I have a loud voice. Part of this is because I listened to a lot of obnoxious music in my twenties and now strain to hear a whisper or mumble when I’m standing next to a fan. Another part is that I grew up in a loud Italian family where the volume was permanently at 11, and that still seems normal to me. The final part is that I just have some lung power, man.
And I like to use it! Even when my voice gets unpleasantly dry and creaky, which happens every stupid time the temperature to moisture ratio of the room falls below sauna levels, I love to croak me out some Rage Against The Machine. If I hydrate, my range becomes fierce. I can whistle, too. All of this happens at top volume.
There are many reasons why none of it can happen in the library.
- It’s loud. While the Nevins isn’t a silent library, patrons don’t want to hear me expound upon the lifespan of the lobster or serve some sick burns to the military-industrial complex. It’s not professional. Incidentally…
- Even humming a recognizable, expletive-laden song in front of a patron is inappropriate. On the plus side, Hookers by Irontom has been stuck in my noggin for about a year now and resisting it has allowed me to achieve zen-like levels of self-control.
- Misophonia. There are a lot of people with sensory issues, major and minor, who use the library. It is not fair to subject them to whistling, humming, or the scratchy crow voice I get when it’s both too cold and too dry for my diva of a larynx. In fact, generating pointless noise can make people ornery and hard to handle. Why would I want to rile a patron? (Don’t answer that.)
There’s another problem with using my voice at the desk: the patrons are right there. The patron computers are literally five feet away from my preferred computer station. That means that any conversation I have with a coworker (or another patron) is likely to be overheard, and with it, all of its sensitive personal information.
Because I’m a fairly self-conscious person, my initial worry goes along the lines of oh god, what if something I say offends people? This falls into the category of useful paranoias that I like to think has kept me out of a fair amount of trouble. I avoid all political and controversial subjects. When patrons want to talk, I try to steer the dialogue to library services or technology; when colleagues want to talk, we talk about pets, books, and kids. Intellectually, I know that I probably shouldn’t be saying anything to my colleagues when we’re on the desk together, but I feel the need to balance camaraderie and friendliness with circumspection. We only work well together if we’re on good terms, and that means being social, to an extent.
But privacy is still the best reason to watch your mouth in the reference room, and sometimes, the combination of the patrons themselves and the setup of a reference floor makes this difficult. Case in point: I once helped a patron who was looking for housing. They had multiple considerations and I struggled to find a solution that was right for them. We were working at a computer and there were other people around us. When the first patron became upset, another patron volunteered a personal recommendation for a housing counselor in the next town over. While this was very helpful, it also represented a potentially bad situation. Patron 1, who was in housing distress, did not want to talk to Patron 2, but not because they wanted to maintain privacy. Patron 1 had previously told me that they did not consider people of Patron 2’s ethnic group to be true Americans.
Luckily, the situation resolved without incident and everybody learned an important lesson about tolerance, prejudice, and how far off the rails things can go when patrons overhear your reference questions. I’d initially assumed that we needed to preserve Patron 1’s privacy over their housing needs, but when that privacy was breached, bigger problems became evident. I now think of privacy as a container that keeps all of a patron’s issues localized for a moment while we figure out how to handle their immediate issue. It’s wonderful that Patron 1 came away from that interaction with a broader mind, and I am still very grateful that Patron 2 was so patient and slow to take offense, but that conversation was a job for a consciousness-raising program, not a reference desk.
The real question is how we can mitigate eavesdropping in an environment where problems must usually be solved with computers and computers are necessarily clumped together. The kind of information that this puts at risk makes that anecdote above sound just delightful. People regularly describe their tax problems to me at the reference desk, and I have had patrons try to tell me their social security numbers. Many people come into the library for personal assistance with online job applications and end up discussing their home addresses, work histories, disabilities, and even conviction histories aloud. I try to seat patrons dealing with sensitive stuff away from others on the reference floor, but there’s no getting around it: when we’re full up, even a whisper is audible by whoever’s at the next computer over.
If I had my druthers, we would have a sensitive services area. It would contain two or three booths that close tight to mitigate or eliminate noise. There would be a computer in each one. You’d sign each booth out for an hour at a time, and once you were in, you could go to town. Scream at your insurance agent on your cell phone. Relay your social security number to whosoever you please. Call in a librarian and talk about researching your extremely personal illness or finding a lawyer to help you with your divorce or immigration.
“Telephone” booths are expensive nowadays, but there are DIY options for sound-dampening areas. (Personally, though, I’d spring for something with see-through windows, regardless of price. Safety first!) There could even be a specific laptop that patrons sign out when they want to use the phone booth so that regulars aren’t tempted to co-opt it for their Facebook-surfing needs.
Would people misuse a telephone booth? Obviously. Even if it’s in plain sight, couples will go in there, gamers will camp out to play Warcraft, and people suffering from paranoia will insist that it’s the only place they can safely check their email. But every privilege a library provides gets abused eventually. The point isn’t to keep services away from the 2% who will take advantage, but to make them available to the 98% who need them.
After all, as experience proves, I’m not the only one with a voice that carries.
Featured image from Room.com!
It just happened again. A patron grabbed my arm.
Most people have a little gauge in the back of their head. It indicates whether or not it is appropriate to touch somebody else in a social situation.
Police officer? Do not touch. Mom? Do touch. Bartender? Ask to touch. Librarian?
Experience suggests that some people think it’s totally OK to touch the librarian.
Patron touches happen way more often than I like. In fact, not a month goes by without some kind of surprise physical contact from someone I’m helping. This latest one, which happened less than an hour ago, came from a patron who referenced an autistic family member and therefore should have known not to touch strangers without asking.
I’ve experienced the following types of physical contact from patrons at various points in my career, all unsolicited:
- Arm grabbing
- Shoulder patting
- Hand holding
- Hand stroking
- A finger running up the back from lumbar to shoulders
- Knee to knee contact under a table
- Foot to foot contact under a table
Some of those were legit creepy sexual harassment attempts. But Anna, I hear you chirp. Hugs aren’t so bad. What could be so bad about an innocent little hug? Well it so happens that I’ve thought a great deal about this. Allow me to expound.
The Slippery Slope
If a patron is allowed to grab my arm without asking, I can at least expect more grabbing. I may also expect other types of escalation. The patron who stroked my hand in a disturbingly sexual way that was definitely and absolutely a bad touch? She’d started by brushing my arm to get my attention. While not all unwelcome patron contact comes with a preamble, I have noticed that a pushy patron will sometimes test the waters with casual contact before grasping, petting, and otherwise getting all up in my business. This isn’t uniformly the case. The particularly upsetting back-stroking incident, for example, happened as the patron in question basically ran by. Nevertheless, initial exploratory contact happens often enough that I now try to head it off at the pass with a polite but direct “Please don’t touch me.”
Respect The Librarian
Touching without asking indicates an inherent assumption of entitlement to the librarian. In this case, it’s not just that the patron considers themselves to have special social privileges that you do not have – because they do, that’s a given – but that you’re below the social level where they need to think of you as a human with preferences and concerns. It is a sad fact that some people afford more respect to expensive vases than they do to people who work service jobs. Unsolicited touching also implies that the patron assumes that there’s nothing you can do to protest their behavior if you happen to dislike it, so that possibility isn’t worth wondering about. They proceed to treat you like a thing, and a cheap thing at that, through the vehicle of unasked-for physical contact.
Inconsistency Is Doom
A patron came to the reference floor a couple weeks ago and ended up crying because of some unrelated life stresses. She then asked if she could hug me. I let this happen partially because she had asked nicely before just grabbing, but mainly because I was afraid of what would happen to her emotionally if I refused. It wasn’t a great experience, but I endured and nobody dissolved into actual screaming. Greater good served. However, what if that patron had been male? Call me sexist, but I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable hugging a man I didn’t know. That’s a policy based on my personal feelings! If I refused to hug a guy who knew that I’d agreed to hug a woman, I’d be revealing a prejudiced attitude on my part that could impact whether or not the patron continues to use the library. It’s also a good passive-aggressive way for a creepy guy to do his creepy thing and try to socially coerce a librarian into an uncomfortable situation.
I Just Don’t Like It
I don’t have autism and I wasn’t abused. I’m not trying to perform some hypermasculine butchness routine and I’m not too cool for normal people. I just like my personal space. I’m sure I’m not alone. You may feel differently. Feel free to share your strategies, philosophies, and thought on how to manage the touchy patron situation. However, no matter how you cut it, physical contact with patrons is not part of a public librarian’s responsibilities. Don’t let a patron edit your job description on the fly.
About 90% of my job is walking people through the printer instructions. We do have signage up and yes, people do read it. Or, at least, they claim that they do. In reality, many of them either miss the existence of the instructions or barely glance over Step One and then proceed to get themselves kerfuffled. At this point, I swoop in.
This situation with our printer illustrates the weaknesses of signage. There are a few major reasons that patrons don’t pay attention to our lovely written instructions, and they are as follows:
- The patron can’t read
- The patron can’t read English
- The patron is very tired
- The patron is young
- The patron is in a rush
- The patron has an intellectual disability
- The patron does not have reading glasses with them
- The patron is taking a medication that inhibits their cognitive or visual abilities
- The patron is sick
- The patron has a mental health problem
- The patron is in the early stages of dementia
- The patron is used to using a different kind of printing system
- The patron is lazy
- The patron is high
It’s important to note that patrons are rarely at fault. Most of the time, when patrons can’t understand the instructions, there’s either a language barrier or an intellectual problem like ADHD. Not that I’m qualified to diagnose, but there are a few clear ringers among my patronage.
Don’t misinterpret me here: signage is still extremely useful when it comes to our printer. During the start of my time at this library, patrons routinely tried to print $25 jobs at a go. Since our bill acceptor can only handle $5 at a time, this meant that the enormous $25 job in question was lost and there were tears and misery all around. Then we changed the default desktop background on all computers to a custom wallpaper. This was simply a banner that read The printer cannot accept jobs of more than $5. Please print in batches of 33 pages at most or see a librarian. Or something like that. We slapped our logo on there, made it a jpeg, and hid the file so that nobody could mess with it once we made it the default background. And it worked! Once in a blue moon someone won’t read the sign, but that’s usually younger patrons and people in a rush.
This particular situation is aided by the fact that most people who come into the library to print just want a couple sheets. If everyone needed to print dissertations, maybe we’d have a bigger problem. Even so, that sign was effective at reducing incidents. Posting the printer instructions next to the release station really has helped too. It just also happens to have highlighted the cases where the patron is having a bad time because their entire day is actually going badly. We have become printer paramedics: we only ever see the emergencies.
There’s an unintended consequence here that professionals need to be aware of. Signage is most useful for patrons who happen to have their shit together on the particular day that they’re using the printer, so you’re never going to interact with that set. Instead, as I mentioned before, you’ll primarily see people who are busy, frustrated, and are generally having a bad day. Over time, this will skew your perception of your patrons. I have days when I need to work hard to remember that I’m here to help people who need help. Of course I’m going to get difficult questions, cranky patrons, and people who just can’t do it. That’s why libraries still need that human touch! As a certain wise professor of mine once said, librarians, man.
It can be tiring to show people how to use the printer again and again. However, I believe that it’s made me a better librarian and a more empathic person. The only thing I’d change is my training. In all my years of grad school, where I built databases, crunched large sets, studied arcane cataloging techniques, and learned how to preserve vellum, I never received the training that would have come in most useful at this gig. Namely, social work training. How to recognize and manage a patron with such severe OCD that a crooked photocopy is cause for a meltdown. How to deal with a teen who’s mad about a printer because he’s just been passed over for adoption…again. The telltale signs of a patron who can’t read and doesn’t want you to know it – and how to help them without humiliating them.
God help me, but I think librarians need yet another degree.
A lot of the tech help that I perform is for my older patrons. A lot of these folks had never had an email account before they got Verizon or Comcast Internet service, which they only got in the first place because it came with their cable service.
Historically, I have had issues with how the Verizon and Comcast email services have operated.
- They just suck. The interfaces are confusing and unintuitive. They’re spam magnets. Even functionality is uneven. Attachments fail to send, device tie-in is weak, the service blocks random useful/important stuff, pages fail to load, etc. Problems! I have so many.
- When the Internet service ends, so does access to the email service.
How often did I wish for Verizon email to disappear forever! And of course, as of early 2018, it did. The company graciously admitted that there were “more capable” email services out there…because it had acquired one.
Verizon acquired AOL. AOL? Really? Yup.
Then it force-migrated all of its customers over, causing my elderly patrons to be terribly confused. AOL isn’t exactly the prince of email providers itself, but if it’s a frog then at least it’s a step up from the actual slug-on-a-hot-sidewalk email service that Verizon used to provide.
In fact, AOL seems to have improved things somewhat in terms of service quality. It appears that users can keep their AOL accounts after Verizon service termination even though their addresses would still read as “@verizon.net”. Apparently getting acquired by a powerful Internet provider has its perks.
So ultimately, I don’t have a problem with the fact that Verizon sent everyone to AOL. I have a problem with the fact that this is the tech landscape that my older patrons have to deal with. As far as most of them are concerned, using the Internet is like doing Crossfit: it looks cool, the results are often impressive, but they’d generally prefer not to participate. They won’t choose to switch email providers given a chance, and when it happens to them regardless, it just cements their already-established distrust of technology and sense of helplessness.
But it’s not optional. They can’t not have email. It’s their conduit to their families, how they request housing services, how they talk to their doctors, how they apply for jobs. And stuff like this will keep happening – the Internet is an unstable place and businesses (and email services) will come and go. If tech keeps advancing like it is now, I wonder what I’ll find bewildering when I’m 75 and how it will impact my own life. I suspect the key to avoiding my patrons’ fate is to use tech and keep using it, even if that means corneal implants and universal biometric ID. That’s going to require a sustained financial investment that librarian-me may one day be unable to afford, but that’s a topic for another post.
For my patrons, there’s no good solution except education, which of course I provide. It’s an issue that’s likely to keep my library in business for a long time. It’s not like there are basic tech classes out there for people who didn’t grow up with computers. It’s also a good answer to the flippant comments I get about library irrelevance.
Them: yuk yuk chuckle I didn’t even know we had libraries anymore guffaw!
Me: Who do you think taught your grandma to use Facetime?
On a side note, Verizon’s apparently acquiring parts of Yahoo too. Here’s hoping they fix the spam and scare page issues while not going mad with power and becoming a horrifying heterogeneous Internet monopoly that eats net neutrality laws for breakfast.