The big problem with libraries is that you don't control how they're used. This is in contrast to game engines. Game engines are not libraries. I've worked on many game engines over the years, including ones that went out to large free user bases (Genesis 3d and Wild Tangent), and they are much much easier than libraries.
The difference is that game engines generally impose an architecture on the user. They force you to use it in a certain way. (this is of course why more advanced developers despise them so much; it sucks to have some 3rd party telling you your code architecture). It's totally acceptable if a game engine only works well when you use it in the approved way, and is really slow if you abuse it, or it could even crash if you use it oddly.
A library has to be flexible about how it's used; it can't impose a system on the user, like a certain threading model, or a certain memory management model, or even an error-handling style.
Personally when I do IO for games, I make a "tool path" that just uses stdio and is very simple and flexible, does streaming IO and text parsing and so on, but isn't shipped with the game, and I make a "game path" that only does large-block async IO that's pre-baked so you can just point at it. I find that system is powerful enough for my use, it's easy to write and use. It means that the "tool path" doesn't have to be particularly fast, and the fast game path doesn't need to support buffered character IO or anything other than big block reads.
But I can't force that model on clients, so I have to support all the permutations and I have to make them all decently fast.
A lot of times in the past I've complained about over-complicated APIs that have tons of crazy options that nobody ever needs (look at the IJG jpeg code for example). Well, now I see that often those complicated APIs were made because somebody (probably somebody important) needed those options. Of course as the library provider you can offer the complex interface and also simpler alternatives, but that has its own pitfalls of making the API bigger and more redundant (like if you offer OpenFileSimple and OpenFileComplex); in some ways it's better to only offer the complex API and make the user wrap it and reduce the parameter set to what they actually use.
There's also a sort of "liability" issue in libraries. Not exactly legal liability, but program bad behavior liability. Lots of things that would make the library easier to use and faster are naughty to do automatically. For example Oodle under Vista+ can run faster with elevated priviledge, to get access to some of the unsecure file APIs (like extending without zeroing), but it would be naughty for me to do that automatically, so instead I have to add an extra step to make the client specifically ask for that.
Optimization for me has really become a nightmare. At first I was trying to make every function fast, but it's impossible, there are just too many entry points and too many usage patterns. Now my philosophy is to make certain core functions fast, and then address problems in the bigger high level API as customers see issues. I remember as a game developer always being so pissed that all the GL drivers were specially optimized for Id. I would want to use the API in a slightly different style, and my way would be super slow, not for any good reason but just because it hadn't gotten the optimization loving of the important customer's use case.
I used to also rail about the "unnecessary" argument checking that all the 3d APIs do. It massively slows them down, and I would complain that I had ensured the arguments were good so just fucking pass them through, stop slowing me down with all your validation! But now I see that if you really do that, you will just constantly be crashing people as they pass in broken args. In fact arg validation is often the way that people figure out the API, either because they don't read the docs or because the docs are no good.
(this is not even getting into the issue of API design which is another area where I have been suitably humbled)
ADDENDUM : I guess I should mention the really obvious points that I didn't make.
1. One of the things that makes a public library so hard after release is that you can't refactor. The normal way I make APIs for myself (and for internal teams) is to sort of make an effort at a good API the first time, but it usually sucks, and you rip it out and go through big scourges of find-rep. That only works when you control all the code, the library and the consumer. It's only after several iterations that the API becomes really nice (and even then it's only nice for that specific use case, it might still suck in the wild).
2. APIs without users almost always suck. When someone goes away in a cave and works on a big new fancy library and then shows it to the world, it's probably terrible. This a problem that I think everyone at RAD faces. The code of mine that I really like is stuff that I use over and over, so that I see the flaws and when I want it to be easier to use I just go fix it.
3. There are two separate issues about what makes an API "good". One is "is it good for the user?" and one is "is it good for the library maintainer?". Often they are the same but not always.
Anyway, the main point of this post is supposed to be : the next time you complain about a bad library design, there may well be valid reasons why it is the way it is; they have to balance a lot of competing goals. And even if they got it wrong, hey it's hard.