The Airplane Librarian

From a museum library to a prison library, I’ve worked in all kinds of libraries.  I’ve also traveled to many countries such as the U.K, Russia and France to see their libraries and I have to say – all of them do value and love their libraries!

Prior to the summer of 2009, I never flew anywhere; my first airplane trip was to China – it’s pretty crazy to experience and take the first flight straight out of the country that is about 15 hours long. During that summer, I was going there for a study abroad library tour to see the libraries in China. From public to academic libraries, we explored how libraries changed in Chinese society and history. As a librarian and Chinese-American who has never been to China before, this was one opportunity I could not skip and made complete sense to go. The flight however, did not make so much sense at all.  My flight was delayed for about 10-12 hours first. The flight to China was much longer: 15 hours. I did not talk to any of my seatmates since they were tired and exhausted from the wait. During the wait, I napped in different terminals from A to Z and spent a majority of the time doing people watching, book reading and trying to stay awake and sane.  

So when I finally arrived to China, I faced another dilemma: the swine flu inspection. These inspectors were wearing these biohazard suits and masks that look like they were from a sci-fi film. They checked our temperatures before we were able to get off the airplane.  Once I was about to check out of the airport, I was told that the officials wanted to speak to me since they thought I looked a little sick (I was just sick of flying, really.) and they asked if I had any flu-like symptoms in Mandarin-Chinese. I replied “Of course not.” They took me to another room and a doctor came in which added more anxiety to my long journey.  He asked me a few personal questions and finally decided to let me go after I told them that I’m here to visit the libraries in China.

However, after the trip to China, I caught the traveling bug and flew much more frequently. As a librarian, I usually get the chance to fly to various cities hosting our mid-winter and annual conferences for the American Library Association, a major professional library association. When I’m at the airport, I would look at people and see what they are reading. Ironically, I don’t get much reading done myself. I do not judge what they read, but see if it is interesting and if I’ve heard of the book before.  If it is usually a “poor” choice of reading (in my opinion) I may ask the passenger what they think about the book; if they say it is great, I leave it at that but if they say it is awful and they are not sure why they are reading this (it happens a lot) I automatically put on my librarian cap and use a technique I learned in library school called “readers’ advisory.” I pitch a story of a book that the reader might like based on their bad impressions of what they are reading – it usually works. I have the person begging to hear more or wanting me to write down the title of the book. People also always assume I’m a publisher, bookseller or a writer but I tell them I’m a librarian; the looks on their faces are priceless, as my appearance seems to have broken some ancient stereotype that they have of librarians. Gee, I wonder what’s that?

One older gentleman, in his 60s, shared with me how much he loved libraries when he was growing up in South Dakota; his local library offered so many books for him to read but he confessed that he still buys books at a store.  I told him that books is just ONE of the things provided by libraries; libraries these days also lend out DVDs (BLUERAY), music CDs, video games and host many public programs and gaming events, or services like resume building or filing taxes assistances. He was stunned and could not wait to check out his local library again since he was a major Wii fan and wanted to play the latest Wii sport game in his library.

And then there are people with the latest e-devices whom I’m curious about. I can’t see what they are reading and I don’t want to disturb them either. But when I do see an e-reader (a person who reads electronically) I ask them what do they think about their devices and then they tell me, “Oh, it’s great but I hate this book I’m reading now though.” There will always be bad books published in any market. Advising people with their reading interests will simply never go away. I highly recommend people to fly with a librarian if you ever get a chance!


Raymond Pun is a librarian in New York University Shanghai, NYU’s newest portal campus located in China where he provides research assistance to students and faculty in all areas of life! 

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