Service Breakdown

We’ve all been there: waiting in line at the fast-food outlet, the retail emporium, or the bureaucratic office, only to be told at last, No, that’s the wrong coupon; No, you’re at the wrong counter; No, that promotion has expired; No, you’ve filled out the form incorrectly; No, we need two pieces of ID; No, we can’t help you. In each case, our barely suppressed retort is, Then who are you here for? Who’s the customer, and whoʼs customer service? Who’s working on behalf of whom?

Unfortunately, that pervasive experience of coming up against an intransigent officialdom occurs in libraries too. The modern public or academic library is, we know, an intricate operation of reference, circulation, and cataloging processes, busy with the demands of maintaining physical collections alongside electronic resources, and more mundane headaches of staffing, budgets, and scheduling. But what this means for library workers is that library users can end up being considered as at best afterthoughts and at worst nuisances. “We’d have a great system,” thinks the harried programmer, Lib Tech, or circulation clerk, “if all these people didn’t keep coming in here and screwing everything up.” That’s an attitude I’ve encountered too often as a library employee, and that’s an attitude that jeopardizes our institutions and our careers.

In the big-city public library where I was a clerical, I once saw a subject librarian get hopping mad when a photo book, gathering dust in the workroom awaiting her “assessment,” actually went out to a patron who’d been looking for it. In the small college library where I’m currently at the circ desk, I’ve seen a co-worker explain Library of Congress to a lost first-year student thusly: “Well, you know the alphabet, donʼt you?” I’ve had supervisors who preferred long teleconferences with other professionals to face-to-face chats with ordinary readers and researchers coming in off the street. I’ve seen elderly folks put through a longwinded demonstration of our shiny new OPAC terminals when all they wanted was to find a favorite novel. I’ve seen regular visitors and full-time collegians turned away from the checkouts empty-handed on the one day they forgot their library cards – “Sorry, those are the rules.” I’ve seen obviously confused and frustrated library users ignored by library staff when it appeared their problems were just too routine or too petty to bother with. I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment in stores, restaurants, and government information booths; I hate to see it doled out by colleagues at my own job.

Remember that old slogan, “I am a human being – do not fold, spindle, or mutilate”? Sometimes I want to remind my managers and associates of it, after I’ve witnessed their insensitive or plain lazy responses to the needs of walking, talking people seeking their help, or just seeking a minimal level of performance. The attachment to procedure for its own sake rather than its practical results – to the means rather than the ends – has become endemic in the library profession, and that’s not good. Yes, library people are busy. Yes, there’s a lot more to library duties than sorting books. Yes, librarians and Lib Techs are highly trained specialists who deal with complex administrative problems. But often what’s being asked of us is not at the limits of our expertise but at the core of our common sense. We shouldn’t be too proud to track down a misfiled item, fix a photocopier jam, help format a Word document, or give an impromptu database tutorial. We shouldn’t be so inflexible as to impose fines for materials returned two minutes over their due date, or so impersonal as to cite policy legalese with every appealed charge, or so technocratic as to retreat into the abstract universes of copyright and search platforms, rather than the real world of the men and women, boys and girls, who expect us – and indirectly pay us – to give them a humane level of attention and assistance. They are, in the end, who we are working for. In an age of digitization and the Googleability of just about everything, the last thing library personnel should be doing is to regard library users as an unwelcome distraction from library science. They do indeed keep coming into our worksites and screwing up our carefully calibrated methods, and I for one really, really appreciate it.

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