13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants

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When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.

1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.

“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.

The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.

“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of The Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”

2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.

Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.

For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”

3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.

Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.

Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.

4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.

“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.

So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.

5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.

When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.

But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.

6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL

The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.

Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.

Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.

7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.

One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.

Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.

Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.

Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language. (Obviously, that one didn't get presented to the client.)

8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.

Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”

9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.

Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonetic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.

Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.

Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”

10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.

“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”

To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.

11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.

The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish parameters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.

Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.

As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.

12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”

13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.

Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.

12 Secrets of Starbucks Employees

A Starbucks employee hard at work
A Starbucks employee hard at work
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With 277,000 employees across 24,000 retail locations, Starbucks is one of the largest restaurant brands in the world. These highly trained career caffeine dealers need to master drink recipes, cope with long lines, decipher inventive menu interpretations, and never lose their smile while doing it. To get a better sense of what working at Starbucks entails, we got in touch with three employees who served up details on pet peeves, the significance of apron colors, and why they’re not actually baristas. Here’s what else we found out.

1. Starbucks employees are referred to as partners, not baristas.

It would be technically incorrect to refer to a Starbucks barista as a barista. According to the company, they’re called partners. While that terminology might be meant to foster a sense of professionalism and commitment, it also has a financial meaning. “We’re referred to as ‘partners’ because a year into our employment, we get a small percentage in the company, so we’re all stock partners,” says AJ, a partner in Florida. Depending on the region, partners can make between $10 and $15 hourly, with 401(k) matching and health care. Some employees are also eligible for paid tuition through Arizona State University's online courses.

2. The color of their Starbucks apron means something.

A Starbucks employee prepares an order
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Most Starbucks employees don a green apron when reporting for work. But if you’ve ever seen a partner sporting a different color, it might indicate a certain level of seniority and experience. “Black aprons were given during a time when something called a Coffee Master program was in effect,” says M, a partner working in the Southeast. “People with those aprons worked very hard to learn everything about coffee through Starbucks. Starbucks had a program partners could receive certification through that involved lots of courses and training and coffee tastings. They’re the people to ask about types of coffee beans and teas. It’s also an indicator they’ve been with Starbucks a while because the program has been cut, at least in the U.S.”

Other apron variants include a cherished red version for holidays, and aprons with embroidered names that can also signify seniority. “It costs money to embroider an apron so managers won’t likely put a name on an apron unless that person seems unlikely to be part of turnover,” M says.

3. Starbucks partners aren't amused by the funny names you try to use ...

Starbucks employees typically ask for a customer’s first name when accepting a drink order. The name is written on the cup and called out when the order is ready. Sometimes, customers opt to use something other than what’s on their birth certificate. AJ has heard “Captain America," “Spider-Man,” "Daddy,” and “Barry Allen” (a.k.a. the Flash), among others. “We’ve heard it all before. You’re not funny. In fact, when people do this, I call out the drink and modifications instead of the name.”

4. ... And sometimes Starbucks employees have to deal with people who refuse to give their names at all.

A Starbucks customer holds a coffee cup with their name written on the side
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Some especially wary Starbucks customers won't give their first name to a green apron. “I do remember one time I asked a lady for her name and she said, ‘No, I don’t wanna give you my name,’” says Maria, a Starbucks employee in Canada. “[That] took me by surprise because I had never had someone refuse to give me a name before.” In the event of a no-name situation, partners will usually just call out the drink order.

5. Working at Starbucks makes you a caffeine fiend.

One of the big benefits of being a Starbucks partner? The free coffee. One big drawback? The free coffee. “I drink so much coffee it isn’t even funny,” M says. Employees trying new drinks or just picking up a coffee for hydration can lead to a considerable caffeine intake throughout the day—even on days off. “On days I don’t work, I still drink one to four cups a day or I’ll get a splitting headache," M says. "On days that I work, it can be the same to more, but the caffeine doesn’t help with alertness anymore. It’s lost its benefit.”

6. Starbucks employees might “decaf” rude customers.

A Starbucks coffee cup is seen in close-up
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No one at Starbucks is ever going to tamper with your order with intent to cause harm, but particularly rude customers might be subject to a subversive “decaffing.” That’s when a caffeinated order is swapped out for decaf out of revenge. “I’ve ‘decaffed’ someone once or twice but it’s a sneaky task that can backfire and I’m too busy to put in the effort to decaf someone unless they’re spit-in-your-face horrible,” M says. “I’ve done it in front of my manager once and the customer was so incredibly horrible, my manager just nodded like she understood.”

7. Starbucks partners are happy to serve your dog a “puppuccino.”

Employees at Starbucks are generally pretty happy to see dogs, an especially common occurrence when working at the drive-thru window. You can ask for—and they may even offer to prepare—a “puppacino,” a cup full of whipped cream. Just don’t expect them to do any heavy petting. “We are not supposed to touch the dogs for food safety reasons,” M says. “But I’ve definitely thrown on some gloves or run to wash my hands [so I can pet them].” M adds that puppacinos should be a sporadic treat, as they’re full of sugar and not exactly part of a healthy diet.

8. Starbucks employees know you get confused about the drink sizes.

A Starbucks store menu is pictured
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Starbucks has drawn criticism for using Italian words for their drink sizes. A tall is 12 ounces; a grande is 16 ounces; a venti hot, 20 ounces; a venti cold, 24 ounces; and a trenta (only available for certain drinks), 31 ounces. Owing to confusion or indifference, many customers still use the more common "small, medium, large" terms. If you're wondering whether that irritates partners, the answer is no. “I would say 30 percent of people use our terms and know what they mean,” AJ says. Others use the more common sizes, or whatever size they happen to see on the menu. The problem, AJ adds, is when customers order a size in Italian and then complain they didn’t know what it meant, necessitating a time-consuming change in the order.

9. New Starbucks hires are known as “green beans.”

To become a Starbucks partner, employees have to master a long list of drinks. During that training process, they’re referred to as “green beans.” But how much training they get depends on a store’s staffing. “The training experience can be a crapshoot,” M says. “We’ve gone through understaffed, overcrowded periods where green beans go through a revolving door due to lack of training. [They’re] almost just given an apron and asked to study the standard recipes when they like.” Ideally, M says that green beans are paired up with a senior employee and shadow them during a shift, asking questions and observing drink preparation and customer interactions. M believes proper training correlates with a lower turnover: “The better and longer and more dedicated the training, the less likely we have turnovers.”

10. Starbucks employees want to create a connection with you.

A woman sips from a straw outside of a Starbucks location
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Starbucks partners have a corporate mandate to be friendly. It’s called the “customer connection,” and it’s highly valued by the company. “We are evaluated and scrutinized on our ‘customer connections,’” M says. “We are pushed to greet everyone by name if they’ve come in several times before. Even if we’re working drive-thru, we’re supposed to stop to greet someone entering the café. The cacophony of ‘Hi, welcome’ every time the door opens has startled a lot of customers. It’s almost Pavlovian and robotic, but we get confronted about not doing it multiple times per shift.” M says that that unforced interactions are preferable to sticking to the required script. “The only real time I enjoy the customer interaction is when it’s genuine and not the result of my forced ‘Any plans for the weekend?’”

11. Starbucks employees can run out of patience with drive-thru customers.

Unlike most other food and beverage service locations, Starbucks invites customers to customize orders. It’s a dizzying array of options that can take time to sort through when customers order via the drive-thru, and employees have noticed that people can be less than friendly while they wait in the queue. “I think one of the biggest culprits is people are desensitized to drive-thrus,” M says. “You’re not seeing your barista ring you up, one make your food, one make your drink as quickly as possible with sweat pouring down your face, burns on their hands, and their neck kinked.” Oddly, M notices those same people can soften their demeanor when they pull up in person to pay. “My coworkers have noted that a good percentage of people who were rude at the speaker box seem nicer at the window and think it’s funny that these customers seem to take on a new personality when they see us as humans. The same humans who took their order.”

12. Latte art can be tricky for Starbucks employees.

Milk is poured over a cup of coffee in a decorative pattern
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Starbucks partners can do latte art on request, but it’s slightly trickier than at other coffeehouses. “It’s really difficult and a learning curve because of the shape and size of our pitchers,” Maria says. “They are bigger and wider than the regular pitcher so it’s a bit harder to make good milk to do latte art with. So, don’t expect all partners to know how to do latte art. It’s hard!”

19 Secrets of Public Librarians

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iStock.com/FangXiaNuo

The nation's first free public lending library opened in Massachusetts in 1790 with a collection of books donated by Benjamin Franklin, and public librarians have been helping Americans figure stuff out ever since. Sure, librarians excel at matching the right novel or biography or picture book to the right reader, but their mission is broader, and rooted in a radical idea: Everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, financial status, or any other factor, has a right to information. In honor of National Library Week, Mental Floss spoke to five public librarians to find out what they do behind the stacks to keep these local repositories of knowledge thriving.

1. Librarians need to have at least a master's degree to get a job.

A young man handing over a book at a library
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In order to score a job, librarians need a master’s degree in library science, library and information studies, or librarianship—programs in which they learn about cataloguing and organizing, statistics, research, management, and digital reference, among other essential skills. A librarian-in-training may also pick a specialty, like archival studies or rare books. Some librarians go on to earn a doctorate in library science; this degree can open the door to jobs in places like the Library of Congress and corporate research libraries.

2. They're increasingly in demand.

Librarians earn a mean annual income of $61,500—about $10,000 higher than the average for all occupations nationwide. And in case you're thinking it’s a dying industry, the Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that librarian jobs of all kinds—not just those in public libraries—will increase by 9 percent by 2026. In fact, a 2017 report by the education and publishing company Pearson found that librarians, curators, and archivists were among the occupational groups with the highest probability of increased demand by 2030 [PDF].

3. Librarians can help you with everything from metadata to filling out your taxes.

Librarians are trained in accessing all sorts of information, not just what you find between two covers. Some of them, like Erica Findley, who works at the Multnomah County Library system in Portland, Oregon, specialize in metadata, which she describes as a fancy word for “how you describe a thing" (technically, it's data about other data). She focuses on making online catalogs easier for patrons to search: “We try to put ourselves in a user’s shoes—what kind of key word are you going to type into the search box?”

Her colleague Kady Ferris specializes in electronic content, and says it’s her mission to encourage patrons to “think beyond the library as a physical space where they can get the latest bestseller.” That means assembling electronic resources—e-books and audio books, digitized objects like photos and pamphlets, streaming media, and online databases.

Not sure how to tell fake news from real news? Ask a librarian. They can also help you research how to fill out tax forms, get career training, find an AA meeting, and apply for citizenship. “People think, ‘Librarians know everything!’” says Michelle Krasowski, an adult librarian specialist in Contra Costa County, California. “No, but we know where to look for it.”

4. There's plenty of research behind librarian recommendations.

What does a librarian want most? "To give someone the perfect book,” says Gia Paolini, a Contra Costa County community library manager. That said, no one, or 10, or 100 librarians can read every book published in a year. So, they do their own research in blogs and trade publications like Publishers Weekly, attend training sessions and webinars, and consult librarians-only subscription databases like NoveList.com, which offers book recommendations by librarians, for librarians. Rakisha Kearns-White, a young adult specialist at a large library in New York City, says she belongs to a committee whose members read several books every school semester, then present talks on them to their peers. Still, they read a lot—Kearns-White says "some colleagues read 1000 books a year, which is amazing. I don’t know how they do that."

5. Librarians love helping to settle a bet.

There’s a mundane occurrence to delight every librarian. “Especially if there are language barriers, I love when someone musters the courage to ask me a question and we can go back and forth to make sure I connect them to the right resources,” Krasowski says. For Paolini, it’s when “someone comes in nervous, expecting us to be mean, then they tell me, ‘You guys are so nice … and I didn’t know you had e-books!”

But Paolini's favorite thing of all is getting a call at the phone reference desk from a sports bar where two buddies are arguing over player stats: “I’m like, ‘This is great that you’re calling the library to settle a bet!'”

6. Librarian jobs are often dependent on taxes.

Funding for public libraries is complex and varies place by place, but the bulk often comes from city or county allocations or property taxes, supplemented with state or federal dollars, as well as private donations. The nature of these sources can make them inconsistent from year to year, which means librarians' jobs are often subject to uncertainty. Paolini says the economic crash of 2008 was "awful." She explains, "We’re funded mostly by taxes, so when home values completely crashed we were looking at layoffs and [shortening] the hours we were open.”

Sometimes libraries have to get creative to fill budget shortfalls: The Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania raised money to fill some of a $5.5 million funding gap in 2010 by selling seasonal ornaments, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other libraries have been forced to get similarly inventive by hosting fun runs, wine tastings, mini-golf, and even Scrabble tournaments at the library.

The good news, though, according to Paolini, is that despite the occasional politician who thinks libraries waste public money and should be abolished, “99 percent of people [seem to] love libraries and are happy to fund them. We’re not going anywhere.”

7. Please don't ask the librarians for "boy books."

Little boy sitting on a stack of books and reading
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Every librarian has their own set of pet peeves (not reading the posted hours, leaving books randomly in the stacks), but Kearns-White says that one of hers is when people come in and ask for "boy books" or "girl books." Her response: "Our books have no gender—I can recommend a good story about XYZ." Asking for books by gender, she says, "perpetuates unnecessary gender stereotypes and also perpetuates the idea that boys don’t like to read books written by women or starring women, and it’s really not true."

Another pet peeve? Parents who think their kids are reading the "wrong" kinds of books—comic books, say, instead of Shakespeare. In that case, Kearns-White will go above and beyond to get kids the books they want. “I’ll take the kid into a section where the [parent] can’t hear and say, ‘Listen, I can see you don’t like fiction but your mom isn’t going to get off my back about it. I’ll grab a book that seems like it could be remotely interesting to you, while you go get the book you really want. I’ll convince your mom to let you get both.’”

8. Librarian stereotypes from pop culture make them roll their eyes.

Negative images of librarians abound in pop culture—most recently, in the Netflix series Stranger Things. “The librarian [in one episode] is like, ‘You can’t have any more books because you’ve already got three out,’ and she’s so nasty about it,” Paolini says. “Every single librarian I know would say, ‘I’ll make you a deal.’”

The portrayal of librarians as dowdy spinsters gets another eye-roll, as does a messy library. “The library in No Man of Her Own (1932) with Carole Lombard looks like an apocalyptic nightmare. No librarian would ever let that happen,” Paolini says.

9. They wish you wouldn't use bacon as a bookmark ...

Three strips of bacon on a white background
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Librarians find all kinds of objects wedged between the pages of books—$100 bills, Broadway tickets, condoms, paychecks, love letters, drugs, hatchets, knives, and even a vial labeled “smallpox sample.” Messiest of all, though, might be the food left in books, like crumbled Cheetos, slices of pickles, and whole strips of bacon (both cooked and raw).

10. ... or leave weird things in the book drop.

People also love to stuff strange items in the book drop, whether it's a dozen doughnuts—how thoughtful?—or a live raccoon. Librarians have also found fireworks, eggs, and dead rabbits and fish, both of which required carefully cleaning the book drop as well as the books that had been inside. Dewey Readmore Books, a library cat from Iowa, was originally deposited as a kitten in the night drop box, then became an international celebrity.

11. Librarians never talk to many of their patrons ...

Between online catalogs, self-serve check-out stations, and e-books and audiobooks that are accessed with the OverDrive app from home, “We never even interact with most of our users,” Ferris says. The surge in online usage doesn’t mean actual books and periodicals have become irrelevant, though; they’re just as in-demand as they ever were. “As librarians, it’s important for us not to dictate what libraries should be,” Krasowski says. Online services “help us support the diverse needs of our communities.”

12. ... But if you're weird, they might give you a nickname.

Librarians meet plenty of characters. Brooke McCarley documented her (brief) interlude working in a library for ThoughtCatlog.com; among her most memorable patrons was a man who gifted her a bag of used teddy bears "in case I could use them." Reddit’s libraries subreddit is also filled with librarians sharing stories about visitors bringing in kittens, reciting erotic poetry, showing up with cotton balls in their ears and noses—and smelling of everything from urine to gasoline. If you're particularly memorable, staff might make up a special name for you—according to redditor Greenjourney, one character at a small rural library has been nicknamed "Prince Valiant" by the staff for his bowl-shaped haircut and "medieval bathing habits."

13. Their job can come with unexpected hazards.

A senior librarian reading to small children
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Librarians get yelled at, hit on, and insulted. “Sitting out there at a desk opens you up to all kids of micro-aggressions,” Kearns-White explains. But even on an average day, programs can go a little … sideways. “I remember holding up a big tarantula and all the kids screaming,” Paolini says about her years running programs as a children’s librarian. “We also lost a boa constrictor once.”

Most public libraries have a code of conduct in place so librarians can eject anyone who’s intoxicated or acting abusively. These behaviors can lead to suspensions, although, Paolini says, “Most of us look at being in this space as a human right. You’d have to be an incredibly bad person—tried to hurt children or something—to get banned for life.”

14. Sometimes library patrons just want to talk.

Some patrons need validation for their parenting skills, or a sympathetic ear to complain to. “Since public libraries are one of the few spaces you can go where nothing is asked of you, you get a lot of folks in crisis looking for help,” Ferris explains.

Other resources librarians may provide, depending on the needs and desires of their patrons: summer lunch programs for low-income kids; maker spaces; musical events; and access to on-site social workers.

15. Their goal is to make lifelong learners—of patrons, and themselves.

A librarian helping two patrons at computers
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Between 1883 and 1929, steel mogul Andrew Carnegie funded thousands of public libraries around the world—including 1795 in the U.S. “The history of the Carnegie free libraries is still with us,” Krasowski says. “This is one of the few places in the world where you can walk in and go through the stacks, and there’s no gatekeeper."

It’s just this freedom and openness that attracts so many librarians to their profession. “We love information, and most of us are lifelong learners,” Krasowski continues. “What I love most is when people ask me questions from a different sort of life context [or background]. I’m excited to say, ‘I never thought about that! Let’s find out together.’”

16. Sometimes librarians need to wear costumes.

A large part of a librarian’s job is to get libraries recognized as community resources. For Krasowski, that means forging connections with organizations involved in animal services or workforce development, for example. “They may have experts who provide specialized services to the community, and we can support them by bringing certain [tools] into the library,” she says. For job development, that might mean things like training seminars, books about how to make a career change, and linking to national databases of jobs, like the U.S. Department of Labor's CareerOneStop.com

Children’s librarians also get requests to read at daycare centers and schools—and often, to dress up like characters such as Pete the Cat or one of the Wild Things. “Sometimes you think, ‘I didn’t go to library school for this,’” Paolini says. But that kind of outreach gives librarians the opportunity to introduce the library to new readers, promote summer reading programs, and get kids to sign up for their own library cards.

17. Librarians have a code of ethics.

A friendly librarian helping a patron at a desk
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

In 1939, the American Library Association, the leadership body for professional librarians, adopted a 28-point Code of Ethics, which has been foundational to the mission of librarians ever since. It’s been amended three times since it was first adopted, and cut from 28 points to 8, but its basic tenets remain the same—serving as a mission statement of “general ambition” in dealing with censorship, privacy, and how a librarian should juggle her private views when they differ from those of her employing institution. Privacy especially, Krasowski says, is "an important thing to think about now, with discussions about the privacy of information and user data. Librarians are at the forefront of this, and understanding what privacy is, since we see people as individuals—not data sets.”

The Code of Ethics are just guidelines, however—they're not legally binding, so violating them won't get a librarian fired.

18. They might hide the office supplies.

Most librarians are highly educated professionals who take their job very seriously. That said, they're humans, too, and the Tumblr Librarian Shaming collects some anonymous confessions from librarians who have behaved less-than-perfectly. That might mean getting garlic butter on the books, refusing to check out DVDs that are hard to find, transferring phone calls from abusive patrons to other libraries, or hiding the tape dispensers ("because people think that using ‘a little bit of tape’ means taking about a foot").

19. The library doesn't want your old magazines.

“We love to talk to you and answer your questions, so please interrupt us, and don’t think of us as scary,” Krasowski says. “You are our first priority, and libraries would not exist if not for you!”

There is one notable exception to this rule, however. “Please do not ask us if we want your moldy, outdated set of Encyclopedia Britannicas, or your mother’s collection of Better Homes and Gardens,” Paolini notes. The answer to that question will always be a resounding “No!”

This article first ran in 2018.

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