Sunday, November 25, 2012

Betsy Bird

I've been a children's librarian with New York Public Library (NYPL) for the last nine years or so. I am currently NYPL's Youth Materials Specialist.

My blog A Fuse #8 Production is hosted by School Library Journal (SLJ). I review for Kirkus and sometimes the New York Times and I've written the ALA Editions title Children's Literature Gems: Choosing and Using Them in Your Library Career. My picture book Giant Dance Party is out with HarperCollins this April 23rd and I've a book with Candlewick in the Fall of 2013 on the true stories behind your favorite children's books.


What would surprise most people about your current job?

Well, in my current position, I'm one of two people who purchase all the materials for kids and teens in the NYPL system. One thing that tends to surprise folks is that a system as large as NYPL has centralized ordering, but that just makes sense when you're buying for 86 branches. Other people are unaware that Brooklyn has its own library system and Queens another. I only buy for Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, but there's more than enough to keep me busy.

What are your top three responsibilities?

I suppose those would be the actual purchasing of materials and managing requests from my librarians in the branches. I also make a lot of site visits to the aforementioned 86 branches to help with the collections, get a sense of what neighborhoods are reading, and generally support the people who work with New York's youth. Finally, I help to make the lists that make NYPL great - everything from our annual "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing" (a list we've made since 1911) to the summer reading list.

Betsy Bird (Photograph by Sonya Sones)
How do you stay current?

To keep up with pop culture I subscribe to Cynopsis Kids which is a daily media newsletter which encapsulates all the wheelings and dealings in the industry (as well as a sense of what the top watched television shows are and what future shows and movies for kids will be). 

To keep up with instruction my library system does a slambang job at providing training for all its employees. Going to library conferences also helps a great deal.

Keeping up with technology is, to a certain extent, a case of letting the folks with the new projects approach us as a library system.

And keeping up with literature is a breeze when you read the best children's literary blogs out there (bookshelves of doom, 100 Scope Notes, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, etc.). I also read my SLJ and Kirkus cover to cover each month, subscribe to listservs like child_lit and ccbc-net, and when I have time I attend publisher previews provided here in NYC for the local librarians, which gives me a sense of the upcoming seasons. Plus I read and review quite a lot.


What's the best piece of professional advice you've been given?

Pick your battles. Granted, I got that advice from an episode of That 70s Show, but I figure it still stands. Generally speaking, you have to get the lay of the land before you start kvetching about things that are wrong here and there. Complain about a dinky little squabble and you may find yourself out in the cold when the real battle comes and is worth fighting.

What's worth fighting for? Why?

It comes down to two things for me: the staff and the young patrons. You fight for the staff, the ones who go above and beyond the call of duty as well as the ones who do their best and fill the necessary seats. You also have to fight for the kids, supporting them and making it clear that our child and teen patrons deserve only the rarest kind of best in their literature and the programs we provide.

What's something you wish you had known when you started out in this profession?

Find a way to remember names and faces. I had no idea it would become such a huge part of my job. Remember not only the regular patrons who come through the door, but also the other librarians, information assistants, managers, and clerks in your system. A good memory is worth its weight in gold so if you're not good at this particular skill, find ways to improve it.

How do you respond when someone asks you, "Isn't everything online?"

Oh yeah. That happened to me once. A hedge fund manager at a literary gala.

First I mentioned that even if everything was online there are huge swaths of the public that can't go there whenever they want to since they simply can't afford it. 

Then when they start to mention the death of the printed book (and they will) you point out the statistics that show that in point of fact sales of ebooks have not affected the sales of print materials any more than the arrival of television destroyed movie theaters. 

We've patrons coming into my libraries asking for library cards for the first time because they realized we had ebooks. So it's a new segment of the reading public that's benefitting the most here.

And finally, have you ever tried to read a gorgeous picture book on a tablet? Dude, until they make a juice proof bit of handheld machinery that can stand up to a sippy cup full of Welch's grape juice, children's books are in no danger of disappearing print-wise.


How do you defy the librarian stereotypes?

Be funny. Weirdly enough this is the number one way I end up surprising people. Apparently we are humorless old harridans without so much as a droplet of amusement in our bones. Crack a joke and it does wonders for the occupation's image, I tell ya.

Email Betsy at

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