or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk



How do people see us?

   October 19th, 2006

I was in my local post office a couple days ago, and overheard the female postal clerk at the window telling the following story to the customer in line ahead of me:

Last year for Halloween, I decided to dress up and come to work as a "UPS man." I borrowed a real UPS uniform from a friend, put tape over his name and wrote "UPS Man" on it - I even penciled in a moustache on my face. A man came to the counter, and appeared somewhat uncomfortable or uneasy, which I chalked up to him being thrown off by the uniform. He never commented on it, though, just made his transaction and left. The following week, I was working in the back when my co-worker at the counter called me up to see a guy peering in our front window. It was the same man I helped on Halloween. Eventually he came in and came up to the counter. While my coworker was waiting on him, the man started asking both of us if there had been a change in the post office's hiring practices. Since I recognized him as the uneasy man from Halloween, I presumed he was talking about us using UPS employees. However, eventually the man said, "yeah, I was in here last week, and by God if there wasn't a hermaphrodyke here - those people are taking over the world."

Okay, so apart from "hermaphrodyke" being my new favorite word this week, this story got me thinking. This man was obviously very troubled by the "person" who waited on him at a public service desk, so much so that he had to check before he came in again to make sure that same "person" wasn't there. Also, even though the postal clerk knew the man was uncomfortable, she was mistaken as to why. It wasn't because of bad service or inadequate resources - he simply felt uncomfortable with the person who helped him.

I'm sure this also happens in libraries all the time. An offhand comment about a book or politics or religion, a joke, a low-cut shirt, a comment about another patron, etc - any and all of that is noticed by patrons all the time, and could very dramatically affect their library use, or at least from which library staff they feel comfortable seeking help.

But what can/should be done? Even on the best of days, people can say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and there is certainly no way to completely sterilize the staff environment. Many libraries I know won't decorate or celebrate many major holidays (Halloween, Christmas, etc) because of the risk of offending one group or another.

But should we be this concerned? Should we always strive to be as blandly-neutral as possible, or should we try to be an organization with an identity and sense of humor? Personally, I think library staff should be trained to be professional at all times, but also to be personable. I think it's possible to have a personality and be interesting, without being offensive. It shouldn't be an all-or-nothing thing. And once the tone of the library is set by the staff, it should be fairly easy to translate that into an "organizational personality," that can serve all members of the community equally without being forbiddingly devoid of life. This should (hopefully) make the library a more comfortable and real place, both for our online presence as well as with our daily interpersonal interactions within the library itself.

Hermaphrodykes of the world unite!


3 Responses to “How do people see us?”

  1. Kate Says:

    Woo hoo, hermaphrodyke! What a fun word!

    Why is it that ONE negative experience in any library will scare people off all libraries for life? What are we supposed to do for those people who when they were 5 years old were screaming and running around the library and got shushed (ack! I avoid shushing at all costs!) and will never set foot in a library again?

    Who have you scared off today? Mwahahaha.

  2. Remaining Relevant » Blog Archive » Hermaphrodykes Says:

    […] It’s not exactly a typo, but I think Brian has a great point about being aware of our image as librarians representing our profession at large as well as the institution we work for. Every interaction we have forms people’s opinions of the library. An offhand comment about a book or politics or religion, a joke, a low-cut shirt, a comment about another patron, etc – any and all of that is noticed by patrons all the time, and could very dramatically affect their library use, or at least from which library staff they feel comfortable seeking help. […]

  3. herzogbr Says:

    “Who have you scared off today?” I like it. And in that same vein, a friend of mine just forwarded me a rant on craigslist written by a librarian – talk about the risk of people never coming back to the library.