21 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Mall Santas

THE NOERR PROGRAMS
THE NOERR PROGRAMS

Being a mall Santa might seem like a relatively easy job: Put a kid on your lap, ask them what they want for Christmas, pose for a quick photo, and send them on their merry way. But any Santa who’s done even one season at the mall will tell you the job takes dedication.

“There’s no harder job in all of Christmas than being the mall Santa,” says Paul Sheehan, who worked as a Santa at a mall in rural New Hampshire and is now in his 36th season as a professional Mr. Claus. “Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve at 3 pm, I had seen over 17,000 kids. Someone in a bigger city, they’re doing twice and three times that.”

But there’s a reason thousands of rotund, bearded men don the suit every year: While demanding, being Santa is also incredibly rewarding. We spoke with a few professional Kris Kringles about what it’s like being the season’s biggest celebrity.

1. THEY GO TO SANTA COLLEGE.

If you’ve ever perched on Santa’s knee at your local mall, there’s a good chance he was a graduate of Santa University, run by Noerr Programs Corporation, an events company that trains and distributes Santas to more than 278 major malls and shopping centers across the country. Each Noerr Santa has to pass a background check and undergo several rounds of interviews. And a real beard is required. “That’s part of the magic,” says Ruth Rosenquist, Noerr’s Director of PR.

Every August, Noerr hosts its Santa University in Arvada, Colorado, where hundreds of “gentlemen of great mirth and girth” gather for four days of training on everything from Santa ethics to how to ho-ho-ho. “It’s amazing to sit with all these guys in their red shirts and suspenders,” Rosenquist says. “You look up and you’re speaking to Santa. It’s the best audience in the world.” Watch a sneak peek below:

2. RULE #1: ALWAYS STAY IN CHARACTER.

If you’re wearing the red suit, you must behave like Santa at all times. This means having a jolly temperament and never snapping or yelling at a child, no matter how frustrated you may be.

“The most important thing they need to understand is that they are Santa and they always are to remain in character of Santa,” says Rosenquist. “They’re never to break that character.”

For some of the more professional St. Nicks, the white beard and big belly stays with them all year, so they have to be careful about how they’re representing the jolly old elf in public. This means being on one’s best behavior and fielding questions like, “Santa, what are you doing at the grocery store?”

Robert Hildreth, a professional Santa of 30 years, says he doesn’t drink when he goes out for dinner with his wife Carol Hildreth (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus), because he wants to be the model image of Santa for children. “You gotta watch what you say and do because the kids are looking at you,” he says.

But playing a convincing Santa all year round comes with its perks, like the occasional free meal. “We’ve had a couple incidents where we’ve gone into restaurants and the little ones notice us,” Carol explains. “He’ll go over and talk to them a bit and then when we go to pay the bill it’s already been taken care of.”

3. THEY KNOW WHERE THE MALL’S SECRET BATHROOMS ARE.

Santa shushing in the show.

“I refuse to go to the public restroom if it’s at all avoidable,” says RG Holland, one of Noerr’s men in red. “The whole deal of being Santa, particularly at the mall, is when you’re dressed as Santa you have to stay in character and it’s kinda hard to be in a Santa suit staying in character in front of a urinal.”

In some malls, Santas have their own designated dressing area complete with a bathroom. And if not, they improvise. “I find the restroom in the mall that is the most obscure and private,” Holland says. “If I have trouble finding those, I find the nearest department store and use one of their restrooms that’s out of the way.”

4. THEY SECRETLY SWAP.

If a Santa needs to take a lunch break or his shift is ending, sometimes another one will step in without anyone noticing. “In the busiest of malls, we often set it up so there are two Santas and we try to match in terms of physical appearance so it’s not that obvious in mid-day when we swap,” says Holland. “We don’t want anyone saying ‘That’s not Santa!’ A lot of times even parents and especially kids, if they didn’t see us together, they wouldn’t know which was which.”

5. THEY GET A BODYGUARD.

According to Rosenquist, every Noerr Santa gets an escort when he leaves the set. This is supposed to discourage the mobs of fans from attacking him.

6. THERE’S A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO BLEACH A BEARD.

While some naturally-bearded Santas are blessed with snowy white bristles, others aren’t so lucky. In that case, bleaching is the best option, but only when it’s done gradually and with great care. “It’s gotta be done in stages,” says Rosenquist. “If you try to go snowy white all at once, you’ll burn your hair and it gets yellow.” Smart Santas begin the coloring process in October in preparation for the holiday season.

7. THE MONEY’S PRETTY GOOD.

Santa holding lots of money

Noerr doesn’t disclose how much it pays its actors, but according to Rosenquist, it’s a salaried position, and the rate can vary by location. Ed Warchol, president of Cherry Hill Photo, another Santa distributor, says his Santas earn “well into the five-figure range for just six weeks of work.”

8. AND SENIORITY HELPS.

The more experience a Santa has under his belt, the bigger his paycheck. “We always look for experience,” says Rosenquist. One 18-year veteran St. Nick said he could make $30,000 in one season.

For some comparison: according to a cheeky report from insurance information site Insure.com, the real Santa Claus would earn roughly $140,000 a year if he were compensated for all the work he does, including overseeing the toy factory and piloting the sleigh on Christmas Eve.

9. THEY MIGHT KNOW SIGN LANGUAGE.

Noerr teaches Santas-in-training key ASL gestures so they can communicate with deaf children. They’re also advised to learn basic Spanish. Rosenquist says the demand for Santas of different races and backgrounds is growing. “We are in a lot of markets that are heavily Hispanic, so having bilingual Santas is of supreme importance,” she says.

10. THERE’S A SECRET SANTA GREETING.

In public, Santas speak in code to one another as a show of camaraderie. “I’ll go up and ask him if he’s being good this year,” says Holland. “That’s a giveaway.” Or, if a Santa lookalike answers to “Brother In Red,” you know you’re talking to a St. Nick.

11. A ROUND BELLY IS NOT REQUIRED.

“You don’t necessarily have to have the belly full of jelly,” Rosenquist says. “We don’t measure our Santas by their waist, we measure them by their hearts.” Noerr’s training program actually includes a session on how to eat properly and avoid the health risks that come with being Santa-sized, like diabetes and heart disease. If Santa needs a bigger belly to be convincing, he can be “enhanced” with padding.

Some Santas also wear makeup to maintain a rosy glow. “Number 30 rouge for the cheeks and maybe a little touch on the nose to give him a little bit of weathered look,” one actor told This American Life.

12. CONDIMENTS ARE TO BE AVOIDED.

“If he’s presenting that day, it’s pretty much just water and sandwiches with no ketchup or mustard in them,” says Carol Hildreth. “Otherwise the beard gets dirty.” And nobody wants Santa all up in their face if he’s got bad breath, so good Santas keep breath mints on them at all times. Robert adds an extra special touch: His beard oil is peppermint-scented.

13. THEY HAVE TO STUDY.

“One of the things you have to have at your fingertips at all times is all the culture that goes with Santa,” says Sheehan. This goes way beyond being able to recite the names of Santa’s reindeer. Sheehan tries to keep up with every new movie or TV show in which Santa makes an appearance and memorize the plot so he’s not caught off guard by an inquisitive child. “You could be blown away by a new movie out this season that you haven’t seen yet, but the kid has like six times,” Sheehan explains. “They’re asking details about what happened in the movie and you don’t know what’s going on.”

Santa also has to know all the latest toys—after all, he makes them. “I go through the toy catalogues every year,” says Sheehan. “In a nutshell, it’s staying current. Like any dentist or doctor has to read professional journals, it’s the same with us but we have to stay up on everything that has to do with Christmas.”

14. “I’LL ASK MRS. CLAUS” IS CODE FOR “I DON’T WANT TO ANSWER THAT.”

Kids say the darndest things on Santa’s knee, and no amount of studying can prepare a Kris Kringle impersonator for all the odd questions or bizarre requests. You know you’ve stumped Santa when he brings up the wife.

“I blame a lot on Mrs. Claus,” says Holland. “If anything comes up that’s questionable, I say ‘I’ll have to check with Mrs. Claus about that.’ It really defuses a lot of skepticism.”

But Mrs. Claus does more than just take the blame for Santa’s shortcomings. She often helps shy kids feel more comfortable. “Sometimes the little ones are afraid of the big guy in the red suit and the beard but they’ll come to someone who looks like grandma,” says Carol Hildreth. “So they’ll sit on my lap and then talk to Santa.”

15. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PROMISE.

One of the worst things a mall Santa can do is promise a child they’ll get what they want for Christmas. “If you promise stuff the parents can’t provide then it’s rough on them and it makes Santa look bad too,” says Holland.

Noerr coaches its Santas to deliver a message of hope, but to make no guarantees. “The most you can say is that you’ll try,” says Sheehan. “Even if I know you’ve bought it for them, I’m not gonna tell them that because god forbid the garage catches fire and the toys are gone.”

16. THEY HATE CRYING BABY PHOTOS.

But for some reason, parents love them. “Unfortunately some think that’s the thing to have,” Holland says. “I do everything I can to avoid them. Parents say it’s ok if they cry, but the crying picture is not any fun for the kid and it’s not any fun for Santa either.”

The best way to avoid a screaming, sobbing child is for parents to stay close, rather than shoving the kid in Santa’s lap and walking away. “Give the kids time to acclimate to Santa,” says Robert. “The child is scared and crying and screaming because they don’t know who you’re handing them off to. Please don’t throw your kids to us.”

“Some of these people slug their kids around like they’re 10 lb bags of potatoes,” says Sheehan. “I had a woman in the mall who almost tossed the child to me. She let go of the kid before I had a grip on the kid, then walked away and was wondering why the child was crying. Parents are the worst part of the whole thing of being Santa.”

17. THEY WISH YOU’D DO THE HEAVY LIFTING.

 Santa Claus napping

The constant up-and-down that comes with hoisting kids on and off your knees for 12 hours a day can cause all kinds of aches and pains. After their shifts, the older Santas are probably going home to ice their knees or put a heating pad on their backs.

“Like any business you go into there’s always something that wears out, some part of the anatomy that takes a beating,” says Sheehan. “For Santa it’s the knees and hips. By the end of the season, you’re really going to be hurting.”

If you want to make your local mall Santa happy, save him a little bit of effort by lifting your child onto his lap.

18. NOT EVERY SANTA CAN NAIL THE SIGNATURE LAUGH.

“Interestingly enough, there are some Santas who just can’t ho-ho-ho,” Rosenquist says. “We try to get them to do it but for some of them it’s just not their nature.”

19. KIDS’ TOY PREFERENCES ARE CHANGING.

The old standbys never change: Lots of boys want a fire truck and girls want an American Girl doll. But according to Sheehan, requests for gender-specific toys have fallen over the last two or three years. “So I will hear boys asking for an Easy Bake Oven and the girls will like LEGOs and the kinds of toys you can build something with,” he says. “There is a shift and transition there that’s happened in last couple years.”

20. THE PROFESSIONALS HAVE LIABILITY INSURANCE.

All it takes is one squirming child who falls off a knee and Santa could be liable for thousands of dollars in damages. As a precaution, the professionals carry their own insurance.

“We carry $2 million of liability insurance,” says Robert Hildreth. Luckily he’s a member of a Santa training and advocacy group called International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which helps him get a group rate on insurance. “We’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to have it there,” he says.

21. IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING A GOOD LISTENER.

The most important part of a mall Santa’s job, according to Sheehan, is to lend an ear to kids who might be feeling lost. “Being with Santa might be the best thing that’s gonna happen to that kid all day,” he says. “I try to make it warm and affirming and raise them up. Everyone needs affirmation.”

Some kids ask for the impossible, like the return of a deceased family member or a reunion between divorced parents. “There are some things Santa can’t do, but we’ll pray with them,” Holland says. “Another thing I like to do is tell them that as long as they remember the person who’s gone, they’re still with them. You have to really philosophize with some of them and tell them stuff in a way that makes sense and that they will come away feeling like it’s gonna be ok. The parents get the pictures, the kids get the experience.”

All images via iStock unless noted.

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.

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