Sunday Reflections: What I Wish Library Patrons Knew
I have seen a variety of articles online lately about hotel clerk secrets, or fast food worker secrets. Some of these articles have been insightful and helped me better understand the workers point of view. Some of them have been terrifying. Really, you’re going to put Pledge in my cup and spit in my food? So I thought I would take a moment and talk about some of the things that happen in the public library and why they happen the way that they do.
So here’s what you need to know about libraries:
Our job is to support the informational, recreational and educational needs of the people in our communities. That’s a lot of people. So we have to create policies and services that help us reach those goals with a finite amount of staff, money, and resources. In order to help serve as many people as possible, we have to put limits on our services. In addition, just like everyone else, the last few years have seen budgets and staffing cuts. At the same time, library use has gone up. That’s right, just like you are trying to stretch your home budget, libraries are trying to stretch their budgets. It’s not always pretty. So while there used to be two people on the Reference Desk help the public, there is now only one (say this in your best Highlander voice). And I used to be able to get 5 books for $100.00, but now I can only get 4. Trust me, I hate it way more than you do because I believe in the power and importance of libraries in communities. So here are some common responses to the things that we hear patrons say and ask . . .
Patron: You have to have a degree for that?
Yes, I have a master’s degree in library science. Every person in the library is important to making the library the spectacular place that it is. But we all do different things which require different skills and knowledge. I can use a computer, but I can’t set up or fix our computer network, we have a tech department for that. Sometimes I can’t answer your questions about other departments. BUT, I can put together awesome library services, in part, because I spent the time getting the background knowledge I needed to make that happen.
Patron: I wish I got paid to read.
So do I! Actually, I don’t (get paid to read that is). I read. A lot actually. But I do it all on my own time (even when I’m doing it for work to do things like school visits, booktalks and reader’s advisory). At work I do the following: put together book orders; work with budgets; research and plan programs; put together marketing plans and materials for the library’s youth services and programs; put together school visits; research adolescent development and current popular culture trends; communicate and train staff about working with teens, current teen trends, and popular titles; put together displays; keep records to communicate with my admin; network with area teachers and agencies that work with youth . . . to name just a FEW of the things that I do.
Patron: Have you read book x, y, or z?
Me: No, but I have heard good things about it.
Patron: I can’t believe you haven’t read it . . .
We have thousands – literally- of books in the library. I couldn’t read them all if I wanted to. Since I read on my own time, I tend to choose books that I want to read. Occasionally, I will read the current hottest thing just because it is the current hottest thing. But there are some things you WOULD have to pay me to read if you wanted me to read them. But since you don’t, I can assure you that I am mostly reading teen fiction or supernatural thrillers.
Patron: But I just want on the computer!
I just want to pick up my prints!
I think that computer access is an important part of current day library services; however, I don’t think it is so important that you get to jump to the head of the line. I am a huge believer in providing quality customer service to everyone. But I do like it when patrons respect other patrons. So here is my soapbox: for some reason, a lot (never all) of computer patrons feel that they shouldn’t have to wait in line. I get it, you look over and see an empty computer and you just want to jump on. Or you see that your copies have printed out and you want to grab them ASAP. I think it is due in part to the immediacy of the Internet, we are used to pages loading instantly and are being taught that computer use should be fast and NOW. But there are human components to using public library computers, asking for help, or picking up print outs, and those human components sometimes mean you have to wait in a line until someone is available to help you. Please be patient with us, note the part about limited staff and resources.
Patron: My taxes pay for your salary!
So true, but I fail to understand how that somehow means that you get to treat me less than human. It is still okay to say please and thank you. It is still okay work within the rules because they do actually apply to you. In fact, we set up our policies and procedures in a way that allows us to best meet the needs of the greatest number of people in the communities that we serve. We want to provide quality and EQUAL access. This means that I don’t get to make value judgments and change the rules just for you. Wouldn’t it just burn your hide if you found out that I had enforced the rules with you and then just bended them at will to the next patron because I had deemed their need more worthy than yours? I’m just saying, a little courtesy – to both library staff and your fellow community members – goes a long way. This thing we call the human race goes a lot better when we all treat each other with kindness and respect.
A corollary to this thought is this: But what I am doing is important!
I know that what you are doing is important. I also know what other patrons are waiting to do is important. The people you see in the library are just like you, applying for jobs, trying to meet important deadlines, trying to make important connections. Even if you don’t think what your fellow patrons is doing is important to you, it is important to them.
Patron: But I returned the book!
Ah, overdue fines and fees. Some libraries no longer have them, but most do. Mine does. In this particular case, we are just employees following the rules set forth by our library. Fines are there to encourage you to return your books on time so that the next person can read them. There are actually patrons who will check books out and keep them forever; they see it as a way to build their own personal libraries without having to buy the book. So fines, although annoying, actually help us make sure the materials are there for you on the shelf in a timely matter.
Patron: I can’t believe this book is “lost”!
If you only knew what a high theft rate we have in libraries. It is a huge issue because it can affect your access to materials and make my small budget even smaller. If I have to keep replacing The Hunger Games and Twilight, a book we pretty much always have to own a copy of, then that means I have less money for other new titles. In my years working at the library I have found the most commonly “missing” titles to be: anything on Tupac and Jim Morrison, Witchcraft, A Child Called It, test prep books, including the ASVAB, and some of the current hot titles. I have come to the personal opinion that if you steal the ASVAB book from the library, you don’t get to serve in the military; it seems like there ought to be a certain amount of ethics, morality and legality in the individuals that serve in the military.
Patron: The reason I need the information is . . .
Actually, you don’t need to tell me. My job is to help you find the information, you don’t owe me any explanations. In fact, I really, really respect your right to privacy and don’t really need to know that your sister’s deadbeat husband has landed in jail again and, although I think it is sweet, I also don’t need to know that you are dating a Russian woman and want to learn about Russian fairy tales to share with her. The thing is, you have a right to the information that you need and you have a right to your privacy. You really don’t have to explain or defend yourself to me. Trust me, I’m not judging you. If you only knew the questions I have been asked.
Patron: How come you don’t have book/movie x, y or z?
Chances are, we did at one time. Unfortunately, items come up “lost” (see above). They also fall apart. Sometimes they go out of print and you can’t replace them. There have been times when The Stand by Stephen King has been unavailable on DVD to replace. I like it too, but no – we can’t buy a new copy because it is not available. Similarly, not every movie ever made is available on DVD, especially older titles. And can I just say, Inspirational Fiction is the worst for having long running series and having titles go out of print. So no, I am sorry, I can’t get a copy of book 4 for you because it is simply not available. Maybe we can get that for you on ILL.
And as a corollary to this, when you need a holiday book it’s a good idea to plan early. December 22nd is not a good time to come flying into the library expecting to find Christmas books or movies on the shelves. Similarly, if your entire class is reading To Kill a Mockingbird and you have known about it for weeks, you probably don’t want to come in the night before your test and try to check it out. Everyone else already beat you to it. Call us though and we’ll be happy to check.
Patron: I’ll just check back again later.
Okay, I am not sure why patrons don’t like to place holds, but they don’t. Truthfully, if you don’t put a hold on 50 Shades of Gray, you are not going to be reading it from the library any time soon. Holds are a great way to get on the waiting list for popular titles. We are more than happy to place a hold and call you when your book comes in so you don’t have to keep checking and missing it.
Patron: But my project is due tomorrow!
I get waiting until the last minute; I work well under pressure and have written many a paper at the 12 o’clock hour. But sometimes, you have a really obscure topic and we don’t have a lot of quality resources for you immediately available in the library. Sometimes other people are doing the same topics. There is something to the old saying “failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” Come in as soon as you learn what you need and start trying to put your resources together, we’ll help.
Patron: Can I just set my stuff/child here while I look around?
Here’s the deal, yes this very moment I am sitting here at this desk and it looks like I am not doing anything. But the very next patron may ask a question that requires me to go into the stacks and your stuff/child is now left unattended. The truth is, we get busy, we run around, we come and go – we can’t take responsibility for your stuff. There are also liability issues involved. We’re not saying no to be difficult, we just want your stuff to be safe.
Patron: But the library is a safe place!
Correction, the library is a PUBLIC place. That means that anyone can come and go as they please to the library. And as I mentioned, we get busy. I can’t babysit your child because that is not how my job is designed. My job is to help every person that comes into the library use the library, which means I run around sometimes like a chicken with my head cut off. At one of the libraries that I worked at we used to get notifications of registered sex offenders who lived within a mile of the library. On any given day it seemed like I could point out a registered sex offender in the library. You should treat the public library like you would any store or park and take the same precautions.
Patron: Can you page so and so? Tell my husband to bring home a gallon of milk.
I have been a librarian long enough to know that people live complicated lives and one of the things that we value above everything else is your right to privacy. You don’t have to tell me why you need information, I am just going to get the information for you no questions asked. And here’s the thing: I have helped patrons going through divorce, fighting for custody, and learning how to leave abusive spouses. So when you call and want to talk to a library patron, I have no idea if you are who you say you are or if that patron wants to talk to you. Maybe you have just had a fight and they have come to the library to try and find out what they can do to protect themselves. Maybe they are here researching how to file for divorce. I can’t tell you if a patron is at the library or not because I respect their privacy and I have no idea if you are who you say you are. To me, you are just a voice on the phone. Also, I am pretty sure you wouldn’t call the bank or the grocery store asking them to get involved in your personal business, so please try and remember that libraries are in the business of helping patrons use libraries and find information. Although we are a magical place that values customer service, there are still things we can not and should not do. And the truth is, we can’t be your everything – we have very specific goals and services.
And a couple about the computers . . .
Patron: Gah, my computer just froze up! What do I do?
Unfortunately, the only answer is to restart it – which is why you should SAVE YOUR WORK frequently. Please, bring in a USB drive and save, save, save. Please see above, most of us are not tech people, we know how to use computers, but nothing about the voodoo that makes them work.
Patron: Is my information on the computers private?
Most libraries have put some things in place to try and help protect your privacy, like Deep Freeze that erases cookies when computers are restarted, but the bottom line is that your are on a PUBLIC COMPUTER in a PUBLIC BUILDING and you are not guaranteed any privacy what so ever.
Patron: I need to take a 4 hour test online.
Our computer policies are set up so that all library patrons can have timely access to the computers. Unless you get really lucky and no one comes in for 4 hours needing a computer, you really aren’t going to be able to take your test here. We have to make policies that allow us to meet the greatest number of needs possible with limited resources. It’s like going down the slide at the park, everybody gets a turn.
Patron: I need you to teach me how to do publisher/excel/use the Internet.
We have patrons come in every day to use our computers and they have various levels of skills. While I can help you print quickly or show you how to open Microsoft Word, I can’t really sit down with you and show you how to use Word or navigate the Internet. I highly recommend that if you don’t have good computer skills that you bring someone in with you that does to help you out. Again, I’m not trying to be rude, but there is now a line of 5 people waiting at the Reference desk for my help and we are not designed to do impromptu, in depth hands on instruction while working the Reference Desk.
Patron: But I just need to jump on real quick and print something out. Can’t you just log in to my account for me (or open my USB drive) and print it out for me?
No!!! Why? Because tomorrow when someone hacks into all your personal files and drains your bank account, I don’t want you coming and blaming me. It’s all about job preservation and liability issues. I have two (adorable) girls to feed, so you’ll have to wait in line and log into your accounts yourself. Personally, I recommend never, ever letting anyone have access to your personal log in information. And if you bring a USB with you, don’t accidentally leave it behind; the person who gets on the computer after you may not be an honest person. I have had to deal with identity theft issues when someone opened a credit card account in my name – it is not a good time. Keep yourself safe.
Patron: Yahoomail won’t load – there is something wrong with your computers.
Technically, there is something wrong with Yahoomail (or whatever site you are visiting). We provide access to the Internet, but we don’t control it. People’s servers go down, their pages load funky, they get heavy traffic and it has nothing to do with the library’s Internet access and there is nothing I can do to make it work. Sometimes they set the code on their page wrong and it is funky. Sometimes they copyright protect their graphics and you can’t print them. Technology is a fickle mistress and sometimes it just won’t do what we want it to do.
Patron: Wow, you’re busy in here! Do you always have so many people in here?
Why yes, yes we are. And yes, most of the time, we do. The truth is, libraries provide a wide variety of services and people need them. People use them. Every day we are helping people and it rocks! Even with the cut service hours, cut budgets and yes, staff cuts, we are working hard to be the best that we can be. Thanks for supporting your library, and please share your love of the library with everyone you know.
Which leaves us with the ever popular, I Hate to Bother You, but . . .
You’re not bothering us. It’s our job to help you. And honestly, I love nothing more than answering a good reference question or talking books. In fact, teens, I love to talk books with you and telling you what I’ve been reading. I will give you recommendations!! Please, bother me.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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