One of the reasons I chose to work in a Public Library, as opposed to a University Library or in a law firm’s library, was the idea of a Free Public Library, i.e., the idea that anyone can use the library with little or no cost. I have been in countries where libraries are limited to those with money, or who are in an exclusive neighborhood or occupation. I love the idea that the knowledge lodged within the Library’s walls is accessible to anyone, and I wanted to be one of the people who opened up the world to others through library resources and programs. The library is not supposed to be exclusive, but inclusive. But if we are inclusive, and welcome all comers, then we who work at the library have to be ready to help all who walk in the doors.
This is not always easy. We get some interesting characters in the library. They come for various reasons—to read, use the computers, check out media, or sometimes just to sit and be safe and out of the elements. If they are not breaking any rules, we welcome them, and I hope that we give them good customer service.
It is easy to give good customer service to those who are like you—someone you can relate to. But how about that young person with multiple body piercings and that interesting tattoo? Or the special needs adult who gets very excited or agitated? Or how about the homeless person who is not the nicest dressed person on the block? I tell my staff that if they can give the best customer service to these “other” people, then they are giving the best service of all. And then sometimes these “different” people give a lot more back to the library.
We’ve had a couple of interesting encounters recently. Both involve people who might be on the fringe of society but who willingly gave of themselves to the library.
The first was a young man who came in asking to do volunteer service here. He was, at first glance, a little odd. He didn’t say much or look you in the eye. But he was eager to volunteer and proved to be very good at what he did. After a while the staff grew to know him and appreciate his hard work. And he began to open up to the staff. He never did say much, and never really looked you in the eye, but we welcomed him. When the staff gave him a birthday card he was so touched he sent a thank you card back. We were sorry to see him go when he reluctantly told us that he had other things he needed to do and couldn’t volunteer here anymore. We told him to come back anytime and help us out. If we had gone with our first impressions of him, we may have turned him away and would have never gotten the benefit of knowing him.
The second case was a homeless man who had been hanging out at the library for sometime. He tended to be dirty and often smelled of alcohol. The staff often had to ask him to leave until he cleaned up. He always came back in, and bit by bit the staff got to know him. One day he asked if he could volunteer. We put him to the task of shelving books and were pleased with his work. He volunteered almost daily and did a good job. He too had begun to respond to the staff and their respectful treatment of him. He was intelligent and had a sense of humor and a great work ethic. He alerted the staff to problems inside and outside the library. Sure there were still days when we would have to remind him where the laundromat was and not to eat or drink inside the building, but he was one of our most productive volunteers.
And he was teaching us a lesson about how we react to those who are different or less fortunate than we are. He was not just someone else’s problem; he was one of the people we are here to serve. He opened our eyes as to how we reacted and treated others, and how much we may miss when we base our views of people only on first impressions.
Thank you to all our volunteers and all of our patrons. You are the reason we are here.
Posted by KS at La F.