As librarians, what should our service posture be?
I think there are two questions here, one shallow and one deep. The shallow one is: What kind of service can we offer? What levels and models of service are both helpful at the individual level and scalable to the populations we’re charged with serving? This question is urgently important and (for me, anyway) also kind of boring. It’s largely a systems-and-logistics question, one that is susceptible to logic and quantification, and it’s ultimately answered in terms of money: We solve it to the degree that we figure out what works, and then figure out how to increase the leverage of our limited resources to do as much of it as we can. And we know for certain that we’ll never solve it completely.
Here’s the deeper, less tractable, and (for me, anyway) much more interesting question: How should we think about patron service? If resources weren’t an issue and we were free to do whatever is right in whatever amounts we wished, how would we figure out what’s right?
If we really get down to first principles, then it quickly becomes clear that we librarians are trying to do much more than just connect people with the information products they want. Depending on the mission of the institution we work for, our ultimate goals may include some or all of the following:
- To prepare people for lives of professional scholarship
- To increase participation in a democratic society
- To support research into solutions to social and scientific problems
- To support the development of innovative products and life-saving treatments
- To encourage and promote critical thinking
- To increase awareness of and tolerance for difference and diversity
- To broaden minds and enrich lives
- To improve character and ennoble the “whole person”
Do goals like these make you a little bit goosebumpy? I hope so—they certainly do for me. The possibility of making a contribution along these lines is a big part of what makes showing up for work every day a joy for me.
But here’s what I think is really interesting: two people can completely agree on these ultimate goals, and yet bitterly disagree about what approach to patron service will best serve them.
Take the promotion of critical thinking, for example. One librarian will say “An indispensable part of learning critical thinking is the experience of wrestling with the tools of research. You can’t master a discipline without mastering its tools, and that means learning how to do hard research with tools that aren’t always easy to use.” A librarian who thinks this way might endorse a more minimalist approach to service: point the patron in the right direction, explain which research tools are the most effective ones, provide introductory training, and leave him alone to have at it. Don’t spoon-feed.
Another librarian might say “If my patron has two hours available for study, I want her to spend one hour and 55 minutes of that time actually reading and thinking about relevant documents. Critical thinking grows from struggling with texts, not from struggling with unhelpful and poorly-designed interfaces.” A librarian who thinks this way is likely to embrace a more expansive view of service, trying to make it as quick and easy as possible for the patron to get to the documents, perhaps even looking them up for her, printing them on the spot, and handing them over.
Either of these positions (along with infinite variations on them) is defensible on good-faith terms. However, I’ve become convinced that there are some among us who endorse one or the other of these positions from a position of bad faith. There are those—and I have watched them in action—who seem to have become librarians because being on the librarian side of the service desk puts them in a position of authority and power, and gives them the opportunity to correct and to condescend. My experience suggests that such librarians are few, which is very good because they’re a disgrace to our profession. There are also some who want to minimize the amount of time they spend interacting with patrons—especially students—and do whatever it takes to get rid of them, including just handing over articles rather than exploring what might be deeper needs. These are no credit to our profession either.
But the fact that each of these approaches can be undertaken from a position of bad faith doesn’t mean that either approach is necessarily wrong. It means only that we—all of us—need to be careful about examining our own motivations: it matters what we do, and it also matters why we do it. Is our focus on the patron and his or her needs, or are we serving our own pride or laziness or fear of irrelevance? To what degree is our service posture authentic, by which I mean informed by the deepest goals of our libraries and their sponsoring institutions? That’s a question each of us has to answer individually and ultimately in secret, because inauthentic librarianship may, in many cases, look from the outside an awful lot like authentic librarianship.
I’ll be returning to this theme in future columns, sometimes in the context of very specific questions of policy and practice. My hope is that these thoughts will generate lots of useful and beneficial discussion.