The other day I answered a reference question from an inmate on death row. My sense is that it is not uncommon for prisoners to write to libraries with requests for information. In thinking about writing this post I looked around a bit online and discovered that the NYPL even has a department dedicated to correctional services (although I believe they do outreach, in addition to answering letters).
In what was probably a mistake, I Googled the prisoner’s name. I found news articles which described his conviction in a pretty horrific crime of vengeance. Now, everyone deserves library service; it doesn’t matter if you’re in prison or free, it doesn’t matter what crimes you may have committed, it doesn’t matter what your state of mind or your values are. Creeps, crazies, and criminals are all entitled to use the library, just like the rest of us. And to get good service too.
As I talked about in my post on empowerment service, I come from a retail background. Not only did I used to provide customer service, but I used to train people in service, and write policies which would promote the provision of good service. My skills are sharp, both in theory and practice. But library customer service is different. When I think about how I can be a better librarian, the bottom line is always the quality of my service to our patrons, and I think about how I need to adjust my theory and practice to the library environment.
I also think about self-preservation.
There are a lot of burned-out librarians in the world. I’m sure a lot of the burn-out comes from being under-supported and overworked. But I think a lot of it also comes from dealing with patrons. Everybody deserves library service, including the unstable, the dangerous, the needy, the clingy, the grumpy, and the difficult. That means librarians have to provide it.
I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and not succeeding. The posts about librarian time management and empowerment service were failed attempts to write this post. It’s tough for me to admit that there are patrons I just do not want to help. Or patrons I’m frightened of, or repulsed by.
When I think about self-preservation, I think about how I can continue to provide good service to these types of people, on and on into the future. I think about how I can help the people that I don’t like, and not let the experience sour me on patrons in general.
Ultimately it means adjusting the way I provide service. For example, I normally provide at least my first name when I answer reference questions. With the prisoner on death row, I did not sign the letter. We were unable to provide what he had requested, and I, probably wrongly, imagined he might seek retaliation.
When I reflect, I am learning to factor self-preservation into my evaluation. I want to continue to provide good service, and that means examining how my needs interfere with patron needs, and to determine if I am still…I don’t know the word…fair? Professional? Good at my job?