Sunday Reflections: In Defense of No
One of my first jobs as a teenager involved working at a high end department store unique to Southern California, sort of a local Macy’s. One day a woman stood in front of my co-worker trying to return a pair of jeans without a receipt. The problem is, these jeans were a brand of jeans that we didn’t sell. In fact, they were the the name brand product line of Kmart; it was impossible to buy them anywhere but Kmart. So my friend told her she was sorry, but we couldn’t return those jeans because they were not in fact ours. This woman then proceeded to throw a verbal, hostile tantrum similar to those thrown by my 2-year-old. It wasn’t pretty, and more importantly – it wasn’t nice.
You can guess what happened next. The store manager came out and apologized for the store clerk and proceeded to return a pair of jeans that were then thrown in the trash because there was nothing we could do with them. In effect, this woman had now stolen basically $50.00 from our store, all under the guise of good customer service.
Somewhere along the line we developed the mantra that “the customer is always right”. But the truth is, they aren’t. And today I am going to make the controversial claim that sometimes, it’s okay to tell our library patrons no. This is controversial because I have seen time and time again that in order to provide good customer service, we should always say yes. We’re only a library some will claim, a dangerous thought in itself because if we devalue ourselves, why do we expect our patrons to value us. The truth is, sometimes saying no is in fact the right answer.
Let’s start with a basic premise: Library policy and procedures are good for a variety of reasons including:
1) Through analysis and discussion, library personnel develop a framework of policies and procedures that help ensure that a library system can meet the greatest number of needs for the greatest number of people in the most equitable way possible. They are a way of managing shared resources for a diverse community.
2) Library policies and procedures help staff to know and understand not only what behaviors are expected of them, but how to respond to various situations while working with the public in a way that promotes equal access to the library’s resources. They provide library staff with guidance by outlining expected behaviors.
3) Library policies and procedures helps patrons understand their responsibilities and the expectations of the library to further help make sure we can provide the highest quality of service to the greatest number of people. They help patrons understand what is expected of them to ensure that they can use these shared resources while also making sure that their fellow citizens can also use the same managed resources.
A basic scenario: Library A has put together a policy in which they state that overdue DVDs will accrue a fine of $1.00 a day for every day that a DVD is returned past its due date. So one day, when the patron comes up to check out, they are informed that they have $10.00 in fines for a DVD returned over due. The patron pays the fine, checks out, and goes about their daily task.
Later, another patron comes up to check out and learns that they also have a $10.00 fine for over due DVDs. The difference is, this time the patron gets angry. They start yelling at staff, they demand to speak to a manager, etc. The manager looks at the patron record and sees there is a note where staff state that just three months ago, the same scenario happened. So this argument the patron has made that they weren’t told about the due date or the fines and fees is all bluster, we have a record that indicates that they are familiar with the library’s fines and fees structure. But because the patron insists, the manager waives the fines and the patron checks out.
So patron A pays the fines and patron B gets off the hook for the fines.
This, I think, causes several problems:
1. The staff feels unsupported and, more importantly, confused about what their expectations are. They begin to fear enforcing the policies because they know they won’t be backed up. But they also fear not enforcing the policies, because they fear getting in trouble. They are now in a situation where they are unsure of what the correct course of action will be with each patron interaction.
2. The library has now treated patrons in very unequal ways. Some patrons are being made to pay fines while others are not. This is especially problematic when it becomes arbitrary as this can lead to scenarios of preferential treatment among some types of patrons and discrimination against others.
3. In addition, we have now reinforced this behavior in our patron and they have learned that if they are loud enough, if they are difficult enough, they can manipulate the staff to get their way. In fact, we have also just condoned the abuse and harassment of a staff member and a fellow citizen. There is a good chance when they want to get their way in future library transactions, they will resort much more quickly to engaging in aggressive behavior to try and force the library to suspend the rules for them.
And I use fines as an example, there are many more to choose from.
I recently read a discussion from someone who was upset because they went into the library right before closing with no library card and no photo identification to pick up a hold. Their hold was going to expire that day. They were very mad because the staff wouldn’t take their word that they were who they said they were and they went home empty handed. They were mad because the library asked for confirmation that the person standing before them verify their identity before handing materials held under a specific name for them.
Before I was married, I was Karen Maidenname. While I was in high school, my dad got remarried to a woman named Karen, so now she also was Karen Maidenname. In what I can only say is an incredible coincidence, our birthday was on the same day in the same month, though obviously several years apart. This woman was a mean, manipulative, dishonest woman. I lived through my early twenties fearing that she would one day walk in and wipe out my very unsubstantial bank account.
Years later, as I worked at the public library, I interacted with all kinds of people. People who were trying to find ways to escape abusive and controlling partners. People who were fighting family members who were trying to steal their money. People who were being stalked, people who were being threatened, people who were trying to deal with personal matters quietly and discreetly. And this is why patron confidentiality is so very important. This is why it matters that library staff know you are who you say you are. This is why we insist – and we should in fact insist – that patrons verify they are who they say they are before discussing any information about a patron, including handing them books put on hold. You don’t want to accidentally give personal information to the wrong person and put another in any type of jeopardy.
And the flip side to this is that when we are dealing with public libraries, it is easy for the public to forget that there are financial costs involved. I have seen patrons with fees upwards of $500.00. You really want us to make sure that the person standing before us is who they say they are because there are monetary costs attached to your library card.
Sometimes a no is about protecting patron privacy. Sometimes a no is about protecting the pocket books of our patrons. Sometimes a no is about making sure we are treating all of our patrons in the same, consistent manner.
We live in a world full of many, many people. Over 7 billion that last time I heard. Rules help us function; they help make sure that your rights and wishes don’t trample over your neighbors and their rights and wishes don’t trample over yours. And I’m not saying there are no bad rules. If you find that your library staff is repeatedly being asked to bend or ignore a rule, then it is time to re-examine that rule and whether or not it is the best model for serving the library and your community. There are, for example, many libraries that operate without charging overdue fines and if you find that you don’t really feel the need to enforce these rules, then dropping them seems like the best alternative.
We live in a world with mottos like “your way, right away” and “the customer is always right”. But the truth is, sometimes no is in fact the right answer. Sometimes no is the best answer because it means that you are treating all your patrons consistently and fairly, because you are protecting your patron’s privacy, and because you are protecting your community’s investment in your library by protecting your materials and resources. Sometimes, in fact, no can be the best patron service.
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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