I work as a library manager for two neighbourhood public library branches, and some of my shifts are working the front line, providing customer service. We’re not a business, so we don’t have sales quotas, although we would be alarmed if we checked out far fewer books or if kids stopped attending puppet shows! Being non-profit, we’re not out for a buck, and we don’t relish collecting library fines. We have consistent government funding. Apart from grumpy folks reminding us, “I’m a taxpayer and I pay your salary!” we have it pretty good.
On a typical day when I work at the Information Desk, I walk around the library every 20 or 30 minutes and see if anyone needs help. We leave the regulars alone because we know they will ask. Usually someone will snag me if they have a question. The most common one is (when looking at the online catalogue), “How can you tell if this book is at this branch?” Otherwise people ask for “sections:” “Where’s the cookbook section?” or “Where are the history books?” Rather than pointing, I go along and describe what’s in the section. Otherwise my customer spends half an hour browsing all the cookbooks when they really just wanted a few recipes to use up zucchini, or they survey all of human history to find a book on pre-Columbian art, only to give up because it was in the art “section.”
You might think that everyone coming into the library loves reading, but not so. We have reading-related questions, and then we have “all the rest.” Most people think you can only ask for library books, or maybe information about library programs, at the Information Desk. In fact, we answer every type of inquiry, from “Can I put a hold on Vincent Lam’s latest book?” to “What are the dates of the film festival this year?” to “Is there any place I can get my bike fixed for free?” When I give a library tour to newcomers, I tell them they can ask about books, technology, programs, community information, or they can ask us for any kind of factual information – and we look up the answers. (We are trained to find authoritative sources, too.)
At my two library branches, we have lots of people who spend every day with us, and we get to know them well. There are the ones who compete to get in the door and read the newspaper first, and the ones who run to the computer lab to check email and Facebook and play online slot machines, and those who scour the DVD shelves and leave with armloads of movies every day, and those who want a big easy chair to use the free wireless. Of course, anyone looking for a quiet spot to study is out of luck, because we don’t have a “quiet policy.” Everyone is permitted to speak in a normal conversational tone, and once you times that by 60, it’s bedlam! The library is a home away from home for people who stay at shelters overnight, or have too many room mates, or are killing time between appointments, or just need somewhere to spend time, not money.
At my library branches, we spend time every day with people who have serious mental health issues, who have difficulty getting along with others in public places, who have significant health problems and don’t take care of themselves as they should, people with addictions, people moving back into the community after a prison term, people biding their time, and people who are diligently trying to start over.
I divide our regulars into four categories:
- the “in-and-out” transaction people, who are self-sufficient and don’t interact with staff much
- the library lovers, who talk with us about books and reading or community events, and show a lot of appreciation for libraries
- the demanding people, who engage us with one query after another
- and the high-needs folks, who rely deeply on the library and its staff for social interaction and personal assistance. It’s this group of customers who create our biggest challenges, but also the most rewarding outcomes.
I can’t count the number of times I have chatted with someone in the stacks, who has said “I can’t read so good,” and asked if we have an adult upgrading program (we do). Or how many times I’ve sat down beside someone who doesn’t know how to hold a mouse or open a program, but needs to create an email account so they can sell stuff on Kijiji. Or how many times a 20-year-old who left school at 14 has asked to volunteer at the library because they need work experience and a reference.
I don’t give the same level of service to everyone at the library. If you want to check where you are on the waiting list for Mockingjay, you’ll get a moment of my time while I find out you are #233. But if you need someone to give you feedback on your resume and help you re-format it, I am yours for 40 minutes, while any new customers are sent scuttling to their “sections.” Equal, no. Equitable?
So for all of you self-sufficient book lovers out there – excuse me, but this guy here needs my help getting his life in order!
Now if you need someone to set up your e-book reader for you, we do that too…