Read Sing Play

Adventures in early literacy


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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?