9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted Houses

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iStock.com/quavondo

Margee Kerr leads a unique double life. By day, she teaches sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. By night, she works for ScareHouse, a renowned haunted house in Pittsburgh, where she analyzes data from customers and employees to make the attractions as terrifying as possible.

Kerr’s new book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear explores how fear works in our bodies and societies, and why many of us intentionally seek it out—especially at this time of year. We interviewed her and several other professionals working at haunted house attractions to find out more about how these places work, and why we love them like we do.

1. FEAR IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.

Just like Halloween costumes, haunted house characterscycle in and out of popularity. Since 2008, Kerr has been asking ScareHouse visitors to rate which types of characters they find most frightening, whether it’s zombies, ghosts, witches, demons, serial killers, or other nightmares stalking the house's halls.

Kerr says that when she first started the interviews she saw a rising fear of zombies, a trend that has yet to entirely fade. But the characters scoring the highest on questionnaires this season are ones that seem plucked from recent American Horror Story storylines: circus sideshow oddities dripping with nostalgia, face-paint, and worse.

Kerr says movie serial killers like Jason and Freddy are still popular, even with kids who were born long after the franchises got their start. Other perennialfavoritesinclude creepy kids and creepy dolls. (Although people are only scared of porcelain dolls, Kerr notes, never stuffed animals or Raggedy Ann types. She blames that on the uncanny valley effect.) Ghosts, Kerr says,never seem to get to the very top of the rankings.

Amy Hollaman, Creative Director at Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, says they’ve found that their scariest characters are the ones people can’t quite interpret. “We have a kind of cult that has taken over a ‘haunted machine shop,'" she explains. "They all have shaved heads, workers uniforms, and the same tattoo. It’s not a character that everyone is familiar with, so people are trying to constantly assess it—is this threatening? Can I trust this? We find that people think that’s very scary."

2. PROGRESSION IS KEY.

Well-designed haunted houses will take into account the entire flow of the experience, much like a symphony—or even just a good workout.

Several haunted house experts noted the importance of starting out strong. Hollaman says they used to have a slower warm-up sequence at the start of their experience, but visitors didn’t remember it. Today, they go straight for the high intensity, high-startle scares and then get further into the story.

Ben Armstrong, co-owner of NetherworldHaunted Housein Atlanta, Georgia,agrees:“You always want to hit them hard at the beginning and hard at the end."

Kerr confirms that starting out with high intensity is important. At ScareHouse, she says, the initial attractions are designed to get your body in a state of high arousal. They “activate the threat response and get the chemicals flowing,” she notes. “Startle scares”—think a zombie jumping out from the corner—accomplish this effectively. The startle response is hard to shut off, Kerr says, and it gets you into high-alert mode.

ScareHouse, like other haunted houses, employs a series of peaks and valleys as visitors wander through the attraction. Their final room ends on a comedic note, one that tries to leave visitors “laughing, pumped-up, and excited.” There'salso acool-down at the end, where visitors check out their belongings, and staff ask how they’re doing. But Kerr notes that not all haunted houses pay attention to the winding-down part of experience. The ones that do tend to be more business-oriented—they’re concerned about the liability issues of sending terrified people off into the night.

3. SOME OF THE CHEAPEST TRICKS ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE.

“There are a lot of old-school hack tricks that haunters discovered and now science is confirming,” Kerr says.

Many of these have to do with altering visitors’ sense of space and time. Strobe lights induce what Kerr calls "a feeling of depersonalization" by messing with our proprioception—our sense of our own bodies and movement—and our ability to locate ourselves visually from one moment to the next. Blackout rooms also interfere with our ability to orient ourselves, which triggers a fear response.

Other tricks involve subtle movements. At ScareHouse, some of the walls are on springs and move when you lean against them—not enough to make visitors fall and hurt themselves, Kerr says, but enough to make you question what just happened. Golf balls wedged tightly underneath the floors are another classic trick, since they make the ground move just enough to be alarming. "If you put the golf balls really close together in a very tight space and then put a board on top of it (also secured), so there is only about a half an inch worth of movement, it creates just enough disorientation to put you off balance (and set up you for the next scare), but not enough to actually make you fall," Kerr explains.

Still, startles remain one of the most effective tools. “Startles might be cheap, but they’re required to keep that high level of arousal,” Kerr says. “You can have great sets, but you need to have these fundamental things in your pocket to create that feeling of chaos. Otherwise you’re just walking through really cool sets.”

4. DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE.

“I always look for ways to establish a pattern or rhythm,”Elizabeth Harper, an LA-based lighting designer who’s worked on several horror-themed attractions, says. “If you subvert the pattern, the audience has a moment of relief where they feel like they've escaped unscathed—and that's your opportunity to really scare them.”

It's a pattern that's often used in horror movies. “The killer's theme music will prime you to get scared," she explains. "Then one time it turns out to be something normal—it was only the wind or a cat ... you can bet that right after that moment of relief they're going to unleash something terrifying.”

Hollaman uses similar tactics in what she calls her “scareography”—the choreography of a scare. “It’s a sequence of steps, like with a dance move,” she explains, and one that incorporates both physical movements and dialogue. The principles of Hollaman’s scareography includes first scanning the customer and getting a read on their body language, which can determine the sequence or the tempo of what happens next. The second step often involves a distraction, often with a prop.

“For instance, in the morgue, visitors see a rib cage slowly lifting up,” she explains. “While they’re turned and looking at that, it allows the actors to slowly creep out of their scare pockets and slide right to the middle of the group.” That’s when the real scare happens.

“We’re using the principles of redirection,” she notes. "The scare isn’t where you expect it to be.”

5. THAT SMELL MIGHT JUST BE ANIMAL URINE.

Entire companies are devoted to designing haunted house smellscapes, withthe scent of rotting corpses a particularly popular choice.

ScareHouse has used a variety of scents, Kerr says, but this year there’s a boar’s urine smell in a haunt designed to look like a butcher room. “It’s awful, but in a way that isn’t completely repulsive,” Kerr says.

Finding the right balance between scary and just plain disgusting is important when it comes to smells. “Something like bad breath is just going to make people disengage and move away," Kerr says. "But there’s other smells that are weird and gross, yet that don’t take you out of the experience.” Boars’ urine seems to fit the bill, for some reason—perhaps because most of us have never encountered it before and don’t have a script for how to deal with it, Kerr says.

Harper, however, says she’s not a fan of using smell in a haunted house, and “not just because the smell gets in your clothes and hair if you're working all night.” She says the unfamiliar smells can actually take people out of the moment. “Unlike sound or lights or actors, you can't hit someone with a smell and make it disappear, so it overstays its welcome. People start wondering how we did that, which is the least scary thought in the world.”

6. THE SCARES MAY CHANGE ACCORDING TO YOUR RESPONSE.

At ScareHouse, “if a group comes in that’s not jumping at all, the actors will abandon any dialogue and go right to startle scares,” Kerr says. In other words, plot goes out the window, while the basic physiological triggers come back into play.

On the other hand, if people who seem too scared, the actors will take it in a more comedic direction. Armstrong at Netherworld agrees: “If someone is too scared we train our actors to back off … We want them to have nightmares for a week, not the rest of their lives!”

According to general manager D. Brandon LeJeune, the goal at House of Torment in Austin is "to scare first and foremost, but when that doesn't work out, we fall back to entertaining. Groups are instructed before entering the attraction that if they are too scared to continue, they can inform a monster and they will be escorted out. This happens on a very regular basis.”

Hollaman, however, says her actors aren’t supposed to improv very much. They might have to make some of their scares shorter or longer, but basically need to stick to the script.

7. SIMPLE IS BETTER.

Not every scary setup works. Around 2009, ScareHouse created a haunted house built around a detailed universe with good soldiers fighting an evil overlord. Visitors were supposed to be able to choose sides, but people didn’t get it.

“The complexity of the story didn’t allow people to go into primal, no-thinking scare mode. That was a lesson in how simple is better—narrative thread good, narrative cobwebs bad,” Kerr says. Or as Harper puts it, “a little bit of narrative goes a long way."

8. THEY PRODUCE A NATURAL HIGH.

Kerr says there can be surprising benefits to visiting a haunted house. For some, they induce a kind of natural high. “The adrenaline, the dopamine, the endorphins that course through your body—the scary material is just a trigger for that kind of response with some people,” Kerr says.

Others seem to enjoy haunted houses because they genuinely like scary material. “Some people have a positive response to a negative picture,” Kerr explains, “and there’s not necessarily a pathology behind that.” The reasons behind such responses are complex. “It could be because some people have linked scary stuff with the feel-good endorphins, so the negative image takes on a positive feeling.”

And some people, like Kerr herself, go to haunted houses as a way to enforce feelings of competency. Going through a set of thrilling experiences can be a safe way to challenge oneself and emerge feeling great. “It’s a confidence boost,” Kerr says. She actively seeks out safe-but-scary experiences on days when she’s feeling low.

9. THEY MAY GET US CLOSER TO OUR ANCESTORS.

Humans evolved in environments in which they were facing constant physical threat. For a lot of us, life is significantly more cushy now. That could mean we’re missing out on dangerous but potentially exhilarating experiences our ancestors were more familiar with, whether that’s running from a bear or fighting a battle.

“For many Americans, their emotional expressions on a day-to-day basis are very narrow,” Kerr says. “We’re not having many highs or lows. We’re living a more restricted emotional life. I think that’s why we go out to scary movies and haunted houses—we evolved to have this massive range of emotional experiences, and we still want them." In other words, haunted houses might just be a way to recapture the sense of thrill our foremothers and forefathers knew—but instead of ending up as a snack for a wild animal, we can go off laughing into the night.

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
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

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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
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
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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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