Public librarians: Get out of your chairs

I’m in my last two weeks as a public librarian before I leave for my new job as a school librarianI’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned in my almost 7 years of working for a large urban public library system, and one action, in particular, has stood out in my head as one of the most easy and effective ways to be good to your patrons.

When a patron, of any age, asks you for a book, you can do one of the following:

☹ Tell them the call number

☹ Write down the call number

☹ Point to a shelf

☹ Give them detailed instructions on how to get to said shelf

♡ If you are physically able, get up, out of your chair, and walk the patron over to where the book is located. (If it’s not clear, this is the best option).

I know. Getting up and getting moving is hard. No one really wants to. But seriously. Just do it.

It may be super clear to you how your library is laid out, but for first-time patrons or patrons who aren’t as familiar with the collection as we are, the library can be a daunting place! If the patron is unable to locate their materials with ease, they may associate the library with feelings of frustration. That’s not what we want.

It’s OK if library patrons don’t understand the Dewey Decimal system (or whatever organization your library employs), or if they think books are organized by title instead of author, or if library jargon like “Easy Readers” or “Graphic Novels” doesn’t make sense to them. This is fine. It’s our job to know what all of this means, not theirs. We can’t expect every patron to speak librarian-ese.

So, if a patron requests a title, walk them to the shelves. Since I work with kids and families, I’ll often explain where we’re walking and why. For example, “You want book about Barack Obama, and that will be in Biography under O. Biography is shelved by the person’s last name, so Barack Obama is under O, just like Abraham Lincoln is under L” or “You wanted Smile so we’re walking to Graphic Novels, which is just another way to say Comic Books.” This way, I’m teaching them how the collection works. Hopefully, they are starting to understand how the collection is organized so that the next time they need something, they might have a better idea how to find things on their own.

Or maybe they won’t. Who cares?

I do this even during crazy bananas Summer Reading reference desk lines. Will I find the patrons all 50 books from their summer reading list? Yeah, no. But if I help them locate two books, maybe they’ll have a good shot and finding the rest on their own. Maybe at this point, they’ll be self-sufficient until the line dies down and I can pay them more attention.

(And hey, same goes for computer sign up, using the OPAC, or other confusing patron tasks. Some of our patrons don’t know the difference between a barcode and a PIN/password. Sometimes they don’t know how to log on. Other times it’s not clear where the patron computers are. Don’t tell them how to sign onto a computer or use the catalog. Show them how. You’ll make their day much easier.)

I walk patrons to the shelves even when I don’t feel very well.

I do this even when I’m exhausted.

I do this even when I don’t want to.

If I am able to walk, I take the patrons to the shelves. I think it’s just good customer service.

I even had a boss at one point who told me to stop getting up from my desk to help patrons, that I was wasting time. He even said that librarians “shouldn’t have to touch books”. But I didn’t listen to him, because I really feel that offering patrons this extra level of help is the right thing to do.

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

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P.S. When I worked at a one floor library branch, I would walk patrons to any part of the library they required. Now that I’m at a massive three-floor facility, I’ll take them anywhere in our wing, as I can’t leave the Youth Wing when I’m on desk. I’m not suggesting that librarians in big old buildings should have to hop on elevators or travel to different floors several times a day. That would be bananas.

P.P.S. I had knee surgery in my early 20s, so I do have bad days sometimes. Once in a while, my knee hurts way too bad to do too much walking. On those days, I’ll explain to patrons that I’m having some knee issues so they’ll understand why I’m not getting up to help them. Never sacrifice your health for your job.

6 thoughts on “Public librarians: Get out of your chairs

  1. Monica

    My trick when it’s busy is I will send them on, then go check on them after I’ve helped the person I was working with. This way, no one feels abandoned and the families who know a bit about the library or prefer a bit of independence can try the steps themselves. I also hope it helps the kids to understand a bit why we put things in certain places 😉

  2. Irene Fahrenwald

    Also, at a busy library, you can take a few kids with you and drop them off where they need to be, with necessary explanation along the route to the various areas. “The molecular theory of librarianship”–drop some off and pick some up as you go.

  3. A library staff member who can’t leave the desk should say so AND refer the patron to a colleague who can walk around with them. “I can’t help you, but (this person) can” is like customer service 101. Sadly, too many people skipped class that day.

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