The Big Shush

At my library, the patrons are often more protective of quiet than we librarians are.  There is one woman who seems particularly bothered by even the quietest of conversations.  She will frequently come up to me to ask, “Is talking allowed in this library?”  or “Are cell phones allowed in this library?”  Each time I tell her, “Yes, quiet conversations are allowed in the library” and point out our two silent rooms, where talking is not allowed.

Modern librarians are often reluctant shushers.  We want people to think we’re fun.  We want libraries to be vibrant, energy-filled buildings.  We hope to shake off the dusty book mausoleum image and usher ourselves into the 21st century as more of a party institution.  And most importantly maybe, we want the people who have not felt welcomed by the sternly guarded quiet of yesteryear to COME TO THE LIBRARY.

But many of our hardcore patrons want hallowed silence.  They want to consume their dusty books in uninterrupted peace.  They are studying, or concentrating, or contemplative, or sometimes just generally mysanthropic.

This conflict reminds me of what I’ve read about the silent cars on the New York/New Jersey train.  The piece I’m thinking of was in the New Yorker a few years ago, but that’s behind a paywall. Here’s some discussion of them in the New York Times. 

My library is lucky enough to have not one but two quiet rooms (one with screens, one without).  We have an accommodation we can point out to these folks. Sometimes though, this still is not enough.  They want to use a library computer, for example, or the quiet room is full, or they are just offended by the notion that there is a sound or a cell phone in the library.

So what do you do to resolve these conflicts? An invitation to the world?  Ask them to suck it up?  Silence the offenders?

This is kind of a key image issue.  There has recently been a lot of talk about What Librarians Look Like, but maybe a more important question for our users is “What do libraries sound like?”  How do we create a new image, and a new reality, which is friendly and inviting, which welcomes noise and participation, but which respects the needs of our silence-loving power users?

The Quiet Place

Master Classes in Customer Service

I just finished a gig working for the illustrious Gay Ducey, who, in addition to being a highly acclaimed storyteller, manages a small branch library.  Ducey has what I consider to be the perfect background for a public librarian; she is from the South, she has a background in theater and storytelling, and she was a social worker for a little while, before moving to libraries.

When people come into the branch, Ducey will often lean her elbows on the counter and say, “How you doin’?” in that particular way Southern women have of opening a conversation.  And here’s the thing, she’s interested in the response.  She’s attentive to stories of ailments, triumphs, grandbabies, and heartfelt philosophical treatises.  And she’ll remember this person, and their conversation, the next time they come in.  Ducey knows the names of all the regulars.  Not because she’s got a particular knack for names, but because she makes it a point to learn them.

To grow a library community, you must cultivate people.  You must get to know your patrons.  In library school, we learned about environmental scans, and patron surveys.  These tools are useful.  If you want to get to know your community, the numbers help.

But when Gay Ducey wants to know what books to purchase for her patrons, she asks them.

That personal touch is worth any number of reports.  This interaction is what’s really driving the library

Welcome HOme

Librarian is never an entry level position

Sometimes I hear people getting annoyed about “entry-level” librarian job postings that ask for experience.

And I get it. Entry-level jobs are by definition jobs that don’t require experience.   

But here’s the thing, librarian positions just aren’t entry-level.  The niche of the librarian in the library shouldn’t be filled by a greenie who’s done nothing but go to school.  School can teach some of the skills you need to be a librarian, but not all of them.

I am a non-supervising librarian in a public library.  Nevertheless, I get asked for direction all the time.  When other staff have questions, they often ask me.  Sometimes these are fairly simple librarian problems, for example a spine label that is a little strange.  But frequently they bring me customer service judgement calls, such as “I think I saw a patron with a big bag of weed, what should we do?” or “Can I make an exception and let this guy into the library with his bike?”  These kinds of questions require not just library schooling, but experience.  

Experience builds common sense, street smarts, and the confidence that’s required to authoritatively answer these kinds of things.  Library school provides a theoretical foundation, an underlying direction behind decisions.  But it doesn’t help you look a patron in the eye and say, “You do know we don’t allow snacking in the library, right?”   

The traditional structure of libraries, rightly or wrongly, gives rank and authority to librarians.  It has put me in a position where I have more authority than a library assistant who’s got over a decade of experience.  It means that if there’s an incident when I close, I stay behind to talk to the police.  It means when the men’s toilet overflows on a Sunday, I get to decide if we lock up the whole bathroom.  

You need to have experience to make these decisions.  Without it, you can’t properly assess the potential fallout, or the far ranging effects. Without experience, you won’t know when to say “I’m right about this” and when to ask for advice from that library assistant who’s been here for over a decade, or the page, or the security guard.  Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

This particular combination of self-confidence and on-the-ground understanding is only built through hands-on practice.

It’s not a bad thing that there are no entry-level librarian positions.  It’s good.  It means that we’re getting librarians with the skills needed to do their jobs properly.  It means we’re getting librarians who can make better libraries, for customers and for staff.

Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

*This is all from my public librarian perspective of course.  For all I know, there are tons of entry-level academic jobs. All academic librarians do is put their feet up and read journal articles, right?

The Authority of Experts

I’m building a staff photo board at work. In addition to a photo, I asked people to tell me their name, title, and what they were an “expert” in. I specified that they could be expert at anything, work-related or not work-related, giving the examples “cheese” and “being able to find ‘missing’ books.” Many people have been reticent to name their “expertise.” People seem worried that doing so might be conceited, or that others will try to test them. And interestingly, two staff members, both higher level managers, said that they felt that they were more a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

At my old job, I asked this question to two other groups – museum educators, and museum docents. Neither of these groups expressed the same reluctance to name their areas of expertise. Of course, medium may have something to do with it, at the museum, they answered verbally, whereas at my library, we are writing down their answers. Spoken claims don’t carry as much weight as written ones. But I also think that it may have something to do with the library environment.

Expertise and authority are key concepts in libraries. Librarians’ responsibilities often include helping patrons learn to evaluate someone’s credentials, to find the difference between well-supported arguments and wild claims. In school and college libraries, this might manifest as information literacy instruction, while in public libraries this is more likely to take the form of telling patrons, “no, don’t give that website your bank details so you can get free money, it’s a scam.” These are both excellent services that really help patrons. Encouraging independent thought and healthy skepticism is the positive manifestation of the weight we place on expertise and authority.

But these concepts also work to stifle staff and inhibit positive change in our service models. This idea of the sacred coupling of expertise and authority results in policies that seem only to guard the gravitas of the reference librarian – policies that state circulation staff can’t place holds, for example, or that pages can’t direct a patron in the stacks to the book that they are looking for. While it is true that reference librarians are trained to look for and address unstated information needs, there is no reason that they must personally examine every query for them. There is no reason that pages and circ staff can’t be trained to perform these tasks, and to know when to say to a patron “I need help helping you.”

Reference librarians are experts at deciphering and meeting information needs. But being an “expert” doesn’t preclude asking for help in this task, in fact, it absolutely requires the patron’s assistance. I was once asked by a patron, “Where are the Atlas Maps?” I replied, “Are you just looking for atlases, or is there a specific publisher, ‘Atlas Maps’”? “Oh, you don’t know!” She replied disgustedly, and stomped off. And working with other librarians can mean the difference between a swift and accurate answer, and a long bout of research. I have a coworker who is excellent at Reader’s Advisory, another who is an ace technology troubleshooter, another who knows exactly what is in our local history center, etc. etc. You better believe I consult with them as needed.

Being an expert doesn’t always mean being an authority. The reason I asked the question “What are you expert in?” for our staff photo board is because I hoped it would provide new topics for person-to-person information sharing. Unfortunately I mostly succeeded in turning people off. We’re stuck in the idea that an expert has to objectively be an authority. The truth of the matter is, expertise is often relative, and one can be an expert and still be humble.

Poultry Club Boys Listen to the Expert