truth

Just short of one year ago, I wrote a post for this blog called “Why I’m Leaving Libraries for the Convent“. You can read it. It’s pretty good. You don’t need to read that to understand this. But you should still read it. (I’m trying to increase my hit count).

I really did leave libraries for a convent. I was in nun pre-training for 10 months. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and also the most joyful. I didn’t flunk out. I didn’t find out some horrible secret. It was a wonderful and beautiful place that wasn’t for me – like that guy that you know is great, but you know you just don’t love. So I left at the beginning of June. I found a part-time job as an Adult Librarian at a local library. I’m not sure how much more I want than that right now. I’m happy.

For those ten months, I worked in a home for the “indigent elderly”, which is a nice way of saying women who do not have the resources or family assistance to spend the rest of their lives anywhere but a nursing home. We allow them to live, for free, in home care with a retinue of volunteers and live-ins to love and care for them.

I did a lot of things that I thought impossible. Most of them involved smelly or bloody things. Still, the most impossible thing? I fell in love with each of the three women in our house. It really made everything harder because I wanted the best for them. But, these are adult women, 2 to 3 times my age — what might be best for them in my eyes, is often not what’s best in their eyes. Phrases like, “Are you sure that you want that cookie?” and “It’s your meds, you don’t want to take them that’s your choice” often came out of my mouth. That was my way of expressing the truth without confrontation or acting passive-aggressively if you will. The truth was I thought that what I had was better for them than what they were choosing. So, I had to learn this lesson: Speak the truth in love.

See, I totally tricked you into almost reading the Bible there. That line is drawn from Ephesians 4:15 (Book Chapter: Verse):

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

There I really did trick some of you into reading the Bible!

I know that I cannot get us all behind the whole sentiment of this verse. Some people are probably trying to wash their eyes out and muttering slanderous things about me under their breath for making them read that verse. My response to them is, “look, if you can quote Twilight on your Twitter feed, then I can quote the Bible in my blog post.”

Back to the point. What I found over the last year is that true servant leadership is intertwined with this one line: “Speak the truth in love“. Working the reference desk is a constant attempt to find the right way to do this.

“No sir, unfortunately your hygiene is causing a problem for other people, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave for until you can correct the issue.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand that your friend’s mole looks just like that cancerous one on Google images, but unfortunately I am not a doctor so I can’t call to tell her that.”

“Sadly, no. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer is not in the biography section. It is over here in the fiction section. Let me show you.”

How do you tell someone a hard truth? Something that you know that they do not want to hear? Speak the truth in love.

Don’t pussy-foot around it. You are doing no favors for them, for yourselves, or for other people at your library. Alternately, don’t take great pleasure or joy in it. Speak with tact and grace that transforms into genuine caring for another person’s well-being. Speak the truth in love.

Every library manager knows this, too. A large portion of management is learning how to navigate difficult situations with tact and grace.

“Jeanine, I know that things have been hard at home lately. Unfortunately, by coming in late and leaving early you’re compromising your effectiveness and that of your co-workers. Is there a way that we can work out a more convenient schedule during this time?”

“Bob, will you please read this section of the employee handbook? See here, jean shorts are actually against two portions of the dress code: no denim and no shorts. I can see why you like them, they’re very flattering, but maybe we can arrange for you to have a locker so you can change at the beginning and end of your shift?

“Sarah, please stop picking your earwax during televised Library Board meetings. Here, have some hand sanitizer.”

Ok, I haven’t actually had to say any of these things to employees in the past, which is more than I can say for the three reference desk examples.

Many managers have a fear of confronting employees about problem behavior. The same can be said for librarians who will not confront difficult patrons. We think that, somehow, letting people engage in bad behavior is better than talking to them about it. “Maybe he won’t smell as much tomorrow?” “Perhaps Jeanine’s family issues will sort themselves out soon?” “Maybe it will be too cold for Bob to wear his shorts to work?” Let’s be clear, Bob’s legs look great in those shorts, and he is going to keep wearing them unless you tell him otherwise. And he’s hurting your library and your staff while they wonder, “are his legs naturally hairless?” and “woah, where was he keeping that yardstick?” By avoiding telling people the truth, you are not loving them. You are not sparing them. You’re letting them walk down a path that may lead to shame, ridicule, or even termination.

Others librarians have the opposite problem. Perhaps in their discomfort with confrontation or perhaps because they’re a little bit of a sociopath, they are blunt and harsh with patrons or employees. “Jeanine, show up on time tomorrow or you’ll be fired.” “You smell. Leave immediately, or I’ll call the police.” “Yeah, we’ve established what cancerous moles look like, so there is nothing else that I can do. Please leave so that I can I page lazily through Publisher’s Weekly.” Speaking the truth is not enough. We must accompany it with an acknowledgment that the people that we see every day, co-workers or patrons, they are real people who deserve our love and respect.

Not sure how to have respect for other people? Fake it until you make it. Imagine what excuse you’d make for yourself if you were seen doing the same thing, and apply it to them in your mind. “Oh, you know, he probably just came from the gym.” “That guy is likely just confused because Abraham Lincoln was really so mythically awesome that he must also be a super-hero.”

With my ladies at the home for the elderly, I had to learn to say, “Ma’am, I love you and I would like you to take your meds because I want you to be happy and healthy. That being said, please eat a cookie instead if that is what will make you happy. You have the right to make that choice.” Speak the truth in love.

This is our call and our mission as librarians. It is a profession more about people than it is about books. We want to be there for our employees, our co-workers, and our patrons. To all those people that we encounter in the day to day, we are called to this: Speak the truth in love.

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I’ll never forget creating a Staff Day presentation titled “Customer Service is Loving People,” filled with all sorts of ideas about empathy, love, MLK quotes, and references to historical and philosophical figures. Before clicking ‘save’ on the PowerPoint presentation, I thought: am I really going to do this? Could this be the corniest presentation of all time? (the corniest LL&F post of all time?!) Am I one of those weirdos at Staff Day that we all make fun of later on? Alas, I felt compelled. I literally opened my talk with this: “I was going to talk about Customer Service, but I cannot…”

After thinking about it for several years, and after serving on our Customer Service Committee at KPL, I truly believe empathy is the holy grail of customer service and, being a simple person, I prefer to focus on that alone. All of us who serve people – whether that be students, library patrons, or middle aged women getting skinny vanilla lattes – we all need to consider how we treat them, how we think about them; and, ultimately, how and if we love them.

  • Do you care about the members of your library? All of them?

  • Do you find yourself thinking about patrons most of the time (positively, not negatively)?

  • Do you treat users as you would treat yourself, your family, your friends?

If so, you are giving good customer service, probably great. And you are probably a good person to boot. Similarly, leaders should be judged in proportion to how much they inspire others to care for patrons. I find a direct correlation between moral virtues and professional ones – and here is a good example. Empathy crosses the boundaries.

Customer service is empathy. And empathy is morality, and morality is life. Some things in life have simple answers, and this might be one of them. Maybe it’s not about eye contact, and smiling, and body position, and the reference interview, and re-stating the question, and following up, and saying the proper things. Maybe those are peripheral. Maybe those are symptoms of customer service; they flow from it and cannot be forced, cannot come from nothing. As Rene Descartes would say, let’s get to first principles. Customer service is a genuine concern. You can’t fake it. People are smart. They know if you care about them or not. And if you care, you will make eye contact, you will smile, you will follow up. I’ve seen it so many times. Caring for customers is the worldview that creates excellent customer service experiences, both on the front end and the back end, both in person and when designing service, spaces, policies, procedures. Everything that psychology has to say about a healthy relationship – empathy, trust, communication, love – applies equally to patrons, customers, users, members, and co-workers.

Well, okay, maybe love isn’t the whole story. Loving alone sometimes isn’t enough. We can have the best of intentions and still design a terrible service for library users. For example, it’s great to care about people who prefer large print books, and those people exist no doubt. But should you double the size of your Large Print collection? Probably not (in fact, it might be too big). Without knowledge, love can be blind. We have to know what patrons – specifically and collectively – actually want. We have to look at data, crunch numbers and interpret statistics on occasion. We have to get to know people, ask questions, think critically, do focus groups. Martin Luther King Jr. once said (oh great, now he’s quoting MLK?) that in order for the heart to be in the right place, the head must be in the right place. I agree. Perfect customer service is when the heart meets the head on an organizational level.

If you work at a library, you need to figure out which side you’re on. If you don’t love patrons, you are getting in the way of progress. If you love patrons, let’s roll up our sleeves, learn, and create amazing services and spaces for the people we care about.

img_0366When it comes to book displays at the library, I find there to be two different philosophies or approaches. Most people lean towards one or the other, but not both. First, we have the “Save-a-Book” displays, where we highlight older, less popular books, usually from the regular stacks, usually based on a subject (Puppies, True Crime), a season (Beach Reads), or a heritage month (Black History). I would say the most extreme (and irrational) examples of these”Save-a-Book” displays are books that are about to get weeded (“Last Chance!”), or books that have blue or pink covers (please don’t do that…it really makes no sense).

Second, and less prevalent in libraries, are what I call popular displays (for lack of a better term). These are displays that highlight what people already want or probably want. I’m not talking about bestsellers or books that you automatically get 50 copies of, but popular midlist titles nonetheless. From a process standpoint, popular displays have a completely different workflow. Rather than gathered up after the fact on the back end, these are new books that get ordered to go on the display. They get selected, processed, and cataloged as display items. They can last for a few months to several years, and they require weekly upkeep to weed and keep tidy. They are like a fire, constantly being stocked and fed. They are new, clean, popular, and waiting for the patron when they walk in. And they do incredibly well.

You can probably already tell which one I prefer. I find that subject based displays are hit
or miss at best. They tend to be a lot of work for a little payoff in circulation. While I think most displays should be popular, I also think some displays have an important place in libraries. For example, we do displays for all the heritage months – Black History Month, American Indian Month. That’s important. Or displays that support social justice initiatives (e.g., “Libraries Stand Tall,” a display supporting immigrants). Whether popular or not, those have social value and should be highlighted. Although, as a side note, we should make an effort to represent all people in our popular dimg_0367isplays as well, not just relegated to special months. Let’s integrate displays the best we can. For example, I’m considering a popular “Heard on NPR” book display. Not only will it be popular, it will be relatively diverse as well.

Last thought: in my experience, Staff Picks displays are a slam dunk. Not only are they the best form of readers’ advisory, not only are they fun for staff, not only do patrons appreciate our selections, but they circulate well.

How to Beat the Winter Blues

hhibner —  February 10, 2017 — 2 Comments

 

young women reading in the show with title How to Beat the Winter Blues

I consider myself very fortunate to be quite healthy mentally. I do not suffer from anxiety or depression and am generally quite well adjusted. I do, however, find myself a little more on edge this time of year. Season affective disorder, maybe? I wouldn’t say it hinders me from doing my job, but I could definitely use an attitude adjustment right around the third week of January! My threshold for discomfort, my ability to take on new challenges, and my general excitement for my job wane. I am human, after all.

Some strategies I use to combat the winter blues include:

Exercise

It releases endorphins. It makes you feel good. It gives you energy.

Go outside

Get some sunshine. One of my co-workers religiously goes for a walk every afternoon, and that is just the smartest idea. I like to walk on my mornings off, but her dedication is even more effective.

Minimize stressful situations

Of course, this is good advice year round, but I have a better ability to deal with things the rest of the year, so in January I need to even more actively avoid stress! According to my Birkman, when stressed I am likely to become distracted and indecisive. I should avoid huge projects where decisions are necessary and situations where I need to focus very carefully. Unfortunately, we are in the throes of strategic planning at my library right now, and January is also employee performance review time, and next week I will experience my first ALA Midwinter conference as a Councilor-at-Large. I can’t avoid any of those things, so I need to approach them in a careful way where I have a lot of time to plan and think and be my usual introverted self. My comfort zone is…well, comforting when I’m stressed.

Build in fun

The parts of my job that I love the most are working with Interns, weeding my collections, and being on-desk. I do more of these things this time of year because they make me happy. For me, these are low stress and high reward activities.


As a leader, I also need to recognize that my co-workers may be suffering more this time of year too. I need to give them what they need, and encourage them to take walks and be healthy. I also need to help them to understand why I may be a bit more prickly than usual.

Nothing personal, it’s just February.

vintage-boxing-corner-and-stool-allan-swart

One of my beloved minions is stepping into the fracas of library service and I thought this would be a good time to review those items that will frustrate even the most experienced librarian.  Do I have the magic answer?  A no-fail process or procedure?  Not at all.

What I do have is a list of things that you cannot possibly control, no matter how good you are and how well you know the situation. The only thing that I can promise is that you will get better coping with the unknowns in your professional life. I also know that even the most talented, laid back person in the world will have days where coping is just not happening.

2016 (and while we are counting, 2015 too) were both years in my life that were rough. I had a lot of unfixable problems and I worried too much. I also have serious regrets for not recognizing problems ahead of time, underestimating situations, and over-reacting (or under-reacting) to situations both professionally and personally. I am always Monday morning quarterbacking the “should have” and “could have” of just about any project or program. Maybe if I spent more time on “X” it would be better. I am sure everyone does this from time to time. The danger is when you can’t get past the mistakes, and worse, the perceived mistakes, and you find yourself stuck. I still struggle with this after nearly 20 years in library service.

For new librarians it is important you know from the start that no matter how much preparation you do, things will go wrong and you will make mistakes. Even experienced people working in a new situation will have the same things happen that a rookie might face. Lack of experience can work hand-in-hand with chaos. So, newbies, with all my apologies to Ranganathan and his five laws, here are the real laws of library science:

  • There will always be someone who makes things more difficult in your work life. It could be a co-worker, patron, or boss. It might even be all three.
  • At some point, someone will blame you for something.
  • No matter how many signs you hang, training opportunities you offer, processes in place, etc. there will always be people who won’t read a policy/procedure or a sign or attempt training (or even Google a solution) to address a problem.
  • No matter how many signups there are or reminder calls you make, the headcount will never be predictable.
  • You will misinterpret a directive or an instruction from a supervisor or misunderstand a patron’s request.
  • You will bite off more than you can chew.
  • Someone will complain about something.
  • You will forget something important or miss something that should have been obvious.
  • Someone will mess with your budget.
  • You will probably burst into tears or have murderous thoughts about something or someone at work.
  • You can do everything right and it will still turn out awful.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though! Try these strategies for coping:

  • First, just assume everything will go bad and try and plan accordingly.
  • Be an active listener. Take copious notes and confirm your understanding of a problem by following up with an email or conversation
  • Be kind and give the benefit of the doubt to your co-workers, patrons, and bosses.
  • Make sure you connect with other librarians regularly and share your frustrations. Even in a small library you can ask for opinions in library forums or social media. I also meet regularly with a group of library workers that are not employed at the same library as me, and we have an agreement that nothing goes outside our group. They have been my go-to group for support. They are also a good reality check when I think I am losing my mind. Newbies, particularly, need to be able to touch base with more experienced librarians as a sounding board. (Caveat: Don’t get sucked into negativity with someone heading toward burnout.)

Libraries work because of collaboration. Take this to the next level by sharing concerns with your fellow professionals. Be supportive and forgive slights, knowing that no one is perfect. Don’t assume you know all the facts, and remember that no one ever has ALL the facts.

Because everyone needs a librarian in their corner.