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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/15/15

   November 23rd, 2015

Not all of the reference interactions I post here have a moral, but this one does - and it's one of my favorite morals.

On Fridays, my library closes at 5:30pm. At about 5:25 one Friday, an older gentleman comes down the stairs to the reference area, where most of our public computers are. Now, any patron coming in right at closing time is always a bit worrysome - but moreso when they, like this patron, come right up to the desk and say they need to print something.

Printing at the last minute is always fraught with potential calamity. However, thankfully, all this patron needed to do was to print a boarding pass attached to an email - we opened it, printed it, and everything went smoothly so we were still finished before 5:30. Nice.

But while I was thinking "nice" to myself, the patron surprised me by saying,

You don't know who I am, do you?

Being that I'm paranoid in general, this is a miserable thing for someone to say to me. However, even after looking at him more closely, no, I didn't recognize him, so I apologized to him and said I didn't know who he was. He then said,

I'm the guy that donated all these computers [motioning to the workstations]. That's me [pointing to the wall plaque below]. I need help using them, but I know they're important.

Workstation Plaque

We had a bit of a laugh over that, then he thanked me for helping him, and I thanked him for his generous donation, and walked him out.

Hopefully, the moral is clear: when you work at a public library, it's important to provide good customer service for every patron interaction, because every patron is a voter and you never know what other connection to the library they may have - even five minutes before closing time.

And more importantly, thank you to everyone who supports their local library!

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8 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 11/15/15”

  1. Chris Says:

    Nice. That’s pretty cool. Good on him (and you too.)

  2. Jeni Says:

    So glad everything worked out, partidularly since he donated the computers!

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Chris: thanks – but definitely he’s helped the community more than I helped him.

    @Jeni: Me too – although I didn’t want it to sound like library staff should only help someone in exchange for donations, or that someone who has donated something should be treated differently than someone who hasn’t. I just meant that I know last-minute patrons can sometimes get less-than-best service, and that would have been especially bad in this case.

  4. Emma Says:

    Brian, can I ask: Are your hourly people paid for some amount of time after 5:30 on your 5:30 closing days?

    Something that drives me crazy at my library is that our closing time is the same as our clock out time for hourly staff. So most days we close at 9 p.m., but 9 is also when the clerks and assistants stop getting paid. Of COURSE they want to get lights turned off and money counted and everything by 9, since otherwise they are doing the closing tasks unpaid, on their own time, but it drives patrons crazy that we claim to be open until 9, but a lot of services are either worse or not available at all from about 8:45 onward. What does your library do to provide better service to last-minute patrons?

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Emma: oh, wow, this comment is worth an entire management course of its own.

    We’re the same as you, in that staff is scheduled until closing time at 9pm, and are only paid until then. But of course, since we’re open until 9pm, patrons have every right to be in the building right until then – so we experience the same clash of tides.

    We’ve had various conflicts in the past, but right now things are pretty calm with an understanding staff that knows that good customer service might sometimes mean an extra minute or two past nine o’clock. We’ve talked in the past about scheduling and paying staff until 9:15, but 99% of the time that would mean the building would be closed and staff is just sitting around doing nothing. So instead of forcing people to stay later through scheduling and doing busywork most of the time, it has just worked itself out in an unspoken way in my library. Most of the time, that is, and we just deal with the incidents where that fails as they happen.

    The only two actual policies we have regarding this are:

    • we do close the downstairs bathrooms 15 minutes before closing time. There are bathrooms right by the front door that are never closed, so people can use those on the way out, but the downstairs bathrooms are the only “library resources” that end before closing time

    • all the part-time staff scheduled to work until closing are all free to leave right when their shift ends. The full-time librarian who is the closing department head, and whichever maintenance man is working that night, are the two who will stay if something with a patron runs past closing. This happens occasionally, and some staff have no problem staying longer and some do, but the department heads always stay to take care of whatever it is even if all other desk staff has left. Once in awhile it’s some kind of horrendous checkout calamity, but more often than not it’s a kid waiting for a ride in winter, and we are not going to lock the doors and make them wait in the snow. So the department head and the maintenance guy (and sometimes other staff just hang around and chat too, and partly because people all like to walk to their cars together) all wait inside until the ride gets there.

    I think we’re lucky in that good customer service is so ingrained into my library’s culture that staying over is just no big deal to us. It’s also good that the administration values good customer service, and would have no problem with someone coming in late the next day if they stayed late the night before to help a patron.

    Our closing procedures aren’t too extensive, which also works in our favor – just turn computers off, really, and make sure everyone is out of the building. So there’s no routine duty that holds people up. One of my own hard-and-fast rules that I try to enforce whenever I close is to NEVER turn any lights off when there are still patrons in the building. Not only do I see this as incredibly rude, but it also seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen – staff rushing a patron out at closing when half the lights are off, and that patron trips or hurts themselves, and then it comes out during the hearing that staff had shut the lights off already. Sure there is probably still enough light to see by, but it certainly would make the entire library sound like a jackass.

    We haven’t come to absolute solution for this, so it’s good that my library’s staff is just willing to make it work. I don’t know that any of this will help, but aside from scheduling people beyond closing time, I don’t really know what else can be done.

  6. Julie Says:

    @Emma we schedule our staff to start their day 15 min. later so that they can stay 15 min. after closing to do closing tasks. Then we count money and other tasks that take a bit longer in the morning before opening, instead of at closing. We had the same issues you described until we made this scheduling change.It definitely reduces stress for the staff, especially if they are helping a customer at closing, they can finish and not feel totally rushed.

  7. MC Says:

    Our circulation, reference and in charge staff are scheduled until 5 minutes past closing. In our location that means that substitute staff and our paging staff leave right on the hour and the rest work to finish up any customer interactions, etc. We do lock our doors right at closing and do expect customers to leave at our closing announcement. The only service that may be unavailable is that we lock our main bathrooms a few minutes early but leave one in our children’s area open, and our computers can be on until closing but you cannot login 5 minutes (or less) until closing.

    Our particular branch schedules staff on the hour, but 5 minutes past for closing (i.e. 11am-8:05pm) so our last 15 minute break we add the 5 minutes so that its a 20 minute break and that ensures we have staff here right at the start of their shift (instead of 5 after) and it’s nice to get a little longer break in the evening. Money, unclaimed holds, etc. are all processed the next morning before we open which helps too.

    Good luck!

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @MC: hey, nice to hear from you! I really like the idea of letting computers go, but preventing new sessions from starting. What software do you use that has this feature? Good idea about formalizing longer breaks = staying over, too. Thanks, and I hope you’re well.