There is a woman who walks into my library every night to use the computers for half an hour and then reads on one of chairs until closing. She is one of the patrons I was “warned” about, which is to say, my fellow coworkers told me not to engage her in conversation because I would likely regret it. Indeed, when she approaches the desk, they all get busy or do the bare minimum to encourage her to move along. This kind of makes me angry. I understand being warned about a patron for safety reasons, but judging a patron because they are different from you, tell jokes you don’t understand or dress funny is completely ridiculous. My favorite patrons at my previous jobs were also the “weirdos” I was advised to avoid, including the resident jokester whose riddles I posted earlier this year and a patron who called me “The Dewey Queen” because I was often able to come up with the right area for a specific subject without looking it up.
The truth that some librarians find hard to put into practice is that it is all about the patron, even the weird ones. We know it, of course, and it is made official in both Ranganathan’s Laws (with the reader being essential to three of the five laws) and many library mission statements. But in practice, many library workers can lose themselves in other aspects of the job and forget to focus on the people. We focus on building the collection, implementing fancy new Ebook portals or creating new programming that excites us. Aaron at Walking Paper talks about this in a recent post in which he urges us all to focus on the people, not the tools:
“Librarianship has lost its focus – our professional concern for people has been eclipsed by a preoccupation with collections and technology.”
Even though most of us do seek to help people every day, our efforts are just turned into a number on a piece of paper. In fact, these reference stats (or circulations stats or door counts, even) are often used to justify our jobs. That sort of one-dimensional measurement is both shallow and misleading, and it causes us to lose the focus on patrons in which our true value lies.
It’s easy for librarians to refrain from engaging with our patrons because that takes time and we still only get one checkmark on our stats sheet. And it’s even more difficult with those “weird” patrons who can require even more time and effort to engage. But these patrons often only need a sympathetic ear. For example, the woman described in the beginning of my post has strange mannerisms, makes jokes that don’t always make sense, and wears the same rotating two shirts and one pair of jeans everyday (though she is always clean). I work night shifts, which tend to be slow, so I took the time to engage with her (despite being warned not to), showing her a couple of job and home rental websites when she asked. It was only over the course of three weeks that I found out her roof had caved in during a storm, ruining all of her possessions and leaving her with a massive bill because she didn’t have the right insurance to cover all the losses. She was living out of her car and had only had enough money to buy the clothes she wore every day. Her 30 minutes (she didn’t have a stable address to get a library card) were spent hunting for a place to live, a job or just taking her mind off her woes (cute kitty pictures and telling jokes are the best for this). This came out over the course of three weeks, but it was the first efforts to engage that made her trust me. Our interactions are short: Generally a three-minute update while I print out a guest pass for her, so it takes so little effort that sometimes I’m sad when she skips a visit. She stopped me the day before we closed for Thanksgiving break and thanked me for listening to her. She apparently had really needed the sympathetic ear and she was truly grateful. It struck me how amazing it was that she could be so grateful for 3-minute interactions and a smile, especially when my coworkers worked so hard to avoid engaging with her. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the urge to avoid patrons that some consider problematic. It’s often done without ill will and often done to save time in case another patron comes to the desk looking for help. But it occurred to me today that the most memorable experiences I’ve had since coming here haven’t been when I solved an issue with the ILS or found the perfect book to fill out the collection. The most memorable experiences, the ones that remind me that this is what I’m meant to do, are the ones where I not only help a patron but I connect with them. I listen to them and I smile. But that tiny bit of effort means the world to some of these patrons. That’s worth everything to me. It’s awesome when you figure out how to manipulate the public catalog to look even cooler. It’s awesome when you figure out how to make the website even more usable. It’s awesome when you talk the library director into purchasing a language learning service that can be accessed online. These things, of course, serve the patron and are important to libraries. But if you don’t engage with patrons before and after making these decisions, then you won’t really know if you are helping. And helping patrons is really what we are here to do.