garden. To the outside observer unfamiliar with libraries, it would look insane to throw out books. But the same principles apply: libraries have limited space, and publishing is infinite.

Who decides what stays and what goes?

You. Any library will take use of a material into account. If a book is checking out 10 times a year, it’ll have a place on the shelf. If it sits there for 2-3 years untouched, its days are numbered.

What's the hardest thing you ever had to throw away?

Armloads of children's books. They needed to go, they were in terrible shape and the library was changing its shelving around and needed space. But still, not fun.

What's the hardest thing you ever had to keep?

A memoir by a guy who "successfully" went through elective conversion therapy as an adult. 

Bed bugs. Libraries have them, right? Can I get them from library books?

Every library deals with bed bugs at some point. Yes, even your quaint, small town library. The good news is that libraries are prepared and know what they’re doing.

It’s no more risky than staying in a hotel, getting on a bus, or going to a theater. If you want to be extra safe, put your books in a seal-able plastic bag, set them aside, and if you don’t see any bugs within a few days, chances are you’re safe. If you don’t see any within 10 days, that’s as close to a guarantee as you'll get in this life.

What do you think of eBooks?

I think they’re sold on a lot of things that have nothing to do with reading. Having your entire library at hand is only a distraction when you’re halfway through a book.

That said, eBooks are a fucking gamechanger for people who need large print.

If I listened to an audiobook, can I tell people I “read” the book?

People will ask if you’ve read a book for 3 reasons:

  1. You’re in a book club. Experiencing 25% or more of the book club selection for the month makes you an A+ book club member. Do it however you like.
  2. Someone wants to tell you THEY’VE read a book. People who try to out-book everybody are obnoxious assholes. Give them whatever answer will make them go away.
  3. Someone wants to talk to you about the book in question. You can participate in that conversation regardless of whether you read or listened.

That’s 3 for 3 where I say go ahead.

What’s the difference between a public library and an academic library?

Free parking.

Why do so many homeless people hang out at the library?

Remember when it was a big thing for Starbucks to let people hang out as long as they want, regardless of whether or not they bought anything? That’s how public libraries are all the time.

But in my library, it’s kind of a problem. There are A LOT of them.

If you want to reduce the number of homeless people in the library, for their welfare or for your own reasons (frankly, I don’t care what your motive is as long as the outcomes are welfare-oriented), improve the safety net in your community. The library isn’t necessarily where people want to be all day, and a lot of people camping out there usually reflects a lack of options.

Do librarians hate stuff like "Fifty Shades" and "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Martian" and "Ready Player One"?

I love those sorts of books! They bring people to reading. Let me put it this way: The people who read David Foster Wallace were readers before they got to him. E.L. James brings people who don’t typically read into the fold. I’m in favor of bringing new people to reading. I think we get more interesting stuff down the road that way.

How do I get my book in the library?

I wrote a whole column about that. The fast answer: Be Local, Ask Politely, and Don’t Spam The Shit Out of Every Library in Existence Thinking It’s the Path to Authorial Glory.

Is the sexy librarian stereotype true?

Why don’t you buy me a drink and we’ll find out?

What we’ll find out is that the answer is “No.” But I’ll still take that drink.

Why is the library better than the internet?

Because the library isn’t trying to sell you anything you don’t want.

Do librarians have special training?

Librarians in most places have a master’s degree in library science (or some other, similar degree with more words in it), but it varies from place to place.

So not everyone who works in the library is a librarian?

Technically, no. But only uptight dorks will correct you on it. I’ve worked with plenty of people who had the degree and didn’t know the first thing about helping people, and I’ve worked with plenty of people who didn’t have the degree and could do librarian-y things that’d blow your head right off your body.

I’m applying for a job in a library. Any advice?

Don’t tell them you “love to read” or “love books.” Every applicant says that. It doesn’t help you stand out. I know, that sounds bizarre, but TRUST ME. It's like applying to work at a bank and saying you like money.

Do librarians get to read all day?

Do McDonald’s employees get to sit around and eat hamburgers all day? Or at all? No, they don’t, and I know that because I ALSO worked at McDonald’s, and the amount of eating we got to do (none) was a huge letdown.

What’s the deal when you hear a story about someone who returned a book like 50 years late? Do they have a billion dollars in fines?

The only thing that makes sense for criminals of this caliber is to hunt them down like Lance Henriksen hunted down Chance Boudreaux aka Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target. Most libraries fail to devote nearly enough resources to recovering a World Almanac that someone checked out in ‘87.

How do book bans work?

They don't. Don't do them. 


I'm sure you've got other questions, like about whether I ever broke up an enormous turd with a coat hanger (yes), or whether I ever got on the roof to retrieve a wallet a kid threw up there (his own wallet, and yes), or how long I spent with a guy trying to find a pack of screws on Amazon that had free shipping and would save him 40-cents (in a way, I'm still there next to him and will be for eternity). 

Ask away!

Get The World's Strongest Librarian: A Book Lover's Adventures by Josh Hanagarne at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Running the Books by Avi Steinberg at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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