Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Can I go home now? (Case #4)

When I whined about science project questions not too long ago, an unexpressed part of the complaint had to do with the weird mixture of disinterest and expectation I sometimes get from customers.

As in: "I'm not interested in doing this for myself. I expect you to do it for me."

Back in library school, my fantasy was to work in an academic library. I foolishly imagined that my patrons—what we used to call them before consumerism took over—would actually be interested, not only in learning things from the library, but in learning how to find things for themselves.

Instead, here I am in my ninth year in a public library, flipping burgers for customers.

Well, actually it's not that bad.
I've learned to find real satisfaction in those exchanges with customers when I've connected them with essential help or when we both realize we've solved a puzzle together. Such transactions take me back to the best moments of my career as a prison counselor.

Still, my original fantasy continues to distract me: patrons who would "actually be interested...etc."

Here's my curmudgeon's philosophy of library customer service:

My job is to show customers how to use our tools and resources to find the answer—so that I won't have to do it for them next time.
Grumping aside, I actually do believe this.

If customers are dependent on someone else to find them what they need, we aren't doing our jobs as public library staff. Whenever I do a search, whether it's the online catalog or the Internet or our databases or our physical collection, I always "take them along." I turn my computer screen and make them watch while I narrate every step as I do it.

Sometimes it clicks with them, sometimes it doesn't.

BackpackEarly in my public library career, I was at a regional branch which served kids from three local schools. The buses would dump them all in our parking lot at 3:30 every weekday, and they would tromp in, drop their backpacks with a crash on the nearest table or chair...and head for the computers.

Once in a while, one of them would come over to the reference desk with homework. Not to do it, but to get it done.

My all time worst case was a middle school girl who said to me, in a voice which was simultaneously annoyed and bored: "I have to do a two-page paper on physics. Would you show me all the websites on physics?"

After I stared at her and got no uptake, I started the usual reference interview, trying to help her narrow and specify her search subject.

"What sort of topics did your teacher suggest?"

"I don't know...."

"Okay...well, what sort of physics topics are you interested in?"

"I don't know...."

It went on like this for almost ten minutes!

Back on my first counseling job out of grad school, I went to my supervisor once to find out how long I should keep trying when a client wasn't making any effort.

"I never work harder than my clients," she said.

That has been my rule of thumb ever since. If I have a client, patient, patron, customer, what-have-you, who repeatedly goofs up but keeps on trying, I work. If I realize the person is waiting on me to "fix it," I stop and wait.

With my prison clients, I could say, "Hey, I go home at 4:30. You have to live here." In the library, "These things must be done delicately."

"Okay," I said to the middle schooler. "Let me get you signed onto a computer, and I'll show you how to search Google."

Googe search on 'physics'A somewhat better case occurred at the same branch. A mom came up to the desk with her kid in tow. (He was staring longingly at the row of PCs across the room).

"He has to find three articles for a biology paper," she said.

"Okay," I replied, speaking to the kid. "What's your paper topic?"

Planaria"Planaria," said the mom.

"Ah." I turned the screen so the kid could see it. "Maybe you could search our online science database."

Mom: "Would that have articles he could use?"

Me (to kid): "Yes, it has full text articles from dozens of different science research journals. Let me show you how to search it."

Finally the mom caught on.

"Listen to the man!" she said, swatting her kid on the shoulder. "He's trying to help you." She pulled a magazine out of her bag and walked away.

I don't remember whether I got very far with the kid, but at least I now had a "teaching moment."

The best recent example was actually that same science project question I complained about. Granted, the kid with the homework wasn't present. However, the mom and I really engaged with each other in redefining and targeting the search. She was happy with the titles I found, and she was particularly pleased to learn about our online databases—especially the fact that her daughter could continue the research remotely from her home PC.

What I have to keep reminding myself is this:

  • I'm an old guy who's been working since 1968

  • It's too early to retire (in this economy, it may always be *groan*)

  • What I most want to spend my time on now—reading, writing, coffeehouse conversation, sitting in the sun—I'm unlikely to get paid for

  • I don't want to have to satisfy an editor or a tenure committee to get paid

  • I am actually very good at customer service (I know how to put the curmudgeon on hold and be a real human being with my customers)

  • Sometimes I enjoy it.

Hmmm.... Does this mean I asked for the job?


Anonymous said...

I love it! You need to be a writer! Linda E.

Anonymous said...

The ones that stand out for me are the ones that have actually had life altering experiences: one found her calling and she went to law school; one had his life prolonged by my helping him find a cancer treatment center; one found his dad.

The rest are a tidal wave of indifference that has made me realize I’m an optimist: I am always surprised at how indifferent they are to learning and doing for themselves. If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t be surprised.

m said...

I work in an academic library and I'm flippin' burgers. Can't be helped; give 'em what they want. That said, the old ALA promotional bookmark that says Libraries Change Lives always brings a tear to my eye.

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

I date from the era when we did call them "patrons." I don't think I could stomach the term "customers." (sigh)

As with anything else, you are going to get maybe 5% who are worth the powder and shot. The other 95% fall under Sturgeon's Law. "Ninety-five percent of science fiction is crud," science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon is quoted as saying. "But then," he continued, "ninety-five percent of EVERYTHING is crud."

Fight the good fight for that 5%.

Mike said...

Karen, Thanks for your comment.

I cringed when I first had to call them "customers," partly because I could see where this was going:

Commodification of what should be a human information exchange process, as if it were instead a thing which we could just hand out, without the "customers" needing to have any notion of how the thing was acquired...and certainly nothing about how they might go about finding or creating it themselves.

But, yes, thanks for the 5% rule.

Sadly, what I find myself trying desparately to accomplish is an attitude adjustment--back to the professional stance I took as a prison mental health counselor.

My expectations of my chronically mentally ill inmates were realistically low, so I just dealt with the day-to-day without cringing.

When I changed careers, I had the notion that library work might be different.

[Actually it is, but I'm in my usual, whining, exaggerating mood since it's now past 1:30 in the afternoon.]

Thanks again,