Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Problem With Librarian Problems

So it's come to this; a curmudgeonly blog post about the state of the profession (complete with finger wagging, tsk-tsking, and even a little SMH thrown in for good measure). "Shake your fist at 'em Pops. These kids don't know from librarianship". That's how you do it, right?

Oh, the irony. I've spent 15 years in the profession deriding Will Manley and his hectoring ways. Now I've apparently become him.

Point being, I'm acutely aware of all the contextual layers of this post. I know the implications and risks of saying, "Hey, that's not cool". I've been around long enough to know how easy it is to dismiss the contrarian stance; to push back against even the slightest hint of correction (Trust me, I've done it plenty of times myself). More to the point, I've been around long enough to know how easy it will be to dismiss what I'm about to write. Please don't. It's important. It's important to us individually and it's important to us professionally.

Librarian Problems is a Tumblr site that features (not surprisingly) librarian problems. It's a grab-bag of the kinds of day to day issues library staff face as they go about their work; from helping patrons with copy machines to picking out the day's cardigan. A typical post presents a scenario (i.e."Someone insults my favorite author") followed by an animated gif illustrating the librarian's response. The aim is humor; or more specifically the kind of insider, work-related humor that comes from abiding familiarity and shared experience. Advocates will contend Librarian Problems is simply a release valve. It's a harmless way to blow off steam; nothing more than the time-honored application of humor to cope with persistent and collective challenges. It's the inevitable banter that happens whenever individuals in the same profession gather. What's the problem?

Well, there's a host of them, all of which stem from the cynical and mean-spirited depiction of library patrons.

I'm a firm believer in the power of stories. Stories instruct us. They teach us. They help shape our beliefs and our attitudes. When we assign meaning to our experience (which we're doing all the time, whether we know it or not) we're essentially constructing a story. This inclination toward narrative builds our beliefs and attitudes. The stories we tell ourselves help us make sense of the world. The meanings we derive from our own stories are then shared (and reinforced) through the stories we tell others.

Librarian Problems is, at its heart (and in its shorthand and meme-ish manner) really just a collection of stories. Sadly, these are stories in which library patrons are consistently portrayed in a negative light. Rather than being valued as the people librarians are charged with serving, they're presented as some sort of nuisance. Their questions are ridiculous. They're alternately "fools" and "idiots". They try our patience; eliciting in most cases little more than incredulity, exasperation, and cynicism. There is apparently no eye-roll emoticon large enough for the ineptitude of our library users. At least that's the conclusion you'd draw scrolling through the vignettes presented in Librarian Problems.

This narrative is unfair. It's unfair to our patrons and a disservice to our professional obligation to provide equal and open access. "Open to All" means just that. It's clear and unequivocal. Libraries are open to everyone in a manner that's fair and equitable. Adopting (and propagating) dismissive attitudes towards particular questions or requests undermines our professional commitment to equitable service.

Libraries can be intimidating. They're not always easy to navigate, especially for people who haven't used one in a while. The same is true for technology. Library computers don't work like the ones at home. Copiers can be inscrutable. The fact is people often need help with even the most basic operations. This should go without saying, but every patron who asks for help does so because they need our help.

Asking for help takes courage. It means admitting we don't know. Our patrons ask for help because they trust us. They trust that we'll be open and non-judgmental; that we'll assist them in a professional and courteous manner, that we'll respect their question and their privacy. What happens to that trust when patrons find out we can't wait to get off desk so we can post their OMGHILAERIOUS!!!111 question on Librarian Problems? The fact is these stories are not ours to share. We don't have sole ownership of these interactions (there's someone else involved after all) and we (likely) haven't gotten permission to share them.

I recognize that in its way Librarian Problems is simply a digital extension of the kind of "back-of-the-house" chatter that likely occurs in libraries everywhere. I'd suggest that rather than using those conversations as justification for Librarian Problems, we might instead look more carefully at the kinds of conversations we encourage in our own libraries.

Perhaps it's time to reframe the question; to think about library solutions instead of library problems. Instead of focusing on the challenging side of patron interactions we could share a different kind of story; a story that highlights how to stay positive, how to treat each patron with care and respect, and how to value every interaction as means of demonstrating that our libraries truly are Open to All.




  1. "every patron who asks for help does so because they need our help."

    Not entirely true. We also have patrons who ask for help because they want someone to hold their hand, do the work for them, and abdicate their own responsibility. Or at least, I have those patrons.

  2. I just glanced at the front page of librarian problems and while some of the GIFs are calling patrons idiots (which even the most enthusiastic librarian has to admit some people are), there are also many that are positive to both patrons and the profession.

    I could go on, but ultimately, it's just blowing off steam, which everyone who works with the public needs to do. There are library patrons I love, and there are library patrons who try my patience, and it seems much healthier to vent a little via the internet than let the frustrations stew and build up. If you can't have a little fun, what's the point?

  3. I've come to library grad school via the long road. In my soon-to-be previous life I was in HR. You cannot imagine the secret places HR people gather to do much worse than I've ever seen on LP. The only difference? HR knows all about how things can bite you in the a$$, even anonymous stuff. So they have secret, gated, guarded places. Anyone wanting to enjoy the LP style should maybe create such a place. It lets one blow off steam without showing the world such a bad face, which I am sure aren't really the way librarians all are, just blowing off steam.

  4. I agree and disagree. I do think that it may shed some negative light on librarians and portraying us as being "unwilling" or "inconvenienced" when a patron asks for help, but there's always a flip side.

    For every patron that genuinely needs help (ie-the woman I taught how to use the copier who later came by and thanked me because she got a new job where she had to make copies and I had shown her the basics), there is a patron who has asked for help and taken our willingness to help as a cue to always ask for help even when we've taught them how to help themselves. Sometimes patrons don't want to do their own tasks, so they'll constantly ask us to do it for them. I've had one particular patron ask me over 100 times how to copy and paste something from a Word document. I've shown her how to do it, I've watched her do it after I've shown her how to do it. Yet, she'll come in time and time again and ask me how to copy and paste. It's to point where either she has something blocking her from remembering how to do it or she just can get me to do it because it's "faster"

    I think it's one of those sites that is just blowing off steam and should be taken with a grain of salt. It's easier to complain about those problematic patrons we all have than to show off the awesome patrons we also encounter more often than the bad ones.

  5. I love my patrons.

    They're forgivable because their brains are shifting, their frontal lobes are not fully functional, and their hormones are raging. :) They're teenagers.

    If I am to forgive myself for the stupid things I did in high school, I must forgive them too.

    In fact, they're delightful; and I learn so much from THEM.

  6. I have to disagree with the overall tone of this piece because it makes librarians out to be public servants with emphasis on servitude. Yes, we should provide the highest levels of service to all patrons (although we're supposed to call them customers now), including the ones who type their email addresses in URL bars or think the Internet is broken because they can't find Google or the ones who are flat out rude. But that doesn't mean we have to take punches in silence.

    It is difficult to work with people who have need to type a resume but do not know how to use a word processing program. I admit it is difficult for me to sometimes bridge the gap between my Masters degree and the unemployed, homeless patron who wants to copy and paste a video from YouTube. I do my best when I face each patron (usually -- I am human) because I can laugh about things afterwords, even if I am also filled with annoyance and pity and concern for those individuals who file past the ref desk every day.

    And librarians should know, perhaps better than anyone, that while one narrative might be "unfair" because it depicts less-than-ideal encounters with the public, it is by no means the only narrative going on.

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