Real Parents and Ideal Patrons

I`ve had several people ask me to expand on my third point from my Why I`m not a children`s librarian post. Here`s a little bit more on the topic of our frequent shortfalls in achieving social justice orientation in youth services, and my personal experiences with librarians shaming me without realising it.

“If their kid is at daycare all day, the daycare provider is really the parent anyway.”

My blood ran cold when she said that.

I thought of my son, in daycare at that very moment so I could be there in that library meeting, and held my breath as well as my tongue.

Not that I hadn’t heard statements like that before. Not that I considered myself especially vulnerable to such judgments.

I just wasn’t expecting it there – from a “friend” and colleague of mine, at a meeting of a team of children’s librarians specifically dedicated to providing culturally appropriate and accessible outreach programming for socially excluded children and families. The topic of discussion was how to extend outreach library services to go past the child to influence the whole family, so that parents might, say, bring their kids to the library.

And what I really didn’t expect, from that group in particular, was the fact that when one member said something outrageous like the above statement, no one else in the room spoke up. To the day I don’t really know if it was the dreaded librarian “niceness” striking again (inhibiting our ability to hold ourselves/each other accountable), or whether no one else thought she was being offensive.

I was a student intern. They were allowing me to sit in on their meeting, so I could learn. I didn’t feel like I could interrupt and intervene at that time. But I certainly did learn.


The dominant library paradigm holds very particular cultural conceptions of the ownership/belonging/responsibility of children. These notions are largely based in euro-colonial and neo-liberal values of the family as isolated, self-sufficient unit.

Even in our progressive and outreach programs, are we really listening to our communities, parents, families, and empowering them to make our services their own?


“The best library users, the ones we love to work with, are the parents who already bring their children to storytime. They are the ideal. I love to work with them.”

A library school instructor, one whom I sincerely like and respect, said this in front of a class I took.

Again, I was floored.

My child has never been to a library storytime. I have been a working parent since he was 2 weeks old, first lugging him on my back to my office, and then, too soon for my liking, sending him to daycare. My local library branch does not hold weekend storytimes for working parents. Even the summer reading club events are during weekday workdays, much to my child’s dismay.

I always garnered compliments from my library supervisors, but they don’t know my dirty secret – that I am The Non-Ideal Parent as a patron.

Shh…don`t tell!


We are beginning to acknowledge that “the ideal patron” is a problem – that this notion is culturally biased and exclusive; that we should be questioning it. I say this because we as a discipline have published papers to this effect, bestowed honours upon some individuals who have championed this message, and sometimes even committed funding to novel projects that work toward a more just community ownership of libraries.

But trickle down takes a long time, when it works. Will the status quo for plain old regular librarians – ones not leading special programs or “moving and shaking” their institutions – ever change?


Oh, but I didn’t mean you. Your son is wonderful, so smart.

Yes, and I don’t “look Jewish,” right? Let me guess, some of your best friends are black and gay?

Putting down who I am, my history and identity, and then telling me I am better than everyone else like me is not a complement.

I am not an exception.

Or rather, we are all exceptions.

I am a bit uncommon, in that I was a low-income single parent who went back to school and became a librarian. But I was certainly not the only one who met that profile in my library school intake of 40 people.

Really, it is highly likely that I am only unusual in following this path because of my privilege. Coming from a family with higher education and economic privilege, It was relatively easy to make the decision to go to grad school and change my situation. I was able to see that option and take the necessary path to get there, yes. However, the important part of this story is not so much how I got where I am now, but what I know of where I was a few years ago.

I know, I know, I’m different from all the other Black/Jewish/queer/Asian/poor/Latina/whatever people. The other daycare parents. You didn’t mean that slur to apply to me.

Isn’t that line getting old by now? Isn’t it one libraries shouldn’t be using anyway?




Filed under community development, LIS education, public libraries, racism, The Profession, youth

6 responses to “Real Parents and Ideal Patrons

  1. dg

    Nicely written.

    I think the story about the librarian whose favorite patrons were the ones who already come in gets at something else: the comfort zone, and a failure to deconstruct that comfort zone.

    People who already use a particular service of [libraries/after-school programs/insert community resource here] already feel welcome, and interacting with them is probably more in the provider’s/librarian’s comfort zone. There’s no uncomfortable sense of the person trying to figure out whether they’re welcome. Very convenient.

    Except that it’s really problematic, in that it benefits and prioritizes those in certain positions of privilege (like those to whom non-weekend storytimes are geared). And when they become so comfortable they become the library’s ideal patrons, the cycle feeds itself and everyone else feels less welcome.

    The point isn’t to keep pleasing the same people who are already so validatingly pleased, it’s to bring in new people and figure out why they’re not coming.


  2. greyson

    Ah, it is so nice to have you here, dg. I hope we work together again someday, preferably with kids.

    I’ve been thinking about the undergrads I teach at a local college. Sure, it is fun and stimulating – and fairly easy – to connect in a same wavelength kind of way with a few students each term. On that level I get my former teacher’s point about loving those ‘ideal’ library users. Yes, it is comfy, and enjoyable, and all that. We get positive feedback on our work, and it makes us feel successful.

    But – back to my classroom – what is more deeply rewarding for me is when students who have had different paths than me, who go through life in different ways, are able to use what I have to offer in a class to make positive changes in their lives/the world. Particularly those students who never thought they could succeed in post-secondary education, or who had the privilege to never think about racism before, or who just didn’t think “people like them” could make a difference. I don’t think I’m really doing my job if I only reach the students who are easy for me.

    There’s nothing wrong with liking to connect with people who are similar to you. There’s nothing wrong with liking to do what you get kudos for, or what you know you’re good at.

    I think that where it becomes “wrong” is when we let those feelings of comfort make us apathetic about the exclusion we are perpetuating when we identify the “easy” work as the “ideal.”

    I promise that I will have a more hopeful, action-oriented post about youth librarianship in the future!

  3. Sarah

    I just graduated from library school, which I began (and finished) as a poor, single mom with a young child. I worked as a paraprofessional in the children’s department of our local public library, but I too, have decided I don’t want to be a children’s librarian for EXACTLY the reasons you describe.

  4. Allyson

    I have been enjoying your blog as I am currently in graduate school for library science & just got a job as a youth librarian. I’m so glad to hear these different points of view on youth librarianship, things I probably wouldn’t have thought about so soon into the field. I am debating whether to pursue health informatics or youth librarianship in my program. Could you give me some idea on what a health librarian does? I am enjoying youth but here in Texas there’s not much room for advancement in that area as you discussed. Thanks!

  5. greyson

    Hi Sarah and Allyson,

    Thanks for your comments. It’s always nice to feel less alone.

    I certainly don’t want to sway people away from children’s & youth librarianship. What we really need to do is reform it, but reform has to be strategic and I don’t believe it should burn people out. Personally, I hold crazy dreams of doing something involving both youth *and* health information someday, but we shall see…

    Allyson, health librarians do a lot of different types of jobs. Health librarians may be in public libraries (large ones will sometimes have a health specialist or desk), academic libraries (biomedical or health liaison librarians, or in teaching hospitals), and a variety of special library environments – ranging from small alternative medicine non-profits to health authorities to policy think tanks. Even as I identify as a health librarian, I’m in a researchy academic/policy type job and know I would not do well as a records manager for a pharmaceutical company. In my limited experience, health librarians are united more by a common set of knowledge and specialised resources than a common type of workday.

    A great way to learn more about health/medical librarianship is to get involved with your local health librarian groups. Here in Canada there’s the Canadian Health Libraries Association, with provincial chapters; in the US there’s the Medical Library Association (MLA) with regional sections. MLA is well-connected with the US National Library of Medicine, which is an amazing resource that does far more than “just” PubMed. Check out the South Central Chapter of the MLA: read the recent newsletters, get on the listserv, and go to meetings & conferences when you can (student membership is dirt cheap!). If you have a practicum or internship element of your MLIS program see if you an do it with a hospital librarian.

    Even if you end up doing children’s librarianship (And if you do, more power to you — you can be the one to intervene when other librarians say oppressive and offensive things!) I don’t think you’ll regret a little time spent getting to know more about health information, as it’s a topic that concerns virtually everyone.

  6. Susan

    I just read this post. I graduated with an MSI in April, and I have been a sub since then, mostly in the youth department. I am horrified by the attitudes held by the youth librarians, several who a former teachers. I really hoped I could be a different kind of Youth Librarian, but I am so discouraged, I am ready to bail out.

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