Ep 31 Scary Librarians!

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Last week, I was at the hairdresser.  It’s a super friendly place, new for me,  and I was chatting with one of the young women who works there – she’s 19 years old. Since I’m a new client, she asked me what I did for a living. Of course, I said “I’m a librarian”. Her response?  And I quote, “You’re awfully nice to be a librarian”.  All I could say was “that makes me really sad”.

It turns out that her concept of librarians is that they’re, you guessed it, kind of scary and always telling people to be quiet.  The frowning shusher, intent on policing behavior and collecting fines. That is her impression.

You and I both know that’s an outdated stereotype, but the sad truth is that so many people still think the same thing. It’s a common idea about librarians.

And the sadder truth is – there are still too many librarians acting at least a little bit like that.

In my years of working in libraries, I’ve seen this many times and – I’m sorry to say – was guilty of it in my early days.  I thought the library should be a quiet space and that we should teach people, especially children, responsibility by holding them accountable for borrowed materials by charging fines when they were late or lost.

But over time, I realized that what I was really doing was just turning kids off to books and libraries.  Permanently. They’re the kids who grew into adults who say things like “You’re awfully nice to be a librarian”.  

And then I read a quote by Doug Johnson, author of the Blue Skunk Blog and a thought leader in school libraries that said “The goal of a library is not to get back all the books, but all the readers” (Doug Johnson, 2013).

How often do we come across to our users, especially children,  as scary or unfriendly because we’re so focused on recovering our property.  And it’s not really even ours. Most of our collections are funded by taxpayers. 

Many libraries have policies that don’t allow users, even school children, to check out more books or even use in-house computers and online databases, because they have overdue fines.  Not even lost materials charges – overdue fines.

I understand why we do that, but honestly, I no longer agree.  To me, it seems like a good way to turn the public off to libraries, which ultimately jeopardizes our collections even more.

I understand that in some municipalities and some states, it is potentially against the law or a violation of statute not to charge fines.  I also know that in places around this country, librarians and their advocates have worked hard and gotten those laws changed and have eliminated fines.  There are too many to mention, but New York Public Library is one of the most recent.

The truth is we don’t know why a child or even an adult returned a book late or lost it completely.  Maybe they were evicted from their home and not allowed to retrieve their belongings. School librarians, this is especially important for you.  Maybe it’s a child of divorced parents and the book got left at the non-custodial parent’s the weekend before. We just don’t know.

Maybe they had a car accident and it was destroyed. Or maybe their house burned down. I’ve seen all of those things in my years as a librarian. Sometimes the user has no control over that, especially if they’re a child.

And we certainly be holding on to fines and denying borrowing privileges in perpetuity with children.

Once, when I was a district librarian, and this story hurts my heart I was on site at a middle school training the new librarian to use our circulation system. A 7th grade class came to the library and a boy came to the desk with a book to check out. Now bear in mind that this is 7th grade. The librarian pulled up the student’s record and immediately, a dialog box popped up that said “Lost book 2nd grade.  Do not allow checkouts.”

This young man had been denied borrowing privileges for five years because at seven years old, he lost a library book. Not only was it a crime that the note had ever been added to th child’s record, but no one had ever bothered to remove it and had continued to blindly obey it!  The new librarian and I were both horrified, immediately deleted the note and happily checked out the book to a grateful and surprised student.

Talk about scary librarians. We could have lost him as a reader forever.

These policies of denying borrowing privileges to users with fines is especially egregious when viewed through a racial equity lens. As we know, our BIPOC communities are under-resourced more frequently than white communities.  They’re the ones most in need of the materials our libraries have to offer.  And yet, they’re the users who have the least ability to pay fines and fees.

Financially well-off patrons, who are more often white, can pay those fines and fees and continue to enjoy full access to our libraries. It’s those who need us most, who most need to embrace reading and literacy in order to improve their lives and strengthen our communities who will suffer.

Talk about scary librarians. We can do better.

The other thing I have so often observed in all types of libraries is service point staff being, at best indifferent, and at worst, downright rude when serving the public.

Now, in all fairness to those staff members, it might be the 20th time that day they’ve had to remind a patron to wear a mask properly, or maybe the fifth class that day with kids who are treating the library like a racetrack, or maybe they just found out they’re not getting raises again for the third year in a row. Many things could be impacting a staff members emotional state. I know giving warm and welcoming public service is a heavy lift in those moments, but it’s still critical. 

And it’s also possible that front line staff, especially those in the most junior positions, might never have been taught and shown how to provide outstanding customer service.  It’s not like it’s something we’re all born knowing how to do.

Although some people seem to be born with an innate ability, many of us have to be explicitly taught how to greet students and patrons with a smile and a kind word, even when we don’t feel good.

We have to be told by onboarding managers that we need to sometimes walk around the desk and go to the patron, rather than calling out instructions over a desk. There are many things critical to good service that have to be taught, and more importantly, modeled.

So, if you’re a library team leader, please pay attention to how your staff – or maybe you yourself,  are serving patrons. If you see a staff member who isn’t practicing friendly customer service all the time, then you have some redirecting and some training to do. And the sooner you address it, directly and kindly, the better it will be for you and your team member. Don’t let that continue without a word of redirection.

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