Archives For Organizational Health

internship-imageOne of my very favorite parts of my job is working with Interns. My library employs three Library Science students as Interns. They work both independently and jointly at the Reference, Readers Advisory, and Youth services desks, and they participate in a variety of projects around the library. For example, they create displays, participate in outreach like school visits, help plan summer reading programs, teach computer classes, lead story times, and a pretty much anything else that interests them.

Interns report to me, the Head of Adult Services, as well as the Head of Youth Services. We manage their schedules and projects and make sure they are offered a variety of opportunities throughout their internship. That said, it is everyone’s job to mentor the Interns. The Librarians work with them at the service desks, share tips, techniques, and advice, and even turn over full projects to Interns. It is beneficial to both the Interns, who get to experience a wide variety of library services and programs as an employee and to the Librarians, who get the fresh perspectives and infectious enthusiasm of new professionals.

When projects are turned over to Interns, we let them make decisions with enough guidance so that they can be successful and also uphold the library’s standards. They often observe computer classes and other events before they lead them, talk about collection philosophy before making weeding and selection decisions, and look at bulletin boards and displays before creating them. We give them all the tools available and then let them run with their ideas. We genuinely want them to be successful, and of course, we want the library to be successful, so we share our experience and knowledge with them without holding back their creativity.

This is often Interns’ very first library job, so we do our best to minimize the fallout of hellomynameistheir failures. They will fail in all the ways Mary mentions in her post Everyone Needs a Librarian in Their Corner, so it is up to us to make sure that those failures are not because we didn’t warn them or stop them from making a mistake we saw coming. Part of the lesson is that “you win some, you lose some” and it is ok to fail. Failure, where Interns are concerned, usually comes in the form of no attendance at a program they planned, a patron asking for a book they weeded right after they weeded it, a typo on a bookmark, or an awkwardly-presented storytime or computer class. (In other words, the same things that we all fail at from time to time!)

Being an Intern is as much about learning to do the job of a professional Librarian as it is about learning to be a good employee. We teach them the importance of showing up to work on time, thorough communication, and asking for help when help is needed. They are never treated as “minions” or “lackeys.” They are our future colleagues, and we respect their input and appreciate their drive. We provide them with as many learning opportunities as possible, and we also provide moral support for both their graduate studies in library science and the projects they take on at our library. There is no “us and them” between the professional staff and the Interns – they are “us!”

We provide them with networking opportunities as well. They are encouraged to attend conferences, workshops, webinars, staff in-services, and cooperative level meetings. When they go into the library world for their first professional job after their Internship, they will have already been introduced to our colleagues and shown an interest in an area of specialty. Internally, too – anything they see happening at the library that they want to get involved with is fair game, no matter what department it comes from. Any idea they have for something new will be considered the same way any new service, program, or collection is considered from other staff. We hope that they will form relationships with staff members across departments to become well-rounded professionals when they finish their internship.

It is crucial that we spend time supporting and mentoring the next generation of professionals. Our library is fortunate to be in a position where we can pay for three student Internships at any given time. We are honored to give back to the profession! Interns bring so much to us, keeping us updated in trends in librarianship that are being taught in library schools, inspiring us to do our very best work as good role models, and just generally being helpful.

self-care-in-addiction-recoveryI think it’s safe to say that a lot of us had a rough 2016. For those of us that interact with the public for the majority of the day, a charged, political atmosphere gave many of us an added challenge during desk shifts.

It’s important to say that my personal politics do not affect how I speak to patrons, and I think the same can be said for most of us. As librarians, we should be giving patrons the same quality of assistance regardless of how we feel about them personally, whether we agree or disagree with them. It is our job to be helpful and impartial.

However, while we are able to control how we react to a reference interview, there is a lot we cannot control about how the patron perceives us, or what kind of opinions or emotions they bring with them into the library.

When there is conflict all around us – all over the media, in our community spaces, maybe even in some of our homes – no matter which side you identify with, we cannot take for granted that any interaction will mean the same thing to both of the people in it. There is an added layer to how we react and the potential for escalation.

Navigating that minefield can be tiring. Sometimes being civil is difficult, and sometimes being reasonable doesn’t feel especially satisfying. But, because we are professionals, we bite our tongues and do our best. I feel like I did more of that in 2016 than in previous years.

As a manager, I have noticed how tired my staff is. I think 2016 has taken a toll on everyone. We talk about it a lot off the desk. This intangible atmosphere brought on by the minefield is the only thing that has changed, so it’s what I believe I can attribute it to.

My goal for 2017 is self care. The election is over, but my community still feels very charged and hyper-aware of our differences. Between needing to build our strength reserves back up and looking forward to providing all of our services with energy and compassion, we need to pay attention to how well we are taking care of ourselves.

In my never-ending quest to make my workplace a space where people enjoy spending 40 waking hours every week, I recently resolved to check in with staff more often, and those meetings will be good outlets. There isn’t much I can do about how much time people spend out on the desk interacting with the public, but I can encourage staff to be self-aware and ask for help when they need it.

I’ve seen relief come in many forms – sometimes you just need someone to make you laugh, or reassure you that not every interaction will feel so draining. We can share and emphasize the positive interactions we have with patrons. As a manager, I can make every effort to honor staff requests for vacations when they need them, and recognize urgency when it’s in front of me.

Trust in the Library

Jessica Jones —  January 12, 2017 — Leave a comment

Bookshelves with bright lightbulb and title Trust in the LibraryLibrarianship is one of the most trusted professions. Our patrons trust us; the public trusts us; but, what do we do when we have trust issues within the library itself?
When I was the director at a small college library, we had trust issues within the institution. Significant ones. I managed this by working to make the library “campus Switzerland” and actively avoided the academic politicking that was happening at the time. In keeping the library a safe space, we thrived in comparison to many other departments. We still felt the effects of the larger institutional issues, but it was mitigated considerably by everyone making efforts to keep divisive issues out of our space.

Having already learned that lesson, my next position at a public library followed what I understood to be a very contentious manager, over a bigger staff than I had at the college. These were mostly site-specific issues, and, without the threats of employment termination and organized protests (the college was an adventure), I made the mistake of underestimating the problem at the public library. I thought that if I were proactive in repairing the damage previously done to the manager position, while forging positive relationships with my new staff, that other issues would gradually untangle.

To a degree, they did. I did individual interviews with each staff member, made an affinity wall, improved some IT processes, implemented a new chat program so that communication between separate desks would be more fluid, and troubleshot acute issues as they arose.

The thing is, trust issues don’t often correct themselves. Few problems do. When a manager instigates conflict in their staff, they don’t just compromise the staff’s relationship with the manager. They also compromise the staff’s relationships with other staff.

This feels obvious in retrospect. It was pointed out by a staff member who came to me to talk about trust in our building and the patterns she was noticing. I am not happy with myself for not seeing this earlier. This is the part of introspection that is more disappointing than insightful, but the two sides are equally important. It’s how we learn to do better.

It is our job as leaders to be responsive and our duty as fellow humans to be empathetic.At the college, I was partly successful because of my own efforts, but, in hindsight, I recognize that some of it was also fortuitous timing. The problems at the college were not endemic when I arrived, and I was able to get out in front of them to minimize damage. I cannot manage my current staff’s trust issues the same way I managed my former staff’s. Trust is complicated. It is multi-faceted and affects every possible permutation of involved parties. When you have a big staff, like I do now, it will be an ongoing struggle. It would be short-sighted to underestimate these issues.

So what do you do when you finally see the problem?

I am in the process of figuring that out, but I have some ideas. You know those terrible trust exercises that everyone hates? They have a purpose: to give people an opportunity to test their relationships in a controlled environment. We will also be having more staff meetings where we prioritize and facilitate discussions regarding personal conflicts in the professional sphere. I am scheduling follow-ups with individual staff members to talk about their needs and insecurities. And, I’m asking my staff to be active participants in helping themselves.

images-2Talking crap about patrons, as I’ve said before, might be the number one barrier to customer service in libraries. And when we talk about customer service we don’t just mean personal interactions at the public service desk – that’s the tip of the iceberg. We mean policies, procedures, services: from design to implementation. And sadly, a culture of patron negativity melts the iceberg (and prevents innovation).

Some examples (write yours in the comments):

Public service desks that look like military forts
I’m sure there’s some historical reason for gigantic public service desks – like we didn’t have computers back then or whatever – but c’mon. My library has an AV desk (“AV”, by the way, stands for “audiovisual”…that’s another discussion). Anyway, the AV desk is so large that helping a patron involves taking a short jog around the block. Showing the patron where a movie is – a hallmark of good customer service – is a chore, and leads to missing phone calls. The desk is high, making the patron feel small and submissive. To make the barrier worse, the desk is littered with signage, usually negative. Reduced visibility reduces eye contact, one of the most important customer service interactions. It’s passive aggressive and we unconsciously do it, but people are smart and get the message. And that’s the most harmful part: we don’t trust you, this is my space, I’m busy. As I sit at my public service desk this morning (a Law Library), I measure the desk to be six feet across. That could be a good thing; that’s a lot of space for the patron to see me, approach me, ask me a question. However, with all the stuff – let’s call them unconscious barricades – we are left with a small window of 13 inches! I sit behind a wall of unconscious barricades. It’s time for small, personal, flexible, inviting, open public services points.

Having a “Scissor Policy”
When people need to use scissors at the library, we tell them our policy. Immediately grown men and women become five years old. We tell them to only play with the scissors at the desk so we can watch them. This is actually very funny to me – and the comedic value almost outweighs the harm to the customer – but the message is clear: we don’t trust you. Perhaps they could stab someone in the throat or worse: go on a book-cutting rampage!  Probably this happened 10 years ago (the cutting, not the stabbing) and we designed a policy to stop it from happening 10 years from now (some of our materials, you know, are irreplaceable). Designing for the exception, rather than the rule, as my colleague Kevin King would say.

That’s worth repeating. How many of our policies or services are designed based on exceptions, based on what might happen, based on what a patron might do, based on a philosophy of the lowest common denominator and an intense love and ownership of our materials!

Littering the Building with “No” Signs
I’ve yet to see any evidence that people read these signs, care about these signs and, more importantly, follow these signs. Experiment: try several months without the signs and compare to several months with them. Signs are the ultimate passive aggressive librarian response to not engaging with people or talking to them on a human level. How many meetings have you been in that went like this: (1) complaint about particular patron (2) someone suggests: maybe we should have…a sign? If libraries absolutely need a sign that attempts to control behavior in the building, then a positive sign is a much nicer and more effective. Again, treating people like children is a classic symptom of patron bashing, of a negative culture, of a particular mindset towards the people we serve. The Marketing Team, with a strong customer service bent, should have complete control of signage at the library.

Having Items or Services Behind the Desk
Anytime we make it harder for a patron to access a service, we should think hard and ask questions. I’m currently working on a project to lend Urban Fiction Kindles to patrons. Should they be displayed in the public space, away from staff, with the books, checked out by patrons themselves? Our immediate knee-jerk reaction is no, that they’re too precious, that people will steal them. Where is the stapler located? By the printer or behind a desk? Are there magazines or books people have to ‘check out’? Does the cost of replacing that Consumer Reports ($4) outweigh the cost of treating people like kids? (and wasting staff time). Do some Branches have special services that other Branches do not? Years ago, because of theft, we transferred our video games to a different Branch. That’s potentially problematic. Stealing happens, and we assume it will, and these are hard decisions to make, but everything has a cost. Security is part of the design phase of any service – not a reaction after-the-fact.

The 100 Other Services that were Never Considered
Patron Bashing stifles creativity and innovation, so my point is not to talk about a silly stapler behind a desk (my red stapler). I care about the services that weren’t thought of. We’ve all been in meetings like this: (1) good idea that serves a need (2) patron negativity (3) idea dies. A culture that lifts up our patrons, that cares and respects them as people, that designs services for the 99% rather than the 1% – that is a progressive library.

photo credit: BRICK 101 Facial animation cycle via photopin (license)

photo credit: BRICK 101 Facial animation cycle via photopin (license)

Patron Bashing – a.k.a. venting, ruminating, letting off steam, gossiping – is a huge problem in the library profession. To me, it’s nothing short of the number one barrier to providing excellent customer service. Front line staff, librarians, managers, directors – we all are do it. And we do it a lot. Every single day.

And I’m not here to shame anyone. I used to do it as much as anyone else, probably more so (my first library job was a security guard, after all). I’m here to understand it, to make an attempt at explaining it.

The first step is admitting we have a problem, individually and collectively. I think that’s the easy part.

The second step is understanding why we do it. This is how we move beyond it. The simple and naive answer would be this: we talk badly about patrons because patrons really are bad, or difficult, or [insert generalization here]. In other words, I’m not making this stuff up! Unfortunately that’s false. I would confidently estimate that 99 percent of our everyday patron interactions are either (a) positive or (b) neutral and unmemorable. That leaves 1% of patrons who are difficult, or break the Rules of Conduct, or give you a hard time, or puke on the floor. As a fun experiment, urge your staff members to make a tally sheet, to measure objectively their patron interactions for a particular day. They will be surprised.

Moreover, I have yet to come across any data to suggest that patrons are different than any other people, demographic or otherwise. If you come across such data, let me know. Patrons are people, just like us – people who walk into the library and use it. Yet we constantly get subliminal messages from library staff, library blogs, books about libraries, and even staff training that patrons are mentally unstable, or homeless, or dirty, or criminal, or rude, or liars, or stupid.

Let’s think deeply about why Patron Bashing exists.

  1. Negativity Bias

    Psychology tells us that our memories are hard-wired to remember negative experiences rather than positive ones. And we sure as heck don’t remember neutral experiences. Negativity bias, an evolutionary gift, has survival value – that’s why we have it. It’s far better to remember that our cousin was killed by a lion than to remember he wasn’t killed by a gazelle. We need to recognize this defect and move beyond it.

  2. Confirmation Bias

    Another well studied defect in human thinking, confirmation bias starts with an assumption, or narrative, or thesis: patrons are crazy, for example. Then, we only select those experiences and observations that conform to that worldview. We stockpile crazy patron stories while ignoring the rest. We do this all the time, in various aspects of our life.

  3. Group Think

    Sociology tells us that, when we get into groups, we tend to go with the flow. We go along with things, agree to things, engage in things we would never dream of doing. Patron Bashing spreads like wildfire because of this. It only takes one or two people to get the ball rolling. Pretty soon, the entire work environment is a patron bashing factory. Nobody wants to be the person to stand up and say: this isn’t right. And I don’t blame them; it’s hard.

  4. Racism and Classism

    Patron Bashing reminds me of racism in two ways. First, they are both based on false stereotypes about a group of people. “Black men are dangerous” is like “Patrons are crazy.” Both are false, and both perpetuate and fuel the oppression. Second, patron bashing reminds me of racism when it frankly is racism. Sometimes patron bashing is nothing more than a disguised way to talk negatively about people of color. Don’t believe me? If you were google the phrase “crazy library patrons,” you would immediately find the blog “Crazy Library Shit,” in which is a young pretty white librarian loathes her job and makes fun of black folks, using coded and harmful words like crackheads, Madea, in da Hood, gang wars, etc. Similar to racism but different, there’s also a socio-economic sort of snobbery going on, too. Privileged librarians with jobs tend to look down on “the public,” which is a kind of classism.

A humble look at our flaws as human beings makes us better people. The psychologist Carl Jung said this was the hardest thing for people to do. But when it comes to patron bashing, I believe this is the first step to ending the practice. I won’t go into alternative strategies here or positive ways to deal with difficult patrons – that’s another article, another Staff Day talk – but I will suggest the best way to stop talking crap about patrons is to stop talking crap about patrons!