Benbrook Library / Musings

How Not to Provide Library Service


As if I don’t spend enough time in libraries already, sometimes I visit them when I’m off duty, which may seem excessive. When something is as fabulous as the library, however, you don’t stay away simply because you’re off the clock. You think Tony the Tiger stops eating Frosted Flakes when he hangs up his bandana at the end of the day? Grrreat things deserve love all the time.

Yesterday, I was in a large, nearby city (not Fort Worth or any of our MetrOPAC partner cities) and needed to kill about half an hour, so I opted to lounge at a small branch library. It’s always interesting to visit libraries other than my own, because while most libraries offer similar services and try to accomplish the same goals, they go about things in different ways. Observing those differences is helpful, as it usually either gives me ideas about potentially modifying/adding services at BPL or makes me feel good about things my little library is doing better than the place I’m visiting. Yesterday was a case of the latter.

During my visit to this library which shall remain nameless, I overheard a troubling interaction between a patron and a staff member. A man approached the circulation/reference desk (it’s a small library, so they have a single, long dual purpose desk staffed by both circulation and reference employees) and asked if the library still carried copies of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The staff member replied with a somewhat curt “no.” After some grumbling by the man, the staff member said, “There are newsstands.” The man, clearly bothered by this perceived failure on the library’s part, then said something along the lines of, “Well, we are in Tarrant County.” The staff member came back with, in a tone that wasn’t outright rude but not at all warm, “Remember, it’s a courtesy.” The man walked away unsatisfied.

This may not seem like that big of a deal. The staff member wasn’t heinously rude, and with there being no chance of the man getting the item he wanted, he was doomed from the outset to be unhappy to some degree. Even so, the whole interaction could and should have been handled much better by the staff member. First off, there’s hardly ever a reason to just say “no” to a question in a library without following it up with some sort of explanation, or at the very least, a simple expression of regret. “No, I’m sorry, we no longer carry that paper due to budget cuts/bureaucratic reasons/whatever” requires very little extra effort and is a heck of a lot more palatable than the monosyllabic no, which, even if unintended, can give the impression of coldness. Bringing up an alternative means of obtaining something is usually a good idea if the library can’t provide, but in this particular case, the man was obviously either homeless or in rough shape financially, so suggesting a way to get the paper that involved money wasn’t particularly helpful. The staff member’s last words to the patron, “Remember, it’s a courtesy,” are what bothered me the most. Sure, technically, she’s not wrong, but to me, that comes off as “Remember, you’re lucky to have access to whatever free stuff we’re willing to offer you, so you’re gonna take what you can get and like it.” Yes, libraries are wonderful for offering all the neat stuff we do, but public libraries are funded by public money, so in a not-so-indirect way, those who use them are paying for them and are more than entitled to have a say in, and at the very least, be critical of, their offerings. It’s a librocracy, not a libtatorship, and to suggest otherwise is wrong. It’s especially wrong to use the “be grateful and be quiet” attitude as a shield against criticism or discontentment.

You won’t find such a disappointing brand of service at BPL. We can’t give you everything you want, but when we can’t do something for you, we’ll sympathetically tell you why, and we’ll even consider changing if doing so is within the realm of possibility and reason. If you ever experience anything less, please let us know. Long live librocracy.

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