Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What They Didn't Teach In Library School: Mousy & Mild Won't Cut It

'What They Didn't Teach In Library School' is a series of guest-authored posts,
written by YA Librarians from around the country, highlighting situations or skills
that were never addressed in formal Library School, but that are integral to librarianship.
Mousy and Mild Won't Cut It
by Stephanie Sweeney

My favorite professors have always been the ones who explain how it works in the real world. I understand theory is important, but sometimes it isn’t practical. I learned all the basics in library school about how to run a library, but patron interaction strategies were limited. I don’t recall much beyond the “reference interview.” However, the people skills that are required for dealing with patrons on a daily basis are critical to maintaining a positive and effective library.

Dealing with strangers does not come naturally to all of us. I will be the first to admit that while I will take on leadership roles and have no problem instructing a class, confrontation or initiating conversation with a stranger is not on my Top 10 list of fun things to do. If you want a strongly worded blog post or letter, I’m your gal. Lobbying legislators face to face? Not my skill set. It has been a long time since I have been described as mousy and feel that I have grown out of this issue to a certain extent as I grow older, but it still pops up now and then. So, why is this an issue in librarianship?

There is a stereotype that librarians are mousy, timid people. Now, you and I both know that isn’t true. Well, most of the time. If you are going into librarianship you need to understand something - you are going to be dealing with people. A lot of them. On a daily basis.

Librarianship, unless you are in a back room cataloging or digitizing, is not for the timid. And certainly don’t go into Children’s and Young Adult librarianship if you aren’t ready to corral toddlers during storytime or stand up to the teen boy who is towering over you. Kids are cute and teens are quirky, but they are also fickle, loud, energetic and travel in packs, so you will most likely be outnumbered at any given time.

Each interaction with a patron is a different experience. They will be irate, needy, happy, confused, in a hurry, and myriad other moods. Librarianship is customer service and sometimes you just have to bite your tongue and smile. Public relations is an area that tends to be an elective in library programs. I don’t recall one course where it was taught beyond planning a program in a Children’s or Young Adult literature course. As countless professional journals have featured lately, public relations and advocacy are critical to library survival. One of the most important public relations opportunities is often one of the most forgotten - direct interaction with the patrons.

Every encounter with a patron is chance to present a positive or negative image of your library (and libraries as an institution). Being rude or snarky has no place in this interaction. First of all, it’s just unnecessary and potentially detrimental to your library's continued existence - think of how many business you no longer patronize because of poor experiences there. The library is a public service and is funded by public money. You never know who you are dealing with and the impact your interaction with that person may have on your library. Does that mean that you should allow others to walk all over you or treat everyone with kid gloves just in case the person is the mayor’s sister-in-law? Certainly not.  But assertive does not mean aggressive or rude.  Treating the patron with professionalism and respect, even when you have to bite your tongue, is one of the most important skills a librarian can possess.  I learned how to deal with patrons on the job, but would have appreciated if this issue had been addressed more in library science programs. Role-playing, discussions, and even instruction about "real library" situations from active librarians would be an invaluable addition to library school programs.  However, as long as you keep respect and professionalism in mind, you can learn the skills you need while in the trenches.

About Stephanie
Stephanie Sweeney has been a secondary school library media specialist since 2003 and is an adjunct instructor in library science and educational technology. She is on Twitter @liberrygurl and writes the blog Thoughts from a LiberryGurl.