Sunday Reflections: Why I Learned to Stop Thinking of My Patrons as “Stupid”
We’ve all done it; In a moment of frustration you walk into a back office and just begin to vent, sometimes out of frustration the word stupid might be invoked. Or some other variation of. But in a moment of frustration you become like a pressure cooker and you just have to go to a remote corner of the library and release the valve. Working with the public can be a frustrating experience, but a little perspective can go a long way.
The world shifted for me one day when a fellow employee came to me and said she had just gotten off the phone with a patron who was “so stupid” I wouldn’t believe it. This patron has simply asked for directions to the library. Apparently the staff member mentioned something about going South from a location, which the patron was having a hard time understanding. So out of the frustration of trying to explain directions to this patron over the phone she was given the S label.
The thing is, I am this patron. I am directionally challenged to the Nth degree. So when my co-worker asked me if I could believe how stupid the patron was, she was asking me if I could believe how stupid I was. And the thing is, I’m not stupid. I just don’t know everything and one of the things that I am conceptually very bad at is directions. So I told my coworker that I didn’t think the patron was stupid at all, just bad at directions. It was an eye opening moment for me in the way that people – in the way that I – look at and judge the people around me.
The Mr. and I have a running joke regarding me and directions. We’ll be in the car driving somewhere and he’ll ask me which direction we’re driving and of course the answer is North. For me the answer is always North. It doesn’t matter which direction we are going, it feels like North to me. This is, of course, a ridiculous concept because sometimes we are going in any direction but North. I do not know why my personal inner compass is calibrated to North, but it is.
Many years ago, The Mr. and I were driving to a concert down somewhere near Los Angeles. This was before our smartphones (yep, I’m old) and we were navigating with a good old fashioned map. He was driving and I was giving directions. We soon found ourselves being pulled over by the police who informed us that we were in the wrong neighborhood and given an escort out (and yes, this is a story with a lot of important implications). It turns out, we zigged when we should have zagged because I was looking at the map upside down. Well, the map wasn’t upside down, I just wasn’t looking at it correctly. It was very early in our relationship, I’m not allowed to give directions any more.
For me, my most frustrating moments with patrons often involves the public computers. I spend all day every day on a computer so it can be difficult for me to interact with those who have no idea how to use a computer but need to, and they often start clicking before you’ve finished giving them good instructions. These are the moments that are – were – most likely to end in my coming off my reference desk uttering exasperatedly about the intellect or skills of a patron. But the thing is that this patron is no different than me, it’s just our basic skill sets differ. I’m not good at directions, they’re not good (yet) at computers. They actually have a better chance of becoming good at computers than I do of getting good at directions.
We all are born with natural talents and challenges. In addition to directions, history has always been a thorn in my side. I’m not good at memorizing facts, which is a useful skill in history. But I can write a mean essay. The Mr. can memorize facts in ways that amaze and astound me. I’ll admit it, it makes me jealous. But he can’t spell. I can type well over 70 words per minute while he uses the tried and trued hunt and peck keyboarding method. In addition to natural skills, many of us are drawn to different things and invest our time studying in those areas, which may be different than those with whom we interact. The Mr. can talk to you about cars and fixing cars, a conversation that often sounds to me like the adults on a Peanuts cartoon. It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s just that cars aren’t my thing. I may be uninformed about cars, but to write me off as stupid seems immensely harsh and mean spirited. Which is why I had to change the ways I handled difficult patron interactions very early on in my library career.
In addition to natural ability and personal interests, there’s a lot of privilege involved in these moments. We’re not all given the same access to education for a variety of reasons, and some of those reasons are about socioeconomic inequality. Many of our library patrons don’t have the same technology skills as we do because they don’t have the same access to technology. I now try to keep my privilege in mind when interacting with patrons who don’t have the same knowledge of technology that I have (and trust me, my knowledge is minimal compared to so many others). It can be frustrating when you are telling the 30th person in 20 minutes how to print their document, but we have to remember that to them it is a new skill. What is rote and seems so obvious to us can be a source of intimidation and stress to those who are new to the situation. I try to remember what it is like for me to walk into a new space and not know the culture, the rules, the processes and treat my patrons as I would like to be treated in those situations new to me.
I’d like to pretend that in this moment of eye opening self reflection that I have completely stopped the need to go into a back room and vent at all, but that would be a lie. The truth is, we’re dealing with a wide variety of personalities, interests, skill sets, needs, etc. and sometimes patron interactions are just frustrating for a variety of reasons. But the common denominator in all frustrating patron reactions is me. I can’t control what a patron says or does, but I can work on controlling how I react. Now, even in these moments of frustration, I have come to better understand some of their causes and work to keep them in perspective. At the end of the day we’re all just human, but with a little effort on our part we can all work to be better humans.
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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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