15 Secrets of Caricature Artists

iStock
iStock

The word caricature likely conjures up images of street artists on boardwalks or outside museums working up quick, humorous sketches of visitors, to the delight or dismay of their subjects. But the exaggerated illustrations of caricature include a lot more than what you see on the boardwalk—and can be more art than kitsch. We spoke to three experts in the field about the subjects caricature artists love and hate to depict, the best way to make their job harder, what they do if you don't like their drawing, and how they can tell when you really don't want to sit for a portrait.

1. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW IT'S OLDER THAN YOU THINK.

Caricatures by Leonardo da Vinci
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Some of the greatest artists in history practiced caricature as a means to develop their skills. Eileen Owens, curator of "Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s–1830s" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to use caricature, in the “grotesque” sketches of unusual faces and heads that populated his notebooks. (His 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Leonardo was “so delighted when he saw curious heads, whether bearded or hairy, that he would follow anyone who had thus attracted his attention for a whole day.”) Many other well-established Renaissance artists dabbled in caricature on the side, as breaks from their rigorous training: "It was a lot more huge noses, big hair, ways to poke fun at faces. You had to be adept at drawing to know how to exaggerate," Owens says.

The form gained momentum in late-17th century Italy, when Pier Leone Ghezzi “started making funny little drawings that poked fun at well-to-do Romans and tourists,” according to Owens. From there, it spread to Britain, where it became so popular that publishing companies sprung up for the sole purpose of printing caricatures. Publishers also rented out portfolios of caricatures by the day, and hung prints in their windows, to which crowds flocked to see the latest depictions of a buffoonish Napoleon and laughable upper-crust fashions. Owens says, “This was your chance to keep up with the gossip—kind of like People magazine today.”

2. MANY OF THEM ARE SELF-TAUGHT.

A street artist paints a caricature of a girl in Prague
iStock

Lots of caricature artists learn on the job, in part because there's not a ton of specific training available. Illustrator Tom Richmond, who spoofs movies for MAD Magazine (among other gigs), says, "Only a handful of art schools teach cartooning or caricature as a major part of curriculum, so it's hard to find instruction on how to do it. Caricature is such a specialized sort of thing, and diverse; you can’t teach it like you teach people how to draw comics, where [there's] storytelling technique and sequential art tricks and a science behind it, so to speak." Overall, what Richmond and others strive for is to “translate [your] art skill [into caricature], really lean into it—no matter how you practice.”

3. IT CAN BE GREAT TRAINING FOR OTHER ART FORMS.

Richmond says that when he teaches at workshops around the country, he always recommends—no matter what facet of the industry they are interested in—that students try their hand at live drawing, "maybe even volunteer at the local homecoming or draw for free at a daycare center." Having to work quickly with a model in front of you develops a sensitivity to gesture, to how the body leans and how weight is distributed, that's different from the skills you get "shading something for hours," Richmond explains. When you "go back to doing longer pieces, you've got an inner eye that sees things you missed before. It's great discipline for the developing eye."

4. THEY’RE NOT (NECESSARILY) OUT TO MOCK YOU.

Caricatures have been defined as "portrait[s] with the volume turned up." But that doesn't mean they have to be mean-spirited. Richmond says, “Caricature is a depiction of someone in a humorous way, but at its best it has a narrative behind it—you’re pointing out something about their presence, not just making fun of their features.” He explains that he’s not examining someone’s face to find a nose or a chin or dimples to blow out of proportion, but "trying to understand who you are as a person and exaggerate that.”

"I want to make [clients] smile or laugh," says CeCe Holt, who sketches at events and amusement parks, and is also business manager for the non-profit International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA). "I never want to make anybody cry."

5. THEY DON’T SWEAT IT WHEN SOMEONE DOESN’T LIKE THEIR LIKENESS …

Just because caricaturists strive to capture your essence doesn't mean you're going to like it. People can be in denial about their appearance, with a radically different idea of their weight, for instance, or even whether they have freckles. In Holt’s experience, party guests usually don’t make a fuss about their caricatures, since they haven’t directly paid for them. But when the occasional amusement park patron kicks up a fuss, “I just say I’m sorry and move on to the next person.”

Richmond is similarly blasé, pointing out that when a caricaturist is drawing a quick sketch for $15, the occasional bad portrait is bound to sneak in. "Sometimes they refuse to pay, or come back later and want their money back. Live caricature can be hair-raising, which is why I prefer working with art directors."

6. … BUT SOMETIMES CUSTOMERS RETALIATE.

Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Occasionally, customers do try to turn the tables. Ipecacxink, a caricature artist at a Midwest theme park, writes in a Reddit AMA about a boy she accidentally made very upset with her drawing. "I went to lunch right after I did it. Apparently while I was gone, he came back and drew a circle with spikey hair, glasses, and frowny eyebrows and a note that said, 'How do you like someone making fun of you?!' under it. He then placed it on my chair. It was hilarious. I saved it."

At Sardi's—the Times Square tourist destination known for its wall of caricatures—some of the celebrities depicted have gotten mad enough to take down their pictures, the restaurant's owner told AMNew York. It used to be that the in-house caricaturist (who's paid in meals instead of money) would hand over unfinished versions to the subjects first, to get the seal of approval, before going on to later exaggerate their features. That's stopped, but these days the caricatures have become less humorous, and more like regular portraits—which helps keep the peace between the restaurant and its famous clientele.

7. THEY CAN DO PORTRAITS IN AS LITTLE AS THREE MINUTES.

When she’s sketching guests at amusement parks like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, Holt aims to churn out a black-and-white portrait in three minutes. Working at a wedding reception, where she might add color, six minutes is the max. Much of this has to do with fitting in as many guests as possible—“You have to be fast to get through the crowd or they’ll leave,” she says.

For Holt, the need for speed means she has to “go with her instincts; there isn’t time to second-guess” a depiction. For Richmond, working quickly means caricaturists develop a "sixth sense" for how to capture expressions: “You develop an instinct for people, whether they’re energetic and outgoing, or more quiet." Some of that means honing in on their signature details: "Friends behind will be going, 'It’s the smile! That's exactly how he looks!'" Richmond says.

8. BORING-LOOKING CUSTOMERS ARE THE HARDEST.

Man's hands with pencils drawing a woman's portrait
iStock

The caricaturist's worst fear is the customer who comes in looking exactly like the girl (or guy) next door. "Most people are surprised to hear that what I consider to be the most difficult sort of person to draw is one that is completely average looking," caricaturist GertrudisSlugworth, who works at a theme park, wrote on Reddit."I will get a bland looking individual every once in a while, and when it happens I usually try to focus more on things like clothes, hair, or jewelry to get a decent likeness."

On the other hand, people who are naturally distinctive-looking are often artist favorites. Richmond says he particularly loves drawing Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. “He’s already funny looking, with no features, just glasses, hair, and a big top hat, so you don’t have to work that hard,” he says. “You can just do him standing there with his guitar by his ankles, like he plays it, or exaggerate how he puts his head back, which shows a lot about him as a player.”

9. THEY MAY CHANGE THEIR TECHNIQUE TO SUIT THE WAY YOU LOOK.

When she first started in the business, Holt says she dreaded drawing people who weren’t thin; she was afraid they might take offense at her portraits, although she didn’t intend any. Over the years she’s honed a technique in which she draws faces using a soft line that thickens toward the bottom. The result is “Cute, but they still feel like it looks like them,” Holt says.

GertrudisSlugworth writes that for people with obvious deformities, she may forego exaggerations, even though those are normally the hallmarks of caricature: "I find the best way to handle it is to go more realistic than exaggerated, depending on their attitude. Sometimes if it's an easy fix (e.g missing an eye), the customer will just ask to be drawn as 'normal.' For the most part though, people recognize any obvious deformities they have, and accept your portrayal of them."

10. STREET ARTISTS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE.

Tourists look at caricaturists in Rome
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

Richmond says that artists "sitting in front of a museum while the subject is in front of them have more of an advantage" than he does when it comes to creating an expressive caricature, since he often has to work from photos, which don't show gesture and personality in the same way. "When I'm working from 2D photos, all you’ve got is what the photo shows you, and it's basically superficial. It doesn’t really do it."

Holt agrees: "Working from a picture is different from getting your first instincts from a person." When a freelance client wants her to draw someone from photos, she says she'll at least ask for multiple photos to work from, especially body shots, which help to show posture—yet another indicator of the subject's personality.

11. THEY'RE INCREASINGLY IN DEMAND.

Richmond says that although staff cartoonists may be disappearing at newspapers as that industry shrinks, editorial cartooning—which often relies on caricature—“is experiencing a boom right now." Some of this is thanks to the heated political climate, he notes. But there's a deeper reason, too: "Most media stories, TV shows, or articles are, at bottom, about people and need images of people to illustrate [them]," Richmond says. "Caricature is one thing you can’t do with a camera, so when you need a humorous touch, caricature is a great solution."

12. THERE'S A CARICATURIST CONVENTION.

The ISCA hosts an annual convention each November that draws hundreds of caricaturists from around the world. Aside from a week of guest speakers, seminars, and demonstrations, the main attraction is a days-long competition in which the artists draw each other for prizes in categories like best color technique and most humorous. (The big award there is called the Golden Nosey.) Richmond says, “The variety of styles [there] is crazy: acrylic painting, pastels, airbrush, sculpture, and everything in between.” Holt says there's even an artist who spits ink out of his mouth.

13. THEY MIGHT HIDE THINGS IN THEIR PORTRAITS.

Artwork by Al Hirschfeld on display at The New York Botanical Garden in 2011
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Richmond says that a favorite stylist of his is the late Al Hirschfeld, who for decades hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in his cartoons of cultural icons for The New York Times. (Hirschfeld would append the number of Ninas to his signature, creating a kind of game for readers). Ipecacxink says she "used to draw a picture of my face in [subject's] pupils sometimes. Really tiny. Or, I used to draw a little radioactive symbol somewhere in the drawing. We had to wear these god-awful neon yellow shirts to work, and I always felt we were radioactive."

14. THEY CAN TELL WHEN YOU DON'T WANT A DRAWING.

Occasionally, parents, friends, or partners will purchase a drawing for someone who just isn't interested. In that case, the caricaturist can probably pick up on it: "They either wouldn't look at you, wouldn't smile, or just sit down funny," ipecacxink writes. "I tried to handle it professionally. I would talk, if they wouldn't talk, I'd be quiet, but smile like an idiot when it was all said and done ... I always tried to be friendly to lessen the likelihood of them leaving without paying."

15. THEY MIGHT BE SWAPPING THEIR PENCILS FOR A TABLET.

Some contemporary caricaturists paint portraits, like Owens’s traditional satirical masters once did. They may also be adept with other analog media, like bullet-tip markers, color sticks (basically colored pencils with no wood casings), pen and brush, and paper. But thanks to the changing needs of publications in an online age, which want all files submitted electronically, caricature artists working in their studios have also gone digital. Holt sometimes works on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil in Procreate. Richmond now does all his coloring on a computer or a tablet. “[A tablet’s] so convenient, because it’s like having unlimited amounts of paper, and your pencil never needs to be sharpened, and all your tools fit in a tiny bag,” he says. “But it’s still about the creativity behind it. Computers can’t do it all on their own.”

12 Secrets of Starbucks Employees

A Starbucks employee hard at work
A Starbucks employee hard at work
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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
iStock.com/anouchka

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
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

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
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

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
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

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
iStock.com/yktr

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

iStock.com/FangXiaNuo
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
iStock.com/kali9

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
iStock.com/FatCamera

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
iStock.com/RondaKimbrow

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
iStock.com/fstop123

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
iStock.com/kali9

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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER