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.