Read Sing Play

Adventures in early literacy

Customer Service in the Library


Recently, our department had a discussion about customer service at closing. The discussion really got me thinking about customer service in the library and why there is a disconnect between librarians regarding customer service. Some librarians will bend over backwards for patrons and some won’t budge an inch. I used to be the first type and maybe still am a little, but now that I’ve worked in libraries for more than 10 years, I’m starting to feel that hesitation before doing something for a patron. So many things run through my head: “If I do this, what else are they going to expect us to do?”…”Give them and inch and they’ll take a mile…then be upset when we don’t honor a truly ridiculous request.” Before, my only thought was “Can I accommodate them?” If the answer was yes, I did it. And I always tried to make the answer yes. Sometimes things are just not possible, but I’ve always found if that is the case, patrons understand (ok, unless they are mentally ill, but that’s a whole other topic). They DO NOT undertstand when it is obvious something is possible, but for some reason you are not making it happen. If I still feel this way about customer service, then why have I started to hesitate? Am I turning in to one of those curmudgeonly librarians everyone wishes would just retire or move on, already? Or, is it something else?

My theory is the lousy job market, combined with bureaucratic, policy-loving library systems is causing many of us to pause before going above and beyond for patrons. Now I think “Can I accommodate them?” If yes, I think “But will my boss approve?” Most the time, I still accommodate because, really, if my boss has a problem with me helping a patron they are in the wrong business. Plus, I seriously doubt I’ll get fired for doing my job really, really well (and if I do, I’m asking that patron to write a letter to the board!). BUT, there are some times, like at closing, when this issue get’s sticky.

We close at 8pm on weekdays and 6pm on weekends (and Fridays). Staff is paid until 6:05 or 8:05 depending on the day. Most the staff is union so they cannot work past that time. There are 3 closing announcements: one at 30 minutes ’til, another at 15 ’til and the last at closing. We are a 5 story building so we have developed a pretty good method of getting floors cleared, etc. Recently, however, some on staff have been a little too aggressive, in my opinion, in clearing floors and getting patrons out. The “Library is now closed” announcement is happening a minute, or two, before we close. Staff are being chided for not clearing people out fast enough. People are competing to get their floor cleared first. Everyone wants to leave as early as possible. They want to be on their way to the car at 6:01. And get upset if they are in the building still at 6:05. Thing is, if anyone needs to stay later, all salaried staff do that. Union staff have permission to leave at 6:05. So they really shouldn’t be complaining. But they are. So what’s going on? Are they really that unhappy with their jobs they can’t stand being here those last 4 minutes? Are they forgetting why we are here?

In addition, the whole situation is making some staff uncomfortable. I know it is stressing me out! I don’t want to let down my peers (who clearly don’t want to be kept here too long) by helping a patron right up to closing. I also don’t want to let down the patron who needs my helps, even if it is 2 minutes to closing. We are still open, they are still a tax payer, and I am still on the clock. So why wouldn’t I help him? Some might argue that if I do, he’ll come back tomorrow and expect to be helped until late again and we want to discourage that behavior. We want him to learn that he has to come in earlier. Well… is it my place to be “teaching” him life lessons (if he’s 80 he probably doesn’t want to hear it!)? Maybe if he’s 8. Although, I’m not his parent. Honestly, I would likely say to him “This is the best I can do in this short amount of time. Next time you have an assignment due the next day try to get here earlier or call us ahead of time so we can work on it before we close. That way we can spend more time finding you exactly what you need.” Haven’t we all said some version of that at some time?  But to not help him at all? That is crazy, I think.

What do you guys think? Is there a limit to customer service in the library? Do we need to be careful to not help too much? Or should we always do our best to find our patrons what they want and need, no matter the time or whether or not our boss would approve? Should we memorize policies and be sure to never bend them? Should staff modify their behavior to please the patrons, or should we try to “teach” patrons better behavior to please staff? Would job security and less peer pressure make staff more accomodating?

Author: Kendra

Children's Librarian in the Northwest. Lover of toddlers, twitter, and TV (T's, too, apparently!).

6 thoughts on “Customer Service in the Library

  1. Is it worth suggesting that union staff be scheduled and paid until 6:15? There are very few occasions when we can’t get the building cleared here (ours is 2 stories) in the 15 minutes after closing. Our problem is that PT staff (our only hourly staffers) are paid until the minute of closing, full stop. It helps that we close at 9 M-Thur and are usually pretty empty by then, but still.

    • Definitely! That’s what we have suggested, actually. The problem is they hate staying when we do happen to be totally clear by 6. We used to be scheduled until 6:15 and they shortened it after a couple of months. Maybe 10 after? Or the hourly people just need to go at 6:05 and those of us who are salaried know that we will stay a few minutes later occasionally. That’s why we get paid the “big bucks”, so to speak.

  2. Our library is smaller so we don’t have quite the situation you do, but we have very lax closing procedures. I’ve pulled books for patrons who have come in one minute to close with a fairly extensive list. I suppose my feeling is that if it’s a legitimate NEED, then I don’t have a problem helping them. The Friday evening crew that comes in right at close destroys the DVD section in their attempt to pick their weekend entertainment and then acts rude to the staff because the lights are out and they don’t know why they have to hurry are more likely to be met with less flexibility than the kid who needs a Battle of the Books book because his teammate came down with the flu and won’t be at school tomorrow. It’s really a give and take… if I clock out late then I get in trouble, but if we don’t meet a patrons need and they complain… I can also get in trouble for that.

    • Luckily, no one gets in trouble here, but we also never have the library staff who are union closing without salaried staff, who are not union, being here. That means there’s never a reason for a union person to be here past their time. They can just leave. I’m definitely worried about upsetting a patron. We haven’t had any major complaints yet, but it only one patron to really cause a stink.
      It’s a good point about the kind of request/demand being made. But I also think, aside from rudeness and messiness, browsing can be just as important as a direct question. If there are 2 minutes left, I see now reason why someone couldn’t browse without being harassed. Your patrons making a mess and being rude is a little different. They are ruining the space for others, but that should probably be handled from a behavior perspective (but while also using good customer service, in my opinion). I hesitate to qualify what makes a “legitimate” request-that is very subjective and as librarians we are not in the business of judging people’s requests. It’s just like the discussion with computer use that has gone on for years. We don’t ask a child who is playing games to get off the computer because another child needs to do homework. We cannot decide which action is more important. Each child is entitled to their computer time, and it’s up to them what they do with it, not us. I feel the same about requests. While the Battle of Books question is certainly important, picking out DVD’s for the weekend is equally important, at least to that group. They still need to be respectful of library property, but I bet if they asked you if a specific DVD was in you would help them without hesitation.
      Thanks for your comment! I love generating discussion! 🙂

  3. I can so relate to this! There is one staff member at my work who will say “last call for check out” at like 5 minutes to closing and I am just like but they still have 5 minutes? We are only paid for 15 after closing but it just seems so ridiculous to be shoving people out the door like that. I also feel uncomfortable at closing. People need to place holds or ask a question and I can feel staff getting irritated that I am not shoving the patron out the door. Sometimes people can’t get there earlier so should this mean they get crappy service?

    • I think of the library as a free book store in that sense. Most book stores close their doors at closing but continue to help anyone in the building at that time. Because you don’t want to lose sales. We don’t want to lose patrons. And I’f I’m paid to be here until 6:05 I can definitely help them until 6, at least and give them some time to get out the door. Most people are so appreciative (there are exception, of course) of my last minutes assistance that I think it’s more than worth it. I’d rather them leave happy than pissed off and not wanting to come back. Just last week the security guard asked me “Why aren’t you getting them out?”. It was 3 minutes until 6 and they were looking in the dinosaur section for something with good pictures. I’d already told them they had 3 minutes to get their book and get checked out. They said ok and were hurrying to pick something out. I told the guard “The library closes at 6pm. They have 3 more minutes. If staff need to leave right away they can do that, but they are paid until 5 after.” Blank stare. Sigh.

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