Three Lessons I’ve Learned About People from Being a Librarian (plus a bonus one)

Three Lessons I’ve Learned About People from Being a Librarian (plus a bonus one)

Library work is about people. Most library staff — from shelvers of books, to the clerks who check items and and out, to the librarians answers questions at the information desk — work directly with the public. I’ve done all of these jobs at many libraries over the last fifteen years, and throughout that time I’ve noticed that the same immutable truths of human nature seem to crop up regardless of a community’s demographics. Though some of them are library-specific, anyone who has worked in public service will recognize a few of these in their own experiences. Note: While I think some of these things are amusing, I don’t write them to lampoon my patrons; my aim, instead, is reflective. Let’s think about these lessons as a society, and see if there’s a deeper meaning in them. Here we go:

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1. People don’t know how to ask for what they want

“Do you have the New York Times from 1987?” The man asked me.

I was interning at the Business & Economics department at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.

“Sure, we do,” I answered. “What are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for the Financial Section,” he said.

“No problem,” I said, “which day?”

“I don’t know. Sometime in October, maybe.”

As he spoke, I considered our options. We had the New York Times going back to the beginning and I could have had a Messenger Clerk bring up every issue from October 1987. But that was a lot of work for one article. I could get papers in microfiche format loaded into the reader, and he could scroll through hundreds of pages looking for…What? An article? A photo?

“Sir, I would be happy to get those papers brought here for you to see,” I started, politely, “…but may I ask what you’re actually looking for?”

He thought for a moment, and then gave me the answer I sought: “Oh, I’m looking for stock prices for a specific company for the last part of 1987.”

Bingo! There it was! His actual need. “Oh, we don’t need the NY Times for that. If you’ll walk over here, we have reference books that list all of the stock prices so they’re easy to compare…” And I walked him over to our reference shelf, brought the appropriate book down onto a table, opened it to the correct page, and pointed out the column where he could look. He was amazed! Turns out he wouldn’t have to shuffle through mounds of newspapers to finish his research.

Librarians call this process of determining a person’s information need “The Reference Interview”. The reference interview is vital to our jobs because many people spend very little time thinking how best to phrase their question; sometimes (as in the situation above), people ask for the conduit of the information they need, other times, they ask for a general subject area — “Do you have books about WWII?” when the real question is “What were the cirumstances of the Battle of Iwo Jima”, other times they don’t ask at all, preferring to wander around (in fact, upwards of 60% of library patrons with questions don’t end up asking them) — If I took every question at face value, it would result in a lot of frustrated patrons. People would spend loads of time inefficiently searching for answers that they may or may not find in the end.

Librarians are trained to help people avoid that hassle. We ask open-ended questions, using our knowledge of research and information organization to give people the best resources specifically for them. It’s the type of personalized service you rarely find in the world these days. So despite people not being great at making their needs clear, we take the time to uncover the real question and find an answer together.

2. When it comes to money, it’s all relative

It doesn’t matter whether someone is rich or poor, there are people out there who will go to the mat about a thirty cent fee they know they owe. They will stand there and argue with you for hours if you give them the chance, like it’s a hobby for them. Now, I think I speak for most library workers when I say that we don’t take any pleasure in collecting fines. Most library workers pass no moral judgement on someone who keeps a book a few days overdue, or has a fine on their account. It happens to all of us.

What is remarkable is that people’s attitudes towards money, the library, and life in general comes out when they pay (or refuse to pay) their fees. I’ve seen the poorest of poor dig into the bottom of their tattered wallet and happily give their last dollars to pay for a lost book. Likewise, I’ve seen extremely wealthy people haggle hard trying to get a five dollar fine reduced.

Knowing this, I can see how there exist fundamentalist groups out that refuse to consider any tax increases, regardless of the obvious tangible benefits taxes provide when they fund, for example, libraries.

Considering the disproportionate impact fines have on the poor is why I suspect a passel of libraries have gone fine-free in the last few years. Libraries don’t exist to generate revenue, and, the argument goes: Punitive fines do little to prevent overdue or lost books. Instead, they create a barrier to access for the least fortunate of us. Unlike for the wealthy, for a person in poverty, paying a twenty dollar fine may mean going without food.

This is important because libraries are one of society’s refuges for the less fortunate. When the last recession struck, libraries saw a huge jump in usage (their all-time peak, in fact). This is because as a non-commercial entity, libraries exist to help people regardless of how much they have. Providing internet access, job training, research resources, and a calm place to relax suddenly became vital to a whole lot of people who lost their jobs and became unable to afford those things. At the library, then as ever, a person’s worth was not measured by their bank account.

3. Assumptions are usually limiting

Answering questions all day, we naturally make assumptions about people’s information needs, and people in general. A good librarian, however, must push those assumptions aside and be there for every patron as if they are seeing them and hearing their question for the first time. Here are some questions I’ve gotten over the years, and the first thing that came into my head, followed by the actual situation:

  • (After a preamble about how her question might be a little weird, the attractive lady whispered:) Do you have any books on S & M and bondage?

Note, this was before the Fifty Shades of Grey craze where that question was usually followed by a request for the trilogy. My first thought was “I’ll bet this lady wants to spice up her marriage or surprise her boyfriend with something sexy!” At the same time, I knew that it is never easy to ask such a potentially personal question, so I treated her with sensitivity. Instead of asking a follow-up question, as I usually did, I just took her to the section on sexual instruction and showed her a few options. That was when she shared that she was an actress doing research for a part! You can never know the source of one’s information need unless they share it.

  • (An older lady approaches the desk) Where are the books for family members of someone who has cancer?

Oh no! This is so sad! “Does someone you know have cancer?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “I have cancer and I want to get a book so that I can help my husband and sister with their feelings about it.” In that moment, I was struck silent. But she was so gracious. What followed was a lovely conversation ending in a hug.

Librarians see people going through the very best and very worst times in their lives. In this case, my assumption was upended by the unbelievable kindness of this patron; she must have been going through her own emotional turmoil, but was instead focusing her energy on making things easier for those around her.

These and other experiences at the library have taught me to be patient about my expectations for others. Though it doesn’t always happen, people can be surprising! Treating people without judgement allows them to open up to you and, for better or worse, makes life all the more interesting. Both in public service, and in everyday life, my default is to treat everyone with courtesy.

4. BONUS: Nobody reads signs

Anyone who has worked in customer service knows this. Go ahead and make the sign gigantic, make it super-bright, make it blink…You will find that nothing changes. People will continue to walk by it and do the exact opposite of what it says. Libraries are masters of useless signs that people ignore. We put up signs on our book drops that say “Return Books Here” and people ask where they should return books. We put our hours directly on our front doors, and people shake the handle trying to get in thirty minute early every morning. We have a giant sign at the information desk that says “Ask Here” and people do ask, they ask me, as I sit behind a desk with my library badge and lanyard in plain sight: “Is this where I ask questions?”

Contrary to popular belief, the general population reads quite a lot. They read books, magazines, blogs, technical manuals, poetry, shopping lists, their Facebook feeds. They read each other’s faces, the bubbles atop the characters in their favorite comics, when George H.W. Bush said “Read my lips: No new taxes,” people did! Those same people, despite all the other reading they do, do not read signs.