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Improving Neighborhood Libraries

 A journal called Neighborhood Life suggests that neighborhoods might improve if there were fewer crazies in libraries. "Not Your Grandmother’s Library" discusses for non-librarians what a lot of librarians already know but rarely discuss in public – that some libraries are de facto homeless shelters and all sorts of other things that they’re not really prepared to be. "In the worst cases librarians spend their days in a gallery of society’s ills, expected to be social workers, psychiatrists, surrogate parents and police officers, all without the additional funding or training to do the job."

The article is sympathetic to all sides, but does slightly criticize librarians for their silence on the issue.

Librarians rank among the most open-minded, patient and compassionate people around. Most saw their choice of this career as a true calling but can find themselves pushed to the limit, going home at night depressed and overwhelmed. Yet despite these obvious stresses on both the librarians and many patrons, no one wants to talk about it.

That is to say, no one wants to talk about it publicly. All but a few messages left and emails sent while doing research for this article, to points all across the United States, went unanswered. While anonymous blogs by harried librarians abound on the web, official spokespersons offer uniformly careful and reassuring statements, if they respond at all. One candid representative, not wanting to be quoted, asked, “Would anyone actually talk to you?” Libraries want patrons as much as any business wants customers.

A kind reader sent this to me with that last paragraph quoted in the email. Obviously the AL isn’t an anonymous blog by a harried librarian (those critics intelligent enough to make the distinction might call it a pseudonymous blog by a self-satisfied librarian),  but it’s one of the few library blogs that deliberately looks through the rosy glow of official library propaganda. The official line is that libraries are all hunky-dory, and that the only problem is that they often don’t have enough funding to continue their good works, like distributing DVDs and hosting videogaming nights.

The ALA certainly never talks about any of these issues. Their Issues and Advocacy are purely about libraries, and not about the problems of librarians. Access, intellectual freedom, literacy – these are all good things – but there’s no advocacy by the ALA on behalf of librarians (or at least no effective advocacy, since I suppose we’d have to include the inconsequential rumblings of the ALA-APA). Yet it’s clear from blogs such as the Mofo Librarians that even in libraries not encumbered by malodorous drug addicts or violent young thugs rudeness and incivility often reigns. I’ve heard annoyed stories from friends working in public libraries about loud arguments over pittances in fines, abrasive patrons treating librarians and library workers like slaves, unattended rambunctious children careening through the stacks. Librarians must view this as a calling to put up with very much of this behavior.

If there were an American Librarian Association, it might advocate on behalf of beleaguered librarians. It might propagate the increasingly rare notion that with rights come responsibilities. It might argue that free access requires civility. If the American Librarian Association Council wanted to take on political causes, it might pass resolutions calling for increased funding for homeless shelters, saner drug laws, or more accessible treatment for the indigent mentally ill. These are national issues that affect plenty of librarians on a daily basis, though they’re less sexy than ending genocide in far off countries or demanding the impeachment of Presidents who stood not a chance in hell of being impeached. Ending genocide in Darfur would do absolutely nothing to help struggling librarians in the worst-off libraries, but resolving that it should end does show we’re on the side of the angels. The Annoyed Librarian Association would like to help with these issues, but we’re chronically underfunded because we don’t charge dues.

Some people think I pick on the ALA too much, or that I pick only the most egregious examples of Council idiocy to criticize, but I don’t think so. There’s a huge blindness at the ALA, and because of that blindness there are national discussions that never take place. The ALA is blind to librarians and their needs, and one discussion is of the topic addressed in "Not Your Grandmother’s Library." The irony is that improving the worklife of librarians would probably improve the library experience for patrons as well. Most library patrons don’t want hostile patrons around, or to be driven from a reading area by filthy odors, or to find hypodermic needles in the restrooms. Addressing these issues head-on, rather than hiding them, would engage librarians and library patrons alike in a discussion of what libraries are for, what freedom means, and why civility matters. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that discussion.


Contact the AL: annoyedlibrarian@gmail.com
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Comments

  1. Ella says:

    The problem is not the ALA it is library management. I worked in public libraries for ten years before moving into the private sector. I worked in both a small branch in a not so great neighborhood and a shiny new branch in an affluent area. In both places, I was yelled and cursed at by irate patrons more times than I can count. Libraries do have rules that prohibit most of the behavior the article talks about. The problem is that often when a librarian tries to enforce the rule the patron will complain and management caves. This just leads to patrons becoming more and more entitled and rude.

  2. n5p38 says:

    Management is great in my library. When we throw a bum out, they stay out and management backs us.

    I am open-minded, patient and compassionate but if you are in my library as a place to get off the street, you had better be ready to follow some rules. Don’t like it, there is the door.

    When I started here, the homeless ran the place — they would occupy every chair, couch, table, etc and people who were using our library for what it was meant for were sitting in the aisles taking notes and the like.

    We came up with a policy that is posted all over the library (and if some bum says they are illiterate, we will read it to them and give them one more chance). Violate the rules, you are gone.

    We still get our share of bums hanging out here but they know they better toe the line or they will be back sleeping in the local Obamaville.

  3. Dances With Books says:

    “Free access requires civility.” What a radical idea: expecting civility from patrons. Imagine that. That we have to even say that or suggest is a sad message indeed. And no, you just don’t pick on ALA. They deserve to have their feet racked over coals over issues like this at every possible opportunity. They have basically thrown librarians who work in the trenches under the boss in favor of whatever PC chic cause is around these days. We need an organization that will stand up for us librarians and library workers, not for the idiocies ALA seems to keep favoring. In the meantime, keep speaking the truth AL.

  4. Dances With Books says:

    Ella: I could not agree more. Management can be a problem as well. I have been thrown under the bus often enough for enforcing rules because some rude patron decided to whine to management, and they folded like a cheap suit. We need management with some balls/ovarian fortitude as well.

  5. thelibrarygirl says:

    It is important for librarians unhappy with how the ALA operates to call them out on the carpet. This isn’t picking on them so much as demanding they reassess the priorities of the organization to better represent the needs of its membership.

    Often I think the ALA’s passing of resolutions on sexy political issues is an attempt to wade into a competitive media spotlight; however, the organization’s voice is lost because of its overall insignificance to a larger political platform.

    The ALA would benefit from listening to these criticisms because it could potentially boost moral and support from its current memebers. It may even encourage new memebership. Members who feel like their needs are represented are more likely to continue involvement including joining the fight for relative issues affecting librarianship, such as poverty, mental health, and social justice issues.

  6. Nathan says:

    Excellent point Ella. I can never understand why someone would reward the behavior of obnoxious people. In my former public library life I was what you could call “middle management” and the more people made a big stink about something, the more I would dig my heals in.

  7. SpongeBob Squarepants says:

    While I very much agree with the AL’s musings on this issue, I would like to address an issue that has been brought up in some of the posts, and that is management’s response to customers who complain.

    I’m the director of a public library. Years ago I started out as a branch manager working on a public service desk. Before getting my MLS I was a paraprofessional working at a reference desk. I’ve seen this issue from all sides.

    I think it is true that management, more often than not, does give in to the demands of patrons who complain loudly about an issue. At the same time, one reason for this is because library work is not an exact science. I know I’ve missed scanning an item that ended up back on the shelf and led to someone getting an overdue notice and fine. This type of thing happens more than we probably want to admit. It is for just that reason that I will often give patrons the benefit of the doubt when it comes to overdue fines they said they paid, books they claimed they returned, etc. Some patrons exhibit this as a chronic behavior and you can look at their accounts to see how much they have in forgiven fines or how many items have been marked “claimed returned” for them.

    In the past I have also worked with people, both professional and paraprofessional, that would not cut customers any slack at all. “Your house burned down and your dog died? Sorry, you still owe that late fee.” “You need to hang up that cell phone right now. Oh, you’re a doctor and this is an emergency call? Well, go stand in the pouring rain outside the front door. Your phone conversation might disturb all our patrons using our computers for Facebook and MySpace.”

    In many instances I would rather give the patron the benefit of the doubt and err on the side of good customer service than to enter into an extended arguement at the circulation desk over a .10 fine.

  8. ElderLibrarian says:

    Well said Spongebob! Our library has had a “customer satisfaction” policy for some time, which is good PR but it has discourged staff- a good step in the right direction is to show empathy to the staff member and explain why the patron was not fined, etc. For me the real problem has been the crazies, and for that you need a policy, stick to it and call the cops when needed.

  9. n5p38 says:

    Patrons are always right.

    They should be treated that way.

    Bums on the other hand should be held to a different standard and be shown the door early and often.

  10. another f-ing librarian says:

    the library staff at the public library i worked for while in library school had an odd advocate: the local cops. we *almost* never called them, because it was a double-edged sword. the minute they showed up, was when we lost control of the situation. always. because “a bored cop is someone with a gun.” they were bored, and coming to the rescue of the library-ladies was their dream come true. once our closing-time plea that they get the homeless guy to not sleep on the library’s dark driveway so he wouldn’t get run over, was immediately interpreted as, “haul the sleeping dude to the slammer, and work him over good, wouldja?”

    we need better options.

  11. n5p38 says:

    Of course if you had the bum hauled down to the slammer and worked over enough times maybe he would get it through his head that the library driveway was not the best place to pass out.

  12. BiblioBlond says:

    This is why most of my fellow classmates at Library School aspire to be academic librarians.

  13. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    Dayum yer right on today AL!

  14. r85sc says:

    Good luck to your classmates.

    Unless they have a second masters, are fluent in three languages, are willing to work for $30K a year, and can wait over a year from job announcement to when the job is filled — they are SOL.

    They better be prepared to live in their local public library until their ship comes in.

  15. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    I use to Never give in over late fees, and my managers would override my decision. Now as a sub-manager, I waive fines because; I want these people to shut the Frak up, stop harassing my staff, and get Hades out of the library. The sooner the better…..there is a reasoning behind my madness…I’m clutching for quiet & sanity!

  16. Whiner2 says:

    Hey, LIBRARIES would improve if there were fewer crazies in libraries.

    Unfortunately, many of the “crazies” are employed as librarians and staff, so maybe it would be a zero sum.

  17. Brent says:

    I guess I’m a little confused. How would a national organization be an advocate for things like bums on library couches? Lobby Congress? Inform all of USA about the pressing issues of public librarians becoming quasi-social workers? Good luck!

    To me the complaints AL brings up here should be addressed by local public library unions and local officials, not a national librarian association.

  18. d3h says:

    I guess that’s a positive to living in a pretty conservative area. Management caters to the wishes of the people funding us, not to the wishes of a random individual. And if the folks funding us had any sympathy for the poor and/or mentally ill, they would be funding facilities for them as well. Even going so far as to right a complaining letter to the editor about getting booted would bring no public sympathy. It’s about making it a pleasant environment for the people who actually pay taxes and vote. And bathe. Now, it would be nicer to have a happy medium. But there really are places that go to the other extreme and it can be much less stressful to work in them.

  19. 6523n says:

    *, I waive fines because; I want these people to shut the *

    And you get loud annoying complaining losers because you are positively reinforcing/rewarding their behavior. Way to go!

  20. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    Funny thing is we just had a problem. A patron printed out more then she wanted to and didnt want to pay for the extra prints. On top of that she was rude to staff who resented her behavior. As manager on duty it was my call. I had staff repeat her efforts to see if it was a website issues or a patron issue. Telling the staff if it was a website issue she wasnt going to get charged. It turned out to be the website. So after sorting that out staff then comment that she was very rude. My answer…we dont charge fines for being rude if we did we would be rich. The point is mangers have to make the call based on logic not feelings and be prepared for the outcome.

  21. AlwaysWanted2B says:

    The issue with management overriding staff decisions in enforcing policy is that staff then no longer know what the policy really is and they will have to refer all requests for exceptions to management. Does the library director really want to deal with 25 complaints a day about library fines?

    Staff need to be taught to make these decisions according to their best judgment and given the authority to do so.

  22. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    ” loud arguments over pittances in fines, abrasive patrons treating librarians and library workers like slaves, unattended rambunctious children careening through the stacks.” Happens in academic libraries, too. Not often, but we do have some mighty entitled brats attending our university. You can treat me like something you stepped in … of course, that means I won’t be giving you nearly as much assistance as the nicer kids. Or I’ll refer you to one of our dolts. :)

  23. wassup says:

    6523n commented:

    *, I waive fines because; I want these people to shut the *

    And you get loud annoying complaining losers because you are positively reinforcing/rewarding their behavior. Way to go!
    ——–

    You do realize that, g-a-s-p, some libraries do not charge fines at all?

    Sounds like you view patrons as the enemy. . .

  24. k8etf says:

    *You do realize that, g-a-s-p, some libraries do not charge fines at all?

    Sounds like you view patrons as the enemy.*

    One can tell your that skills in logic left you little choice as to vocation. We’re talking about HIS/HER library which definitely does levy fines, as mentioned.

    And anyone that wastes anyone else’s time arguing about their 45 cents worth of fines is the enemy–of multitudes of things, including common sense & common decency.

    Now run along and let the grown-ups talk.

  25. Mr. Kat says:

    Where are those libraries? becasue I have a book collection with a couple holes to fill, and if they have what I want, I’m gonna check it out…FOREVER!!!

  26. 67hpp says:

    Alwayswanted2B: Most circ. staff aren’t able to think beyond black and white. If it isn’t clear cut they are not able to handle it. That’s why management makes those decisions. Leave the decision making to the big boys. If you want that responsibility get a real career like we did.

  27. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    Exactly right k8etf. Arguing about small amounts of fines is a wast of time and defies logic and common sense. Well put.

    If memory serves me correctly, the Loudoun County Public Library in northern Virginia does not charge any type of overdue fines. It is also located in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, which helps.

  28. Mr. Price says:

    Enlightened post.

  29. rkhd6 says:

    The best way to improve neighborhood libraries is to ship the books off to Amazon and bulldoze the place to the ground.

    Then contract with Google to provide all the services that once were available and then some.

    The patrons will win out in the end with better and more complete service.

  30. Whiner2 says:

    rkhd6 commented:

    The best way to improve neighborhood libraries is to ship the books off to Amazon…

    Reminds me on an ILL department I heard about some years back that just went ahead and bought things on eBay and Amazon whenever they had an ILL request, rather than borrowing and returning from/to another library. It was supposed to cost less.

    Anybody else remember this?

  31. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille says:

    Hmm… I hate to say it, but I don’t think ALA has any business saying how we should libraries should or should not deal with their patrons if it doesn’t have anything to do with privacy, censorship, or other matters to do with laws and rights. The manner in which we deal with problem patrons is a policy set by the library system. Also, I have worked in the libraries you have described, and these “problems,” while perhaps bizarre, are things you learn to deal with. If a librarian thinks that they cannot handle a situation like those you mention, then they should consider a different area of the profession where they do not deal with the public.

    While it is noble that the ALA could lobby for more reforms for transients and the like, I think that continues to dilute our sparse political power. I am quite certain that there are a number of organizations that serve these interests and I don’t know what you honestly expect will be gained from fighting their battle for them. I sympathize with the plight of the homeless and, sure, I think rude people suck, but those are black hole issues and the ALA is definitely NOT equipped to deal with them as of now.

    What should the ALA be doing instead?

    1. Put out true, quality information concerning the library field. Most of the stuff that comes out about library funding, literacy, gaming, library irrelevancy, digital publishing, etc., is trumped up tripe. Pointless “opinion” pieces on how how wonderful or terrible said tripe is does not in any way help deliver quality information to our patrons. Also, useless debates on “what it means to be a librarian” need to be ignored as dumb distraction. The “chicken little” phenomenon, additionally, is old and unhelpful. If you really believe that digital media and computers are ruining the library profession, go live in a cave. This is 2009. Wake up.

    2. Encourage research. Library science is one of the poorest fields in regards to the depth of the research on which we supposedly base our resolutions. This same poor amount of literature is honestly not good enough to base major decisions on in our profession. Also, most of it deals with academic libraries (understandably so, but unhelpful nonetheless) and not public libraries. Try doing a search for information literacy training. Most of the material doesn’t apply to anything a public librarian might need (the computer skills of a college student and those of a 65-year-old are not the same), and if it does, it is ten years old. At the same time, we get these people complaining about or championing for different ideas (usually expensive) without any up-to-date and relevant research to back up their claims. Don’t tell me that gaming is good or bad for libraries or teens – prove it.

    3. Reorganize. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with the sentiment that the ALA is all over the place. Plainly put, “if your circumference is everywhere, your momentum must be zero.” ALA seems to have the problem that we have so many committees making decisions and statements all the time that we expend our political capital. As the AL so frequently notes, making statements like “impeach the president” are not advancing any goals we have. We cannot make an impact at all with our current organization.

    I am sure there is more, but I can’t think of any.

  32. Anonypotamus says:

    Something like an AAL (American Association of Librarians) would definitely benefit some communities. Others not so much. Oftentimes patrons complain to the local gov’t about what they see as deficiencies in the library. This often ends up pitting the local officials against the library (or the director of the library). If we had a (somewhat) respected organization that did research, published findings, and made standards a protocols, we could point to it and say, “You know.. I’m not just making this up.. the homeless are a problem in libraries (cite the AAL study).. and here are the laws YOU PASSED that prevents us from calling the cops unless one of them whips out a knife.” This is a non-issue for a lot of libraries. But the ALA fights for principles that are non-issues for ALL libraries. At least advocacy like this would assist SOME libraries. Maybe it would help getting the air conditioning in the public library I’m working at fixed. Unless I’m crazy and late July in the Southwest isn’t hot.. or isn’t a desert.

  33. Grumpus says:

    Jean-Baptiste: “if your circumference is everywhere, your momentum must be zero.”

    Most librarians are scientifically illiterate. Your reference will be completely lost. Sorry. It *was* clever. And research a lot of times requires math. Bummer. Gaming literacy and social services are easier to master, so that’s our future.

  34. rr678 says:

    “Reminds me on an ILL department I heard about some years back that just went ahead and bought things on eBay and Amazon whenever they had an ILL request, rather than borrowing and returning from/to another library. It was supposed to cost less.

    Anybody else remember this?”

    That’s actually quite common. We often do it and so did my prior workplace in a totally different state.

    Depending on what you’re paying your technical services dept and what kind of backlog they have, buying a used copy and permanently adding it to the collection can save both time and money.

    But in addition to being cheap, it has to be something that you’re confident will circulate again. Shelf space has value too.

  35. ne7kk says:

    ILL takes upwards of three weeks to fill requests.

    I can get a book overnight from Amazon.

    Tell the attorneys that I work for that ILL is better.

  36. hnes8 says:

    *But in addition to being cheap, it has to be something that you’re confident will circulate again. Shelf space has value too.*

    Even if it doesn’t circulate much, you may end up lending it out as an ILL item which may help your library become a net lender. Some admins love that.

  37. Tommy Boy says:

    Shelf space has value would imply that the space is just as valuable with a book on it as without. How often should the item go out again? 0.7 times per year? Once a year? What if it is thin and takes up little shelf space?

  38. Mr. Kat says:

    Or what if your shelves are in tight cramped spaces where only pages and robots go, so when someone requests the book, you send an ILL request to the “Storage Depot,” withdraw the book, and send it to them?

    There’s a Place called CRL that is quite lovely for this sort of thing!!

  39. wassup says:

    k8etf said:
    >One can tell your that skills in logic left you little choice as to vocation. We’re talking about >HIS/HER library which definitely does levy fines, as mentioned.

    Nice try, my point was that a myopic view is not always best. Take a look outside your own little fiefdom.

    >And anyone that wastes anyone else’s time arguing about their 45 cents worth of fines is >the enemy–of multitudes of things, including common sense & common decency.

    “Anyone” would also include a library staff member putting an otherwise model patron through the ringer for that same 45 cents.

    >Now run along and let the grown-ups talk.
    Go eff yourself. And have a nice day collecting fines.

  40. Mr. Kat says:

    If this person owes $0.45 in overdue fines, and they are even suggesting that they are baulking at paying the fine, they are not model patrons, Now Are They??!!!

    A model patron would have the $0.45 out and ready to give to the librarian before the librarian even told them how much they owed on their past due items.

    Because a Model Library Patorn knows precisely how long their loan is, how much the fine is per day, and keeps track of exactly when they check the book out and when they return the book.

    Trust me, I’d give this model librarians a wedgie too, if I met them. Woyitie toyities. Can’t Stand ‘em!

  41. wassup says:

    >Trust me, I’d give this model librarians a wedgie too, if I met them. Woyitie toyities. Can’t >Stand ‘em!

    lol, Mr. Kat!

  42. AngelaB says:

    I’ve worked in a public library for nearly 10 years. Little in my library schooling prepared me for the job I do. My retail work I did part-time in college did. Rarely, am I asked anything library related. I spend most of my day rebooting computers, fixing copier jams, and telling people to take their phones to the lobby. Oh, yeah, I also print out Mapquest directions.

  43. 6shb7 says:

    *”Anyone” would also include a library staff member putting an otherwise model patron through the ringer for that same 45 cents.*

    Unpaid library fines number in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in some systems. Perhaps not-so-concidentally, some systems have a hard time keeping paying their employes, stocking their shelves, keeping their branches open, etc. For many libraries, fines are a revenue source that cannot be replaced.

    And let’s be real, if you can’t bring items back you’re not making them available for anyone else, either. If you can’t be considerate of your fellow users, why should I be extra considerate for you?

    *Now run along and let the grown-ups talk.
    Go eff yourself. And have a nice day collecting fines.*

    I haven’t worked in a public library for 6 years and not a day goes by that I don’t thank the heavens for that.

    And you certainly proved my assessment of your maturity, thanks!

  44. wassup says:

    6shb7,

    Love your clever use of asterisks, btw. You are so mature. Speaking of which, thank you for the *maturity assessment* (/sarc).

    > For many libraries, fines are a revenue source that cannot be replaced.

    So, you admit that fines are in place to generate revenue, and not to keep patrons honest. Now we are getting somewhere. . .

  45. wassup says:

    Oops… my italics tag didn’t work; I am bracing for the ridicule!

  46. lmcshane says:

    Civility, standards and a focus on the delivery of information. Somewhere along the line that became “anything goes.” Thank you for stating the obvious in this post. It would help if the administrators who signed on here with ridiculous aliases buckled down and enforced some standard of decency. This is not a joke, folks. Our country and our profession needs a serious discussion on library standards.

  47. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    My library jobs have included public library, public university, corporate, and private university. Private university is by far the best – mostly because we don’t have to deal with the general public. We get the odd bum but if s/he smells, causes trouble, monopolizes a computer, offends others? The campus police escort them off the property and that’s it.

    Street people overran the public library when I worked there. They weren’t welcome at city hall or other public venues but the library had to deal with them all day every day. We also got the pervs who exposed themselves, played with themselves and ogled children. There was no spine to management at all – they worked in a remote area with firmly shut doors. I was so happy to leave that place!

  48. k32ff says:

    NMTL, I bet management was happy to see you go off to the ivory towers, too.