I like to tell people I am a rule breaker. It makes me sound like a trailblazing bad ass. Actually, I am a rule follower, but my rules (and my manager’s) are usually the same: Do what is best for the patron/customer. If we can help, we help. If we can’t, we research and refer people to those who can.
Holly Hibner (my Awful Library Books partner) and I worked side by side for about ten years. We were both relatively new to library work and we were the adult services department for a smallish library. Holly was the boss, and her rule was very much “make it work.” We broke rules all the time. Here are some of the rules we broke without a moment of hesitation:
- Extending lending time to a patron who would be out of town when the books were due
- Letting a student take a reference book home over the weekend
- Proofreading a cover letter and resume for a patron
- Organizing tax forms for a patron
- Helping someone with poor eyesight fill out a medical form
- Making inquiries about food stamps, unemployment benefits, social security and other matters
- Help a patron place an online order with their credit card
Too often I have seen librarians shy away from extra steps like these because they seem like “too much,” or require the library to shoulder too much responsibility to the patron. I have even heard some librarians say they would be legally liable for a patron when handing out tax forms or helping someone proofread. This is utter nonsense. I even checked with an attorney since more than few people told me that it was true. (By the way, handing out health info or tax forms does not make you a doctor or a lawyer, it makes you a librarian.)
Rules are in place to make the library function efficiently and fairly. They are not created to make the librarian’s job easier. Of course, not everyone feels comfortable with every patron question or request. Holly and I both shuddered a bit when we were asked by a patron to provide an opinion on whether a certain profile picture looked “slutty” enough. Hiding behind a rule is no excuse for not being available to your patrons. Librarians don’t get to choose what questions they like to answer. If they think there is a better source of information than they can provide, they should refer, which is helpful. More often than not, though, we can do more than we are offering. There is a difference between referral and “passing the buck.”
Of course, breaking the rules is easy when there is a small staff and they know the regulars and can make judgments on extending the rules. Larger libraries do have to consider the impact of a decision on other departments and people. Librarians, regardless of the kind or size of the library, should continually question and evaluate procedures and policies. Are they working? Do they fix a problem? As communities and libraries evolve, so must the rules. If no one can point to why a rule or procedure exists, it is time to reconsider.