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In the Trenches

Kelly Bennett —  February 12, 2014 — Leave a comment


If you ask your average library employee what they’d like in a manager, one of the answers you’re sure to get is “someone who works with us in the trenches”. Or something to that effect. I think we’ve all had that boss who sits in his or her office all day with no practical working knowledge of how things are going on the floor. It’s not exactly a morale booster.

I’m lucky enough to work in a library and a department that needs my contribution of time on-desk. I can’t imagine tweaking policies or making judgment calls on patron fees without my day to day experience working with the public. Besides the invaluable experience of knowing how your library actually works (and doesn’t work), putting some time in the trenches will also help you gain your employees’ respect. The next time you ask them to work an extra shift on-desk or deal with a difficult patron, they’ll know you’re asking them to do something you’re willing to do too. Here’s some ideas for getting out there in the mud! Leave your great ideas in the comments.

*Ask your colleagues what the busiest hour of the day is. Get on-desk during that shift. Find out for yourself what it feels like.

*Is there a dreaded task that no one likes to do at your library? Find out what it is and do it. Maybe there’s a way to make it less odious. Either way, you’ll give someone a break from it!

*Make the rounds in your library, especially during busy times. Our library has set up a schedule of rounds throughout the day where a staff member checks for safety, neatness, and cleanliness. It’s also a great way to make yourself available to patrons who might not come to a service desk to ask for help. Once again, if the boss is plunging toilets and cleaning up ink off computer desks, employees won’t feel so put upon when they have to, too.

*Shelve some materials. Has it been a long time since you were in contact with your collection? What better way to reacquaint yourself than to put things back on their shelves. This can also be a great way to spot issues and can be surprisingly mind-clearing.

*Take it one step further! Work like a patron!

Share Your Mistakes

Kelly Bennett —  October 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

oopsOur natural impulse when we make an error is to hide or minimize it. This is understandable, especially in a professional setting. But what if we openly shared our errors, flubs, and gaffs just as readily as we do our successes? What does that do for us as managers?

For one, it humanizes us. You don’t have to cry or mope about making a mistake, but you can show that it’s not how you would have liked things to have gone. Show your coworkers that you’re committed to avoiding and fixing your mistakes.

Another reason to share your missteps is so that others can learn. I have sent department or even staff wide emails that started with “So, here’s something that I messed up on…” plenty of times. I follow up a description of the error with how I solved or plan to solve the problem. It alerts my coworkers that this is an error *anyone* could make and that someone did! I think these stories are more productive than second hand ones or just simply sending out a reminder of a policy or procedure. Plus, doesn’t everyone love hearing about their boss screwing up occasionally?

Sharing mistakes can also prompt others to do the same. Maybe someone you supervise has been too embarrassed to admit that they think they’ve been giving library cards out to patrons that shouldn’t have them. This is a problem you’d like to hear about. If you share a flub in a way that admits fault, suggests a solution and keeps it as light as the situation allows, he/she may follow suit. You can take big strides toward creating an atmosphere of trust, honesty and problem-solving. The best thing about creating this kind of atmosphere is that you’ll work together to not only correct your mistakes, but put fail-safes and procedures to keep those mistakes from happening again.

Ever have a day when you’re looking at your to-do list wondering where to start? Or you’ve been puzzling over the same wording of a policy for a week? Walk away from your desk and do something physical.

I’m not necessarily talking about donning your leotard and jazzercizing, here, though that might be an option. I’m talking about doing a little manual labor around your library. When I’m feeling bogged down, I get up and process a new library item, or pull off old community bulletin board postings. Maybe there’s a small shifting project that will take five minutes, or some new books to be put on display; go for it! You’ll be surprised how mind-clearing it is to start and finish a small project in the space of a few minutes.

first aid

Recently, the director at my library arranged an in-service program with Common Ground, an organization in Oakland County, Michigan that helps individuals and families coping with mental illness and other crises. It centered around the idea of being a “mental health first responder,” who can give first aid to those experiencing mental health crises. Anyone who has worked in a library for even just a little while, will know that we are havens for people experiencing all sorts of mental health issues, from grief over a personal loss to schizophrenia and everything in between. Here are a few takeaways.

1. It’s not just for patrons.

When I came in for this class, I expected mainly to learn how to talk to patrons who might need me to direct them toward help for their crisis. What I learned not only made me more confident about talking with someone with mental health issues from across the desk, but in the rest of my life as well. Really listening, asking appropriate questions and providing support is useful in the conversations I have with everyone, even when the person I’m speaking with isn’t in crisis. Also, thinking and acting in this way might help you realize that someone you’re managing may be dealing with a problem you never noticed before. You might not need to help them with it, but your empathy will go a long way.

2. It’s hard to be mentally ill and people living with mental illness are incredibly brave.

I took part in a demonstration that really brought home for me what it’s like to live with mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. The instructor had me and a coworker pretend that we  had gone to high school together and had just run into each other for the first time in years. We sat and talked for a little while and then the instructor began whispering in my ear. He asked me why my friend wanted to know so much about me, and told me that my friend wanted to come to my house and hurt me.

By the end of the exercise, I was no longer “acting;” it was impossible for me to concentrate on both the voice in my ear and my conversation. Add to that the actual messages I was receiving and I felt legitimately agitated. Imagine living your life with symptoms and experiences that make you afraid, agitated, or sad for reasons others don’t seem to understand. The empathy that simple exercise gave me was so profound I find myself thinking of it all the time. I find myself imagining what it would be like to be in my patrons’ shoes more often now, and that makes interactions with the even the most difficult ones easier and generally more productive. They aren’t problems I have to deal with, but real people that might be coping with issues that are making their interactions with you problematic or even terrifying.

3. It’s important to fight the stigma of mental illness.

One of the most important things we can do for people with mental illness is work to fight the stigma. We’re not afraid to give support to someone with pneumonia, cancer or a broken arm, are we? Be supportive, talk openly, but with respect, and stop using negative terms like “crazy,” “nuts,” and “psycho.” Deal with people with mental health issues with empathy and patience and try to remember that even though they’re experiencing symptoms, a person with a mental illness still wants to be respected, heard and treated with kindness. Try your best not to act shocked, revolted or scared if someone reveals details of their situation to you. They’ve trusted you enough to do so, so reward them with a stable and caring face. Need extra time with a patron because of some of these issues? Ask for backup so you can calmly talk with them and figure out what they need.

4. Just like medical first aid, if it’s an emergency get trained help.

The steps we were instructed to take when giving mental health first aid: Assess for risk of suicide or harm; Listen nonjudgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help and Encourage self-help and other strategies. You will likely not be able to solve this person’s problem, but you can help put them on the path to doing so. We can’t all be trained psychologists, but, as librarians and public servants, we can provide support and information to people who need more help. After our in-service, one of our librarians put together a list of local shelters, emergency numbers and of course, Common Ground’s number for us all to have by our phones. Now we’re all more equipped to refer people in need.

5. Take time for yourself

Working with people can be rewarding but exhausting, especially if you’re keeping it cool while dealing with a person having a mental health crisis. After a stressful encounter, take some time to relax, do something you enjoy and talk to someone about your feelings related to the issue (don’t reveal personal information about a person who confided in you, though) if you need to.


This title is more than a little dramatic, but those of you who have the uncommon delight of meeting me in person know that this is perfectly appropriate for me. I would never have dreamed that a Circulation Assistant, without a Master’s at a Class IV library in Michigan would ever have been allowed, never mind welcomed at state-wide conferences let alone national ones. I was lucky to have been introduced to the world of library conferences by a former director who saw potential in me even though I felt under-qualified to attend, let alone present. I started out with a poster session where I honed my schmoozing skills. It was low-stress and I gained practice talking to people briefly about what I did. Then came the lone presentation at MLA. I’d built confidence and a small audience with my session and now knew the parts of my spiel that really grabbed people. My attendance wasn’t standing room only, but I drew some attention. It set me up for sharing a stage at a national conference (thanks Kevin!).

A major benefit of conferences is connecting with people. Nothing is more energizing than meeting new people who understand you, your work, your life, your challenges. Have you ever had that head-nodding moment with another library employee? You say two words, “copy machine” or “James Patterson” and you’re suddenly sharing the same head space, picturing that perfect frustration either of those phrases brings to mind. This is, at it’s most simplistic, why conferences are great. Yes, the sessions are frequently amazing, innovative, inspiring and brilliant. You come back to your town bursting with new ideas. Often, when I come back I come back bursting with experiences, they were just as likely gained from sitting in the hotel bar with one or two people as from sitting in a crammed conference room.

As managers we should take these networking opportunities when we can. But don’t forget to offer them to your staff, especially those who think they don’t qualify for such things. Who knows who will be inspired to be a department head, come up with an innovative program, present next year or even pursue their Master’s of Library Science.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons

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