Bill & Ted Had It Right!

December 11, 2007 at 9:40 pm 10 comments

When I first decided to return to school to become a librarian, I had a pretty narrow view of what a librarian was:

A librarian was the lady (yes, in my head and in my experience, they were all women) who helped me navigate the stacks and find books I would like to read. She answered every question I had and seemed to know everything, or be able to find out anything she did not know very fast.

I wanted to be that woman-a kind, helpful, friendly person who knows everything! While I knew intellectually that there was more to the profession, what appealed to me about the job was working with the public. Librarians had made a huge impact on my life and I wanted to do the same. In fact, I had always wanted to be a librarian, but graduate school wasn’t a possibility earlier in my life. Stuck in a corporate job that I didn’t find challenging, I craved human contact and returned to school to become a librarian.

Peter’s post about customer service brought this memory back to me. I, and many of my fellow MLIS students, want to be librarians because we want to help. We want to provide answers. We want to make a difference. Customer service is a regular topic of conversation which often sounds something like this:

“if ‘they’ dislike working with the public so much, why are they in this profession? Why are they here? If ‘they’ left, maybe then those of us who actually want to help people could get a job”.

I am the first person to admit, these goals and the desire to ‘help’ may be naïve and our conclusions about job availability could be disputed. However, the reality is, many library science majors feel this way. In fact, many college students feel this way. On several occasions while working reference, I have been explicitly thanked for providing help and instruction and told about how the ‘other librarian’ was so ‘mean’ (in the defense of the other librarian, no one who has complained has ever been able to attach a name to the complaint).

With my business background, I know that customer service is the only way for a business with limited resources to survive and compete against organizations with relatively unlimited resources. Google, Yahoo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc.-compared to most libraries, are competition with virtually unlimited resources. Libraries and Librarians need to remember that no matter what kind of day we are having, no matter how difficult the patron, it is in our own self interest to treat the patrons well. If we library science students want to have jobs available when we graduate, there needs to be thriving libraries in our communities.

With this in mind, as I start my career of library work, I pledge the following:

  1. No matter what is happening in my personal life, while at work, I will smile at every person I come in contact with.
  2. When a patron apologizes for bothering me (as is often the case), I will assure them that it is no bother-I am here to help them and happy to do it.
  3. I will remember that the person asking me for assistance has chosen the library over many other resources. I will do everything I can to make them happy about making that choice.
  4. When I am not at work, I will promote libraries every chance I get. If anyone tells me of a bad experience, I will encourage them to try again-most librarians are in the business because they want to help, they want to make a difference, they like people.

I encourage all library staff-regardless of title or time in-to make a similar pledge. I encourage library science students to speak openly with professors, co-workers, and one another about customer service. Finally, I encourage everyone to follow the advice of ‘Bill & Ted’: Be Excellent to Everyone!


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  • 1. Jeff Scott  |  December 12, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Great attitude! I think that feeling is shared with almost all librarians.

  • 2. Peter Bromberg  |  December 12, 2007 at 7:25 am

    Hi Cynthia, and welcome to Library Garden! I love, love, love your point: “that the person asking me for assistance has chosen the library over many other resources. I will do everything I can to make them happy about making that choice.”

    If we all remembered that every day we’d be half-way home! I also whole-heartedly agree that “being excellent to each other” is our great point of opportunity. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind to the person standing in front of you (or on the phone, etc.), and all the money in the world can’t buy that. If it could, I wouldn’t receive such crappy treatment from [fill in your own corporate customer service horror story here. ] (I’ll start: from Verizon!)

    Thanks for choosing librarianship, and thanks for blogging with us at LG!

  • 3. Janie L. Hermann  |  December 12, 2007 at 10:43 am

    This post is bringing back memories. When I was a teacher I had one rule and only one in my classroom. It hung at the front on a sign:

    Be Excellent to Each Other ~ Bill and Ted

    Really, this one sentiment covered everything I needed by way of rules. The kids grew to understand that talking too loudly meant that they were disturbing their classmates and thus they were not be “excellent” to a friend. Also, not raising your hand or interrupting while someone else was speaking broke the rule, etc.

    Perhaps libraries just need this one simple rule too? [tongue partly in cheek, but partly serious too]

  • 4. Anonymous  |  December 12, 2007 at 11:17 am

    peter, people are no different from place to place. i’ve never had any problems with verizon (in fact, i prefer them to comcast) and can only guess that your own bad experience can be chalked up to the fact that customer service will always be, and has always been, in corporations as in libraries, hit or miss. even i fail once in a while, great attitude, smiles and all. it’s difficult to be on and perfect all the time, particularly when you are doing it for hours at a time.

    i’m only responding because i’ve seen you complain about verizon at least twice now. not that i have stock in verizon, but they are the only game in town next to comcast, which means you and i need them to drive/keep prices down.

  • 5. Anonymous  |  December 12, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Dear Folks, This is a beautiful post. I truly hope that after you graduate and enter public service, your sentiments will remain the same. I too was an idealistic, “I love everyone” type of person when I finished grad school. I have just completed one year of being a public librarian. Here are four key points of advice for maintaining that excellent attitude: 1) Take a position in a system that has a high tax base. This ensures that your customers will be mostly pleasant to interact with, and that there will be funds for useful things such as a sensor gate that actually works (ours doesn’t, which means items from our collection walk out the door on a regular basis) and a full time security guard who is professionally trained to handle difficult people. 2) Don’t take any job in a MAJOR metropolitan area that pays less than $40K. If you can barely pay your living expenses, that stress will transfer to the job. Not to mention that when you work for less than what you’re worth, it’s harder to prove you deserve a decent salary bump when you look for your next position. 3) Make sure your library admin staff really cares about its people and isn’t just paying lip service, telling you to bend over backwards for customers while failing to have a clue about what life on the front lines is really like. If they say stuff like, “oh we haven’t been able to offer that training on how to supervise people for a couple of years now” and that training is required in order to move up into a higher position, they’re not in your corner. 4) If you can maintain a smile on your face while being chewed out by a customer, if you can maintain professionalism when being insulted by someone who would be furious if the same biased sentiment (“you people all look alike to me”) they just spewed at you were turned back upon him/her, and if you can stand being asked to do students’ homework for them while they impatiently drum their fingers on the ref desk expecting you to pull a miracle out of your rear end in 5 seconds, then you’ll be a stellar public reference librarian. Alas, a year of trying to measure up to such standards has burned me out. Very soon, I start a new job–blessedly OFF the front line–in a government library.

  • 6. Booktender  |  December 12, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Well said. To me, it often comes down to Raganathan’s Fourth Law of librarianship: Save the Time of the Reader.

    Be unapproachable? Hate public service? Talk about wasting the time of the reader! Just turn ’em off and you’re wasting their time – and your energy. It takes a lot more energy to be crabby than it does to be welcoming. Trust me on this.

    To the 4th law I am always aware of Booktender’s Corollary: “Wear comfortable shoes.” It makes it so much easier to smile.

  • 7. Booktender  |  December 12, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    “I love everybody” is a sure trip to burnout within a year. No doubt. “I respect each person’s right to be human” will last you decades. At least it has for me the last 20 years.

    The attitude you bring to your profession determines your success in any aspect of that profession. Whether you’re in the front line or behind the scenes, you’ll always have customers (both internal and external) and you’ll always have administrators and their wacky mysterious ways.

    Good luck at your behind-the-scenes job. I hope you find it easier to regain your perspective in your new job.

  • 8. Anonymous  |  December 14, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    In four short notes, you’ve fully encapsulated everything I wish all public service librarians would be. Kudos!

  • 9. Chris  |  December 18, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    “Take a position in a system that has a high tax base. This ensures that your customers will be mostly pleasant to interact with, “
    I must take issue with this comment. I have worked in both the richest and poorest communities in my library system. And the gap between the 2 is huge – multimillion dollar mansions vs abject poverty. I was treated like garbage by more than a few noveau riche types in the upper crust community. Customers would bitterly protest a 25 cent fine and “ask” for help at the copy machine by reminding me “after all, you are a servant”. (I am not kidding.) On the other hand, residents of the poor community, while admittedly under a lot of stress, were unfailingly polite and respectful. They almost always behaved with dignity and treated me like a human being.

  • 10. BES  |  December 20, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Word! I come from a retail background and now, as a librarian, I am often surprised at the lack of “customer/patron service” mentality I find throughout our profession. It is changing, and that, I am excited about. Patrons ARE choosing us over so many other sources, and we HAVE to really change the perception of librarians from bitter information hoarders, to helpful, willing, information specialists. Great Post. I hope that you (and I) can keep up this idealism throughout our careers.

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