“If you want to carry the world, do not tie it with a rope, otherwise the rope will break and the world will crush you.” – African proverb
Tell me if this feels familiar to you: you get into work full of hopes and dreams of what you’ll accomplish. You sip your coffee, write your to-do list, check email, still full of self-assurance that today will be the most productive day ever. Cut to the end of the day: you’re harried, disheveled, a shell of a person, and you have checked not one thing off your to-do list. What happened?
Just the other day I had the last hour of my day set aside for some good, hard, task driven work. You know what happened? We had a thunderstorm in February in Michigan which knocked our power out for about 10 seconds which subsequently knocked my work plans out for the next hour. There were patrons to help and automatic lights to fix and other sundry issues. I immediately felt that annoyance rise up: “This isn’t supposed to be happening right now! I had a plan!”
Often in library work, our days get away from us and we don’t get a single thing done that we planned on. And spoiler alert, I’m not here to tell you how to get through your to-do list in the face of such adversity. In all of my years (16) of working in libraries and in all of my various positions (eleventy billion/I’m too lazy to count) in special, public, and academic libraries I have come to believe that the unexpected is just a fact of library life.
If it’s not a power outage, the students you supervise need help or didn’t show up for their shifts. If it’s not student employees, it’s software that crashed or meetings that run long or your boss gives you an urgent task. And at the end of the day, after the inevitable pileup of interruptions, it can feel like you didn’t get anything done.
The key word in that last sentence is “feel like.” Lately, I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that my job is more than my to-do list, although that’s a part of it. My job is also my thoughtful contributions in meetings, my support of patrons in a crisis, my assisting coworkers in a pinch, and sometimes it’s turning on all the lights and making sure no one hurt themselves when the power went out. I’ve learned to shift my narrative a little bit and not tell myself I didn’t get anything done today when, in fact, I got a lot done today, just not what I had planned on. What are the stories you tell yourself at the end of the day? Are you giving yourself enough credit for the things you did, even if it doesn’t match your vision of what you had hoped to do? I’m willing to bet you got a lot done today and the library is better for having you in it.
A good friend recently shared a post on Facebook about Donald Vass, one of the last bookbinders in the business working at the King County Library System. She described the story as a “religious experience” and could not agree more. After watching the news segment, I immediately looked for more info on this guy and found this short video. The wisdom I experienced from Vass in about 13 minutes should keep me going for the rest of the year. As it was sung in Hamilton, “Let’s get this guy in front of a crowd” or at least a show on PBS. He needs to be a keynote at any and all library conferences.
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.
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.