Friday, June 18, 2010

The customer within

Recently, I had one of those moments when reality sneaks past my prejudices, and my petty resentments toward customers transform into wonder.

On this occasion, a man whom my eye stereotyped as a thirty-ish, blue-collar guy approached the Non-Fiction "Ask Here" desk, carrying a library basket of books.

(Had I been paying more attention, the juxtaposition of "blue-collar guy" with "basket of books" would already have been subverting my expectations.)

My customer was seeking a book he said he'd seen before on our shelves, one he thought was called American Christian Heritage, about the “biblical basis” of our nation's founding documents. He thought the author was David Barton, whom he sees frequently on TV pushing the so-called "originalist" doctrine of Constitutional interpretation.

"Oh, great!" I thought, muttering to myself about "ideologically driven revisionist history."

I usually manage to hide my annoyance over certain research topics, though customers can be good at reading the nonverbals. In this case, though, the guy was openly friendly and curious, so I managed to ignore my political biases and do a professional search.

My usual strategy is to narrate to my customer what I'm doing, with my screen turned so that he or she can watch the process. This helps me to teach customers how online searching is done, as well as to explain why computer searches don't always work very well.

"You and I know what we're looking for, but the computer doesn't know what these words mean. It's just trying to match shapes, and we have to guess which shapes (search strings) will trick it into finding what we need."
This method also takes some pressure off of me, since I'm demonstrating my actual efforts to help the customer.

This time, unfortunately, we found no such title in the catalog, with or without that author name. Nor any similar titles, nor titles with variations on the relevant search terms.

I told my customer I believed he had seen a book with something like that title, but that we would have to search in other ways.

Full disclosure: I could not be a reference librarian without Google and Amazon. How else to cast the net wide enough perhaps to catch something, the name of which the customer doesn't know?
Amazon found fifteen titles by David Barton, all in that realm of "Bible-based" reinterpretation of American history and principles…but nothing like the title my customer was seeking.

We went back to our catalog to search David Barton again, but no luck.

"Oh, well," said the blue-collar guy. "How about Josephus?"

I blinked.

"Um, okay…," I said, hunting up the Dewey numbers for several versions of the Complete Works.

As we started walking back to the 930s, my customer explained that he used not to read at all, but that recently he'd gotten rid of his cable.

"It's fascinating," he said. "There's so much to learn!"

I fell over myself making polite affirmations to cover my surprise.

At the shelves, we looked at several editions, until he found one with print large enough for him to read.

"Thanks a lot!" he said.

"Sure. Thank you."

I walked back toward the desk, noticing how my conceptual boundaries and expectations had shifted.

It doesn't matter if I approve of the sort of reading my customer wants to do. He has chosen to put himself on a path of expanding his own awareness through reading.

If I can't trust that process, I probably should quit being a librarian.

So…am I talking about librarianship as a spiritual discipline?

Could be.


Jason said...

Beautifully said Mike.

TR said...

I think you're onto something here!
I had never thought about librarianship as a spiritual discipline, but it does seem a very apt description when the librarian must strive every day to not be - or at least to seem not to be -- judgmental. This is something I often struggle with, and some days it's easier than others. Lots of opportunity to practice being nonjudgmental here in the library!


Mary Jo said...

Thanks for sharing that. It was honest.

Wonder if your patron could have been looking for "America's Godly Heritage" - was a film, the transcript of which is available as a book...978-1932225662

Peter Bishop said...

Way cool. I think us teachers get a little more reinforcement for the "spiritual discipline" aspect of our jobs, but librarian is also definitely a sacred trust.

Heather Campbell said...

My first work experience at JPL was in a reference department at old Main. We were asked for works by Josephus on a regular basis. Plus we used to get a lot of quotation and word/phrase origin questions. The Internet has allowed most of these customers to "ask the Internet" instead of asking us. We have a pretty sophisticated clientele out there but they don't make a show of it. I see it more in my area than you would.

Mike said...

Thanks for all the comments.

What I chose to omit from the blog post, since it would have disrupted the flow of the story, was my recognition that the customer's shift from David Barton and Josephus made sense to me.

Josephus was a first century opportunist who didn't hesitate to rewrite history to suit his own political and ideological agenda...or to save his own skin.