Who Owns the Librarians

I’m thinking about people who call themselves librarians, who are not working librarians.

On one hand, it bothers me that there are all these past, future, aspiring, and not-quite librarians who have such strong opinions about what librarians should be and do. I want to shout, “You don’t get it!” or whine “you just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnd.”  Particularly at people relying on out-of-date information from 15 or 20 year old experiences.  I’m increasingly bothered by the influence of consultants and library professors who are shaping policy and our theoretical foundations without a foothold in reality.

On the other hand, libraries belong to everybody, so maybe librarians do too.  Maybe everybody should get a say about librarianism.

On the third hand, I want people to get mad (madDER, maybe) that they aren’t librarians.  I think the idea that “we are all librarians” is to cover up the fact that there aren’t enough librarian jobs to go around.  I want past, present, future, aspiring, and not-quite librarians to demand more library jobs.  I want us to stop trying to make-do with being short staffed, and to start to create a workforce that can really meet community needs.

So that’s one thing you need to be a librarian, three hands. At least.

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Getting Past the “Expert” Paradigm

I’m cleaning out the drafts folder for this blog, and I found this one:

There are a lot of topics about which YOU know more that ME (more than I?  Grammar may be one of them).

Two librarians in the dark.

there are two experts in the reference transaction

It’s like some sort of cryptic librarian riddle.  Maybe a joke:

Two librarians in the dark.  One turns to the other and says…

– “How’d we get inside this dog”?

-“I guess I should have said AND lightbulbs”

-“Isn’t the library supposed to be a *glowing* organism?”

Clifford Maust In Scottdale, Pennsylvania

I’m not exactly sure what I was going to try to get at with that draft, but I think it was probably something about how thinking of librarians as experts is not a good place to try to do reference from.

The truth of the matter is, it’s the ~terrifying unknown~ that librarians often confront in true reference transactions**, rather than a tapping of their professional expertise.  We may understand our collections, we may understand the organization of information and the orders of knowledge, but each patron throws a new curve ball.

Better to approach the reference transaction from a place of learning and collaboration.  The librarian is learning more about the patron’s information need, and collaborating on the construction of the answer.  A “collaborating” model lets the librarian approach the patron with humility, which is helpful both in dealing with patrons who are not very confident and in dealing with patrons who know everything – it removes the source of conflict.

Cornell Varsity, Pokpsie 61711

**other types of transactions at the reference desk include the less terrifying, “where is the bathroom?” and “can I use the computer?”

How to Help When You Don’t Want to Help

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?

 

Prisoners by the National Library of Scotland