5 Surprises from first year as an MLIS

May 15, 2009 at 1:28 pm 24 comments

One year ago next week, I received my MLIS from Rutgers University. Over the past year, I have learned a great deal, found I need to learn much more, and am truly thankful to those who have helped bring me to where I am today. As many of you may know, I am a career changer who had not worked in libraries until library school, so many of the things I learned have been quite unexpected.

On the eve of this anniversary, I thought I would share the top five most surprising things I have learned and comment on each. Keep in mind, all of these pertain to Public Libraries because that is where I work and public librarians are who I tend to socialize with. Also, these observations are not all about MPOW—they come from discussion with many different librarians from many different libraries…

Top Five Library Surprises.
#1) Meetings: Corporations have long since abandoned the long meeting with many people—they are generally expensive and non-productive. Librarians love long meetings with many people in attendance. Each week there is at least one meeting to attend—usually far more than one. They tend to run long and much of what is covered could be communicated via e-mail or memos.
My reaction: Wow, this is insane, please stop!

Next time you are at a meeting and are bored (and you know you will be), look around the room. Calculate an average hourly salary (oh come on, we all know you look at the Asbury Park Press database: http://php.app.com/NJpublicemployees/search.php ). It doesn’t have to be exact, in fact low-ball it at $20/hour and plug it into this formula:
(hourly rate)*(# of people at meeting)*(number of hours for meeting) = real $ cost of meeting.
Pretty staggering isn’t it (now consider how many times these meetings happen in one year!).
Do you really think this is the best use of our resources? And this does not even count the opportunity cost—think of all the stuff you could get done if not at the meeting, now think of all the stuff everyone could! Meetings—which generally produce nothing but to-do lists—are really just a practical alternative to actual work.

Now before you all write in to say we have to have meetings – yes I know that. Short, focused meetings are critical to working efficiently. Likewise, employees should have a chance to speak to management in an open forum. I am not advocating for no meetings. I simply would like to see some business-like principals applied to library meetings and fewer meetings in general:

  • Have an agenda with approximate times for each topic.
  • Stick to the agenda: if time runs over too far, perhaps a sub-set should meet for further discussion instead of the entire staff being held hostage to one topic; when topic drift begins, return the discussion to the topic at hand and consider the drift items as topics for another time; if one person is dominating and dragging things out—offer to speak to them later one-on-one.
  • Be sure the agenda items need face to face discussion—if it can be done via e-mail, do it. Again, I totally agree with having meetings—simply not as often and never as long as the typical staff or department meetings in libraries.
#2) Customer Service: Every meeting, every conference, many training sessions, and loads of articles, blog posts, tweets, and chats focus on Customer Service. We love to talk about customer service.

My Reaction: I agree! Customer service is incredibly important. Now let’s put that into practice.

  • More weekend hours! Weekends are when the most patrons use the libraries, but it is the first place people cut when trying to slash budgets. Many libraries are not open at all on Sundays. Why?
  • More staff during the busiest hours—yes, this means working more weekends and nights and more than one librarian on a desk a peak times. Every library I have worked in or been to has a skeleton crew on weekends! Long lines & cranky burned out employees do not equal good customer service. I know this is unpopular, but it is true.
  • Sundays are a day just like any other day—why do we open so late?! We are public institutions that should NOT schedule based when church is over (the only possible reason I see for the late start). Our patrons should not have to wait half a day to get to the library.
#3) Marketing: Every time I brought up marketing while in library school, fellow students bit my head off—some wanted to boil me in oil for using the dreaded ‘M’ word. To be fair, many libraries and librarians now use and promote marketing. They deserve credit because they do still get tons of flack for being too ‘business-like’.
My Reaction: Marketing is important–Deal with It!
Don’t believe me? A recent ‘help for job seekers’ program in my library had no promotion, two people showed up (come on, in this economy!). Attendance at the same program when it was promoted? SRO. You can have the best library, best staff, best resources, and best programs–if people don’t know it, they won’t use it.

#4) Adult Service Librarians Hate Teens/Teens Hate Adult Services Librarians: I hear this everywhere—from Youth Services Librarians, from Adult Service Librarians, from teens at the library, teens in my personal life, and adults in their 20s who were treated poorly while in high school. It is astounding to me how true to the angry mean librarian stereotype this is.

My Reaction: STOP THIS NOW—JUST STOP IT! Every patron should be treated with respect and not judged because of age, gender, ethnic background, etc.

Teens are future adults. At MPOW, they ask the meatiest reference questions because they are doing research papers without the benefit of an academic library. They are generally polite, helpful, and respond well when told to keep their voices down. Adults on the other hand, yell into their cell phones (teens understand you don’t have to yell to be heard). They yell at staff when asked to stop behavior that is not allowed (there is always a reason for rules not to apply to them). Yes, there are problem teens, but there are also problem adults (see #5!).
Ever notice that after high school, people tend stop going to the Public Library and don’t return until they have kids of their own? Gee, I wonder why?

#5) Drunk People At the Library: While I openly admit much about this job is like being a bar tender–people bring you their problems and want to talk, this was simply a shock when I first became a librarian. It happens so often, now it is just a regular thing.

My Reaction: Really, drunk at the library?! Now, I will admit it—I’ve had my share of drunken times in my life. Not once—not even in college—did I ever say ‘hmmm, now that I am wasted, I should go to the library!’
  • No amount of customer service, communication training, or any other ‘technique’ works with these people. They are rude, clumsy, and smell bad.
  • Ask management for help–well, sure if they were in the library at the time. Since most drunks who are a problem show up at night, on weekends, and near Christmas, I have yet to encounter a drunk while management is on duty.
If you regularly deal with drunks (or other substance abusers) at your library, let me know what you do! At the very least, know you are not alone. I feel your pain.
I could go on and on–so many surprises, so little space. What have been your biggest surprises @yourlibrary?
To those of you who graduate from Library School this month–congratulations and good luck! It is a terrific profession, but also a really strange one. It is never dull. At the very least, working with the public means you will always have an entertaining story to tell at the bar! Just please do not go to the library after you are done drinking!

Entry filed under: Customer Experience, Marketing. Tags: , , , .

Dropping the L But doesn’t that mean the teens will start coming in?


  • 1. Anonymous  |  May 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    congrats on your anniversary and interesting writeup

  • 2. CogSci Librarian  |  May 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    awesome list — thanks for sharing!

  • 3. Ms. OPL  |  May 15, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    On meetings:
    No, not all corporations have abandoned long, boring, time-wasting meetings. (Remember the Dilbert book: Avoid Meetings with Time-Wasting Morons?) At MFPOW they were very popular. I determined that meetings were convened for one of 3 reasons.
    1. to avoid making a decision
    2. to share the blame for the decision
    3. to get free coffee and donuts from the company

    For this type of meeting, go only if you HAVE to, stay only for the relevant parts, and keep reminding people that there are such things as networks and e-lists and blogs and phone conferencing.

  • 4. Cynthia  |  May 15, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Or go for the donuts!

  • 5. April Bunn  |  May 16, 2009 at 8:06 am

    “Be sure the agenda items need face to face discussion—if it can be done via e-mail, do it.”
    I totally agree. We sit at one meeting each month where the supervisor hands us a list of upcoming dates and reads the list to us. TOTAL WASTE.
    Great posting. Very “on the pulse”

  • 6. Anonymous  |  May 16, 2009 at 9:02 am


    I very much agree with all points – I came to libraries from the corporate world several years ago and the culture shock was…interesting sometimes.

    Meetings: Most weeks I spend at LEAST 15 hours a week in meetings, and often significantly more. Sure, some of these are working meetings, but mostly, it’s work that could be done electronically, shared, and then come together for a shorter time to discuss, identify next steps and then go on our merry way.

    Marketing: YES. at MPOW the culture is such that “marketing” is seen as a bad word, but promotion is not. How is this helpful? Could we call a duck a duck? And whatever we call it, let’s make it work for us!

    Customer Service: Yep, let’s focus on our customers/users/patrons whatever we want to call them. Let’s figure out HOW to do what will improve us for them – or if we say no, we need to have a good reason for saying no.

  • 7. Andy W  |  May 16, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    First and foremost, congratulations on the end of your rookie year.

    (1) Compared to the other comments, I feel lucky to have maybe 1 or 2 meetings a month (each for about 2 hours). I make sure that it is time well spent; there are things that work better face to face than over email and I try to concentrate on those aspects. (2 minutes to explain a concept > 10 minutes to type it out.) Bottom line: meetings should be for things that are better handled face to face than through other means.

    (2) I recently wrote about it in my blog (http://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/the-personal-reference-touch/) as well as there is an excellent post in Designing Libraries (http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/2009/05/08/three-ways-libraries-can-be-different/) regarding customer service.

    As a County employee, I can tell you why we don't have expanded Sunday hours: union contracts. My Sunday hours grant me overtime or compensatory time. You're right about having hours when people are available, but I hope this offers an explanation as to why.

    (3) I agree. We can all the services in the world, but if people don't know about them, it means jack squat. I still have patrons who say "I didn't know you offered that!" I make a mental note to make something to publicize it. For my programs, I try to get the word out as best I can.

    As chair of the Marketing Committee in my system, we are constantly working on new ways to promote the library. You just have to because the public has preconceptions as to what the library is and has to offer. You need to break them. No, wait, you need to SMASH them into a million pieces and then dance on them until they are a fine powder. Our services should not be a secret but a well known fact.

    (4) Agree.

    (5) Agree. Although, I do have a dream to do a beer and/or wine tasting program at my library. =D

    Nice post!

  • 8. Emily  |  May 16, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this! Meetings…sigh. Need I say more? Great post!

  • 9. rebecca@dysartjones.com  |  May 17, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Appreciate all your points, and am laughing only because many of us have been lamenting these same points for years……sigh…..

    As for meetings, if there isn't a specific objective, meaning a "deliverable" to be taken from the meeting, then it is frustrating for all concerned. At this point in my career, most of what I do is "meet", whether it is facilitating meetings or meeting via phone, web or in person, and we always insist that all concerned have a clear understanding what is to be "taken" from the meeting….a decision? are people to "know" something? are people to be able to "do" something as a result of the meeting? It's also important that those attending the meeting feel comfortable asking "what's my role at the meeting? is this a meeting that's going to help me in my role, my job?" Too often management gets "ticked" when asked these questions, but they are very legitimate, and those convening the meeting should be able to say "yeah! we need you to "know about" what we're sharing, or we need your input, even after the meeting."

    I'll add to your list, if that's ok, with my 2 surprises from 30 years as an MLS. These surprises are that many (not all, but many) in our profession fail to:
    – see the larger context in which decisions are being made (the big picture – or the larger span of influence)
    – give others credit or respect, even those they work with, when things happen or when decisions are made or changes are required; by and large people are doing their best, yet many in our profession (again, not all), are eager to pounce on their colleagues — and "management" are colleagues; everyone working in a library is working towards the same end, to fulfill the mission, to engage and delight the patrons (be they students, clients, faculty or potential patrons — all 'non-users' are 'potentials), and contribute to the library making a difference to the community it serves. It undermines our profession when people quickly assume they know the "motives" driving people's actions or decisions. Too often these assumptions are incorrect, and yet rather than conversing or dialoguing with those involved or trying to understand the influencing factors and differing perspectives, people tend to quickly point accusatory fingers and 'hunker down' (I hope I have that spelling correct!) rather than open up to new possibilities & enlarging perspectives. There are many in our profession quick to respond "yeah, but" rather than "yes, AND". AND is a connector that connects different ideas to get us to new ways of thinking and doing. If we could just get the "buts" out of our way (wink)!!

    Thanks for letting me haul my soapbox over to your blog. Keep up the excellent blogwork; Stephen Abram, a great buddy I've known since we were doing our MLS, pointed your blog out & it's terrific. Congrats.

  • 10. Anonymous  |  May 18, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Thanks for stressing the importance of marketing. Six months post MLIS, my realization is that the degree is way, way too expensive for the payoff. I would not recommend earning this degree to anyone who is not getting at least half the cost covered in scholarships or by their employer. I’m only able to begin paying off my loans because I have a job that doesn’t actually require an MLIS! The job? Library marketing…

  • 11. Erin  |  May 19, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Cynthia – Thank you so much for posting this! It inspired me to write up my own 5 surprises – from the academic library realm. If you’re interested, check it out at http://tinyurl.com/pavl89

    Meetings… ugh!!! From one new librarian to another 🙂


  • 12. LeAnn  |  May 19, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Well, I hate to say this, but it’s nice to know that meetings all over are as bad as ours.

    I heard a generational speaker talk about how the baby boomers love meetings, the more the better, and we Xers and Y generation folks can’t stand having our time wasted like that.

    Not sure if I completely like the idea of lumping all of us into these broad generalizations, but they completely fit around here! 🙂

  • 13. Elisa  |  May 19, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Congrats on finishing!

    To add to #5. If the drunk becomes a security concern, don’t hesitate to call local police!

  • 14. Beth Gallaway  |  May 21, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Cynthia, thank you for these insights! I especially related to #4, and your “shame on you! stop it!” tone.

    You’re right – every patron should be treated with respect, for who they are, currently – and not just because they might grow up to be future taxpayers, but because they matter, right now.

  • 15. Anonymous  |  May 21, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Amusing rants from a neophyte. I’d be interested to here your thoughts after 30 years in the biz.

  • 16. cwood  |  May 21, 2009 at 10:12 am

    The NJLA PR Committee cancelled yesterday’s meeting and I confess I was relieved.

    There is much to accomplish during these lean times in our home libraries.

    Next year’s NJLA PR Committee is seeking input on shifting committee focus from in person meetings to online exchanges. NJLA has used IM and teleconferencing.

    I’m thinking – WebEx – and the question here is – who will fund the service?

    Suggestions welcome!

  • 17. Anonymous  |  May 21, 2009 at 10:42 am

    About Sunday hours…where I work, there has been no hue and cry for opening earlier on Sunday, but rather later, which is something we are definitely contemplating.

    Also, due to laws regarding religious freedom, unless you have a staff made up of atheists, good luck in getting adequate staffing for opening earlier on Sunday.

  • 18. Jana  |  May 21, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Great post! Someone said about one of my mentors that we always had very purposeful, succinct meetings, and I aspire to one day get to that point of leadership! Good tips!

    I’ve been a librarian for 15 years, and customer service is really the heart of the library’s success. Also, riding the wave of changes is important. I can’t tell you how aggrevating it is to me to hear colleagues moan about changes to PubMed and the preference for the old way. It’s time to move on!

  • 19. Anonymous  |  May 21, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Truly missing from my 1999 MLIS degree was dealing with mental health issues: among patrons AND staff. Professors out there: how about it? How much different our jobs will be when mental health issues are addressed using the same workplace “rules” as alcohol or drug abuse. The meetings will be shorter, and we’ll get to keep some of our best personnel…

  • 20. Anonymous  |  May 21, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    We have our share of drunks on a daily basis. Not so often, but not unheard of: sex (hetero and homo) in the restrooms, peeing on the floor or shelves, pooping on the floor (and, no, not in the children’s room), shooting up in the library (including a death last year), verbal (on a pretty much daily basis) and/or physical fights over the computers. On a daily basis, people who have no clue what they are doing: “I have a paper due tomorrow about Mill’s system.” “Do you know what Mill you are supposed to be writing about?” “No.” “I want to know about the history of house cabinets.” “Can you be more specific?” “Maybe you can look up presidents.” “Oh, do you mean you want information about the presidents’ cabinets?” “I guess.” “That would be on the 5th floor.” “I don’t want to go to the 5th floor. I want you to have the information.” — Just life in a public library.

  • 21. Rob Pollard  |  May 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I agree that earlier on Sunday doesn’t make sense. Later, I could see, as kids/adults get ready for the school/work week.

    And as you make these suggestions, remember the old rule – if you want it done, do it yourself. E.g., Figure out what late-night/weekend hours you (and whatever librarians agree with you) are willing to work, and then present it to your director. It’s great to notice the problems, but give the people who can make changes ready solutions.

  • 22. Anonymous  |  May 22, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Great post! My favorite part is your comment about night and weekend hours. My library is packed on weekends, but we run with a skeleton crew. Patrons routinely ask why we’re only open 4 hours on Sunday. We are not fulfilling our customer’s expectations. I hope that everyone who reads your post will really consider how their library can better serve our customers.

  • 23. Oleg K.  |  May 23, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Even though it seems obvious that customer service is the very backbone of being a public (and academic) librarian – public service positions, after all. It’s amazing how many times people have shared experiences of terrible interactions with impatient, condescending, and otherwise rude librarians with me. I think every library has one or two librarians and clerks who just don’t want to be there. Pretty awful, really.

    I must say, I agree with the other items you’ve listed also. Many people’s experiences seem to coincide on this issue.

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