I’m a librarian because I wanted to do social work, but I didn’t want to be a social worker. Being a librarian gives you the ability to really help people, in all sorts of interesting ways.
Sometimes this is brief. You might spend ten seconds letting someone know the cost for printing, or where the bathroom is. Sometimes your interaction can take much longer, stretching over days as you contact other organizations to, for example, find out which Pasadena high school was the one attended by a tap dancer on the Lawrence Welk Show (more specifically tap dancer Arthur Duncan, the first African American to appear regularly on a tv variety program).
The length of time spent with someone doesn’t have a direct relationship with the importance of your answer. If a patron needs to know where the bathroom is, that is an immediate need with potentially dire and smelly repercussions. The answer to “Where is the bathroom?” is very important information, and it must be provided in a timely fashion.
The attrition of staff over decades of tight budgets (in California much of this can be traced back to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978) means that libraries are short staffed, and increasingly so. Librarian time must be rationed, in order to ensure that all patrons get at least some sort of assistance. One of the libraries I work at has a loose rule for reference staff: no more than ten minutes with each patron. But many times even ten minutes is too much, when there is a line of people clamoring for attention. One of the value judgments that I am learning to make, as a new professional, is how to best spend my time. When I decide how much time to spend with patrons, how to triage, when to give up, and when to really go the extra mile, I’m making a decision about the importance of my help.
I find the importance of answering idle curiosity very hard to quantify. Many people will say “oh it’s not important, I’m just curious.” But really these questions are very central to the library vision. Libraries exist to nurture the curious. It is this sort of engagement with our world that helps create literate, dynamic, healthy communities. Sharing someone’s intellectual interest is a very good way of building a relationship. The time spent helping someone who is “just curious” is also valued differently by patrons. It is often seen as excellent customer service, or kindness, or going the extra mile. It is a way of showing a patron she is important, and it can be very validating for her.
Another difficult decision is how much help to provide to individuals with very limited skills, particularly those who are not computer-literate. I’ll admit I was shocked, when I started working in libraries, by the level of illiteracy I saw (and continue to see). These are not just patrons who are not very fast typers, or don’t know how to sort a spreadsheet. These patrons don’t know how to use a mouse. You have to say things like, “press the button on the left side of the mouse twice, this rhythm: dah-dah.” “Double-click” is too much jargon. And often these patrons come in because they need to do something to fulfill a basic need; They need to print out a lease, or a medical bill. They might need to apply for something online, e.g. unemployment or a job. Even positions that don’t require computer skills, custodian jobs, for example, now have online applications. These patrons often need someone to sit with them for the duration of what they are trying to do, and it is very time consuming. And where else can they go? What other organization offers free computer time, and the possibility of free help?
Kids also present a special challenge. Many kids are actually better library users than adults, at least as far as the Dewey Decimal System is concerned. It is more common for me to be able to hand a call number to a child, say “do you know how to find this?” and have them nod and scamper off. Adults will often sheepishly grimace, and say they have no idea. So, its not so much that kids need more library help. The kids I’m considering here are the free-range kids, the ones who don’t get a lot of positive attention from adults. Some of these kids lurk in packs with no desire for contact. But some kids will sidle up next to the ref desk and latch on, asking question after question, and often increasingly bizarre ones as they search for ways to keep your attention. Clingy adults are one thing, and difficult enough to disengage from. Clingy children break my heart.
So where is my time best spent? I make that decision hundreds of times a day. I weigh the needs of patrons against each other, not to mention against the other tasks I do that benefit them – ordering new books, weeding, making displays and book lists, planning programs, trying to stay on top of my own professional development…
I’d have to make these decisions even if libraries had better funding. But we are so short-staffed. Some days it feels like I’m holding both hands over a leaking dam.