Sorting Patrons

The public library tries to be all things to all people (every reader his book; every book it’s reader)

Bobbi Newman wrote this interesting piece in which she talks about how certain people may support libraries, but they will never use them, no matter how many tempting programs or resources we dangle.

I agree with her, based on my personal experience. I know lots of people who *loooooove libraries* but have’t set foot in one since childhood. Do we really need to expend precious resources to try to get them in the door?

Newman suggests that we focus more on community support for the library, rather percentage of community with library cards. She says that we would be better off accepting that “some people don’t use the library for one reason or another.” 

Here’s the conundrum though, how do we sort the people who don’t use libraries because they just don’t want to, from the people who don’t use libraries because they’ve been turned off somehow (or because they don’t know we have what they want)?

It *is* impossible to be all things to all people. Trying is an exercise in futility and failure.

But then, at what point do we find someone unserveable?  What criteria do we use?

Accepting that we can’t serve everyone threatens the fundamentally democratic nature of libraries. When people become unserveable, we exclude them from what should be the most inclusive of communities.  Libraries are for everyone, even if everyone is not for libraries.

But this is an ideal, and given our limited resources, we need to exercise pragmatism.  Right?

sorting mail

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Talking to the Library Board

For some reason, I have a real thing for, well, this kind of thing:

The library asks a question, and tries to get people to write and post their answers.

Here are some of the ones I’ve done:

Books and Robots

books v tech

We’re currently asking a question based on the theme of Silicon Valley Reads (a one city, one book program, only with multiple cities. More like a one region, one book really.) The question is “Books and technlogy, friends or foes?’ Patrons can choose to write on a book or robot, which were cut out of colored paper using the children’s department’s die cutter. While the robots are disappearing frequently, they’re not reappearing on the discussion board. I think people just like robots. It is Silicon Valley, after all.

What Would You Grow?

IMG_20140127_101005

Shortly after I started our seed library, I cut out some leaves with the question, “If you could grow anything, what would you grow?” I put some by the gardening books and some by the reference desk, with instructions to drop in a box near the seed library (my secret trick to get people to figure out we had a seed library). This one actually got a decent number of responses. This year I finally got around to putting them up. My favorites:

"myself"

“myself”

"justice"

“justice”

Patron Driven Collection Development (aka What’s Your Favorite Book?)

what is your favorite book

At my other library, we prompted patrons for purchasing suggestions using post-it notes and an easel. We had a series of questions over a few months, and didn’t just look for collection suggestions, we also wanted their input on the use of some discretionary funding earmarked for furniture, etc. We got a lot of responses! This library has a single point service desk, and the question was displayed there, so there was a lot of foot traffic, by people who were thinking about the library’s collection (because they had just picked out books or movies), and it was something to do while waiting.  Transcription here: Whats your favorite book answers August 2013.

Here are some other people’s takes on this kind of thing:

Gratitude Trees

Cafe Catz Gratitude Tree by Flickr User eekim

People add tags describing or drawing something they’re grateful for.  A bit saccharine maybe, but I think they look really awesome.

Draw the Bay

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The Exploratorium, a crazy-cool very hands-on museum in San Francisco, had this prompt to draw the bay.  They scan the results and rotate them through a digital display.

Crowd-Sourced Christmas Tree

2012_tree

Isn’t that a beautiful tree?

Cover_Crane

It’s actually decorated with paper cranes, folded from wishes for peace from people all around the world. The project is called the World Tree of Hope, and it’s a gift from the Rainbow World Fund.

Voting with Your Dollars

more tips in the jar

Tip jars in cafes prompt customers to vote with their money.  This one is a trivia question, but opinion questions (e.g. Android or iPhone, Tupac or Biggie) also work.

Photos in order of appearance

SVR Board Photo by Me

Seed Library/Leaves Photos by Me

What’s Your Favorite Book by Me

Photo: Cafe Catz Gratitude Tree by Flickr User eekim

Draw the Bay Card Photo by Me

Photos: World Tree of Hope by World Rainbow Fund

Photo: Birch Cafe, via What’s Your System on Tumblr

Hating Our Patrons

It may come as a surprise, but not everyone that visits the library is a sweet darling.  Some patrons are slightly unsavory and some are even real jerks.

There’s this Tumblr called Librarian Shaming, and on it some of the anonymous contributors have admitted to their dislike or even hatred of their patrons.  Some other people who blog think that all this negativity is bad, especially for The Librarian Image.  Some people take The Librarian Image very seriously.  Then one person contributed to Librarian Shaming, saying that all the librarians who hate their patrons should just feel lucky because all this person wanted to do was love and cherish patrons but she couldn’t because there were no jobs – they must have all been taken by patron-hating librarians.

I remember in my first few months as a real librarian, some more seasoned librarians were commenting on my enthusiasm.  “How long does that last?” one aked the other, “five years?”

I’ve certainly seen at least a generous handful of burned out librarians. There are grizzled veterans, who greet patrons with the dry eyed lizard stare and make extensive use of silent pointing.  You may think that older librarians might be less tech-savvy.  This is simply untrue of the burned out social butterfly librarian, for whom helping patrons never gets in the way of quality time with FaceBook.

Consider also that some of the contributors to librarian shaming may not be librarians at all.  I’ve seen a lot of patron-hating and curmudgeonly behavior from *some* (not all, not a majority) pages, aides, and LAs.  I think it’s understandable. Think about some of the differences between librarians and support staff.  Librarians choose librarianship. They actually go out and earn a degree. They deliberately and purposefully choose a job that seeks to help patrons.  It may be minimal, but they should have at least some theoretical familiarity with the ideals behind service to patrons.  Support staff may fall into libraries.  They haven’t spent time and money on an expensive educational investment that reinforces their commitment to libraries and patron service.  And they may be on the front lines with patrons nearly constantly.  It’s kind of amazing that the are so many awesome support services workers, if you think about it, when there are so many reasons to be an unhappy chappy.

Because here’s the thing with customer service.  It can be kind of soul killing.  For reals.  It is service.  It is sublimating your needs in order to meet other people’s.  It is helping people who aren’t necessarily lifting a finger to help you.  It’s being nice to mean people, polite to rude people, and solicitous to the mentally deranged.  You can get a lot out of providing excellent service. It can be very rewarding to turn someone’s day around, or to be utterly charmed by a stranger.  But it can also suck the life force out of your juicy body like nothing else.

No matter who you are, it can get you down.  There is no shame in admitting that.  This is why librarianship, or working as support staff in a library, is work.  You have to give good customer service, even if you don’t really feel like it.

In fact, I think it’s important that we DO admit that sometimes it just really motherfluffing sucks.  Because then we can work on ways to create better service for ourselves and for our patrons.  We can examine our service strategies, and take care to keep ourselves professionally juiced. We have to admit that service can be problematic in order to engage in problem solving to improve service.

And we don’t have to hide that behind a curtain.  We can be real people and maybe even laugh about it.  I guarantee no one is taking librarian shaming as seriously as librarians.

spirit photo