getting dad a library card

dad at the library

I’m visiting family before I head back up to Vermont. Yesterday I convinced my dad to go get a library card in the town he’s lived in for ten years. My dad is one of those “Hey, why borrow it when you can buy it?” people but we trundled over to his library anyhow because I wanted to see it and while we were there, I suggested he get a card.

Let me first mention that even though the experience at the library wasn’t great, I totally understand why that was the case, and I’m not trying to do any public shaming thing here (hence no link). I just think that there’s a sense in which we’re always saying “Hey libraries are more popular than ever!” but there are also people who just plain old never use the library — one of the big challenges of outreach is to identify these people and see if there are ways to make the library appeal to them — and I wouldn’t be surprised if my dad is one of them.

So, we went to the library. The library is being renovated so it’s a bit of a challenge to get inside, lots of uneven sidewalks and unclear signage. My dad is seventy and doesn’t really like being outside of his comfort zone so we were already a little confused when we got there. We went to the circ desk which was being staffed by one obvious volunteer and one person who may have been circ staff or may have been a librarian or who may have been both. No one had name tags. The woman at the desk was doing the typical multi-tasking thing, helping a lot of people at once, and asked my dad “Can I help you?” He said he was there to get a library card. She went off to get the forms he needed to fill out. Actually I knew that was what she was doing. To his mind she just turned away and started answering someone else’s questions and left us standing there.

She came back and asked for some identification and my dad gave her his driver’s license which showed that he lived in the town. At this point I sort of expected a “Oh you’re not a summer tourist!” awareness but that didn’t happen. She handed us a form and told us to fill it out and meet her at the reference desk (about five feet away) when we were done. The form was your standard one page application. This is a photo of my dad filling it out. We waited for her to come back to the reference desk for about five or ten minutes while she continued to answer other people’s questions (someone needed to use a computer, someone couldn’t find the phone books). At one point she got up to show someone where to find something and then she came over to us and said to the circ staff “I’m going to help this man because he’s been waiting so patiently” which I found a little odd. The library had what seemed to be a normal amount of people for a Monday afternoon, and yet it seemed chaotic for whatever reason.

We then stood by the reference desk while she retyped what my dad had written into the computer. She had trouble reading my dad’s email address (he writes in all caps) and made him read it out loud to her a few times. His email domain is tomandcindy.com and she crossed out what my dad had written and wrote it out underneath with an ampersand in it. My dad had to politely point out that email addresses don’t have ampersands, ever. I couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t see what his email address was by reading it, maybe I’m just attuned to his writing. After doing this, she handed us a card and asked “Can I help you find anything?” We said no and left. No welcome brochure, no “welcome to the library!” nothing.

Turns out the library had sent us a welcome email which we got when we got home a few hours later. It included a link to the catalog and some information about the library network and, of course, my dad’s library card number and PIN in plain text (libraries are not alone in this terrible practice, but it makes me cringe nonetheless). My guess is that my father will never go back to the library. There was some good-natured ribbing about this when we got home. I’m aware that it’s not the library’s job to make all sorts of different people feel like it’s their very own place and cater to their every need and personality tic, but then again it sort of is, isn’t it? I’ll be thinking about this some more while I think about how my library welcomes new people to the community.

28 Responses to “getting dad a library card”

  1. M Wms Says:

    Sounds like a pretty typical library visit, based on libraries I know here in Maine. Either there’s not enough staff, and/or they’re not well organized or customer-service oriented enough, and patrons/customers/visitors/the public end up feeling less than enthusiastic about another trip to the library. In this case, it just sounds like one staff member (the one who helped your dad) may be an overfunctioner while the rest of the staff under-functions. That seems a pretty common dynamic at many workplaces.

    As you say, no reason to shame anyone, or even blame. Even in a library where everyone is doing their best, patrons may end up feeling awkward, uncomfortable, confused, etc., as they might when walking into a church, a train station, a gym, or any new place where activity that doesn’t necessarily involve them is taking place.

    It’s hard to think of what could improve the situation, other than hiring and training staff who are motivated to serve people, and then giving them time and space to do it. Do libraries employ mystery shoppers, as some stores, banks, hospitals and restaurants do? Even to have a few people do it informally on a volunteer basis every now and then might provide some insight into what’s preventing the library from being a welcoming as it could be …. This only matters if staff regard it as a priority to /be/ welcoming, to /serve/ customers.

    My own experience at my current public library is that there is one staff member who always makes me feel welcome — she remembers my name, she smiles, she occasionally makes smalltalk, she is efficient and seems to handle multiple circulation desk tasks gracefully. There is another staff member at the circulation desk who always makes me feel unwelcome and I try to avoid her — she is perennially grumpy, doesn’t make eye contact, barks for my card and if I don’t have it gives me a punishing look, etc. (The worst is she sometimes seems friendly to other people! Why does she hate me??) The rest of the staff are somewhere in the middle, with most lacking strong interpersonal skills.

  2. C.Rader Says:

    I hear you and cringed through most of the article. Yes, exactly. While we cannot be everything to everyone, we can at least be a little more welcoming to people checking us out for the first time. I’m happy to say we have streamlined our new card procedures, but we have done little to prepare welcoming materials. I have a sneaking suspicion that to look at the services we offer and describe them for a new patron would lead to some heavy sighs about how we used to do more…before the cuts and the layoffs. Yet, new cardholders represent new supporters, new allies, new possibilities, and a chance to reinvigorate, rather than continue whamming one’s head against the old walls. Not to mention my library has a history of ‘poor’ service in the community that we have made huge efforts in reversing the poor practices of previous administrations. Thanks for the inspiration, I think I just found my summer project.

  3. ps Says:

    Is it a sign of the times that I thought your experience didn’t seem that bad? That’s exactly what it’s like at my local library; a few busy staff are trying to help lots of people — they do end up helping everyone, but are maybe not so wonderfully disposed while doing it. Maybe I’m ok with it because I seem to be more of a DIY user of the library.

  4. Lichen Says:

    Um, it’s totally the library’s job. And the most important one we do in my opinion!”

    RE: “I’m aware that it’s not the library’s job to make all sorts of different people feel like it’s their very own place and cater to their every need and personality tic, but then again it sort of is, isn’t it? I’ll be thinking about this some more while I think about how my library welcomes new people to the community.”

  5. Amy Says:

    Do let us know what you think, Jessamyn!

  6. Ann Says:

    This is a great time for my stump speech on “librarians(library staff)don’t use libraries” other than their own, where they know all the rules, don’t need signs to show where the restrooms, new books, browsing (what’s browsing?)collections, whatever are, know to “interrupt” a reference librarian for help, are familiar with the catalog, book locations, and so on and so don’t even realize what they need to do to seem welcoming and easy-to-use because they know the library and so, of course, everyone does. I am sure the library person at this library thought it was all so clear to your dad (and I know my dad would never return after an experience like this; I think he was frightened by a librarian in his youth) and that she was helping him. Not sure how useful getting an email *after* I left the library would be, especially without any indication it would be coming with that welcome info. End of rant.

    And I do think it is the library’s job to make all sorts of people welcome and able to find what they need. You don’t have to cater to every personality tic, just acknowledge that not everyone is like you, may need some explanation, and be pleasant.

    Hope your dad does return to the library!

  7. Courtney Says:

    Your dad is BRILLIANT! I spent five minutes on the phone arguing with an Abercrombie and Fitch employee last week about a manager that gave one of my patrons an email address at abercrombie&fitch.com to send her resume to and the idiot didn’t understand what an ampersand is, or why he should give the correct e-mail address to a woman who aready had an in-store interview and was asked to e-mail her resume. All he could repeat was “we don’t hire night shift online, she has to come into the store”.

    Also, we wear nametags, but many people have told me they’re afraid of stalkers if they do. I’d rather have my title and not my name, but it’s an ID card where neither are visible if you’re not paying attention.

  8. alwperry Says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. As a librarian, I always find it a real treat to visit other libraries and be a patron. It’s easy to forget how some of our less library savvy visitors might view the experience. I will certainly be making some changes!

  9. Jessica Says:

    I love posts like this, because it gives me an opportunity to see what’s “good” and “bad” in my library, and others.

    We don’t wear nametags, mostly because the all-female staff is a bit skeevy about it. We have some male patrons who are sketchy (at best) and some feel like it’s a security issue. I don’t push it.

    We are (in summer) extremely busy – but I think we age good at giving undivided attention to one person at a time. That means you may have to wait for some help for a few minutes, but when you are getting it, you’re getting it. Sometimes there is frustration, but I do my best to address any issues and to help out with patrons when I see a back-up.

    Sometimes patrons don’t like our policies, and are quite vocal about it. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes we could do something better or different.

    We do have a nice welcome kit full of swag!

  10. geek anachronism Says:

    We do a predetermined spiel when we sign someone up – we go over library policies in a general sort of way, internet policies, fines and charges, online resources and opening hours/branches. Usually we see if there’s anything specific they need and explain where to go for help in the library (i.e. returns go there, loans go there, information requests come here). When you’re doing 20-30 of them a day (between 3 and 6 staff on desk, mostly it’s the 1 or 2 librarians doing the sign up) it can get irritating but it makes a huge difference. Even if a third of people don’t listen and proceed to try borrow from the reference desk, don’t know their pin # they just created or then try to go out the entry door. Two thirds is a pretty good ratio.

  11. mark Says:

    for god’s sake send a stiff letter of complaint to whoever’s in charge. we’re always being told in the uk how great the customer service mentality is in the usa. this is proof that this is exaggerated. i cringe at the amateurish nature of the libraries i’ve come across since my return from new zealand and I beg you to complain. otherwise nothing will change and the bosses will stay complacent. if the place is that busy it should be staffed ny a paid employee and not a volunteer

  12. Dan Says:

    Chime on the name tag thing. After a few very frightening stalking incidents, it was policy not to wear name tags in public, although we did have STAFF tags. We also had staff members who we called “hub bubs”: they made everything they did look like it was a flurry of effort, usually to evoke sympathy from the patrons (“They’re working so HARD to help me!”) when in reality it could have been handled quicker and with less crazy running around.

    I do find it ironic that the e-mail welcome is (and rightfully so here) considered not very helpful, what with the all the talk about how libraries MUST use technology for the patrons, when most of the user demographic would like an old fashioned brochure and a person to talk to.

  13. Amy Ranger Says:

    First, I’m sorry the process was so tedious for your dad. That would have turned me off enough that I probably wouldn’t go back, so I totally empathize with him.

    Second, I’m glad that you were in observation mode and could make note of exactly what was (and was not) happening. I think it would be in the Library’s interest to send the director a note with background info and a link to this post. The director ought to think about it. I could see this being used as a case study in Library Management courses, too. We all know what the outcome should be — and there were many steps along the way where it wrong. What must the Director do now to get the Library back on track?

  14. Tammy Says:

    I dont think it’s going so far out of our way to explain to patrons what we’re doing “Give me a second, and I’ll grab you an application.” I did that when I worked in a pizza shop. This way you weren’t just walking away from the counter, and the customer had NO IDEA whether you were going to get their pizza, make a personal phone call… high tail it through the back door…

    I also don’t think it’s a bad assumption to make that SOME patrons (if not MOST) are going to have questions–and they won’t even know what those questions are. What’re the hours? How does this pin number thingy work? And they won’t realize it was a question, until they want to renew a book at 9PM on Sunday night, or log onto the computer system.

    Not all users will be computer savvy, and may need just a brief orientation with the computer system, the automatic checkout system, what various things are called (I have a REAL problem with a sign saying OPAC being hung over the machine with the “online catalog” on it–WE know what an OPAC is. Dad, who last used a library when there were cards in drawers has NO IDEA.)…

    I faced this attitude when I worked in the tech industry as well… “well, I know what it is, and how it works, so I don’t understand what’s so hard for the patron. obviously they’re just stupid, or never paid attention in library class.” Because everyone remembers what they learned 50 years ago in 4th grade about the Dewey Decimal System that many libraries don’t even use any more.

    I bet your car mechanic feels the same way about YOU, when you wander in with a “rumbly-thingy under my feet when I go uphill.” No–we want someone not only to fix the problem, and make it stop rumbling, but explain to us what was making the noise, so we can understand the next time something goes awry.

    A welcome package AND a welcome email, in addition to giving a brief verbal overview means the patron has a prayer of remembering SOME of the new information they’re being inundated with. And if they feel comfortable enough, say, checking out a DVD, then they may come back and learn how to navigate the catalog, or learn who to ask for help, or come back for an event.

    Heck, I’m intimidated walking into a new library, and I went to school for this stuff. I don’t want to look like a “tourist” and wander around aimlessly, and I don’t want to make assumptions based on the last library I was in… and I also don’t want to bother someone, if I can help it. I also don’t like feeling dumb when the “self-help” signage or literature ISN’T helpful to me. I think most patrons feel this way too

  15. Jen Says:

    Are you for real?

    Honestly, this sounds like a very typical library visit to me.

    You’re disappointed because your dad had to (horrors!) *fill out a form* and wait in line? Because it was a little busy, and the understaffed library wasn’t able to warmly fawn over him immediately?

    If you think you can get that level of service, in this economy, with librarians retiring, positions not being filled, and budgets being slashed, you’re nuts.

  16. jessamyn Says:

    Jen, I’ve been writing this blog for ten years and I think I have a decent track record of understanding the real challenges libraries face. I have also worked in outreach in public libraries for years and know that sometimes libraries don’t understand how they look from the outside. I didn’t expect fawning at all. Yes I am for real.

    My father is a smart guy who doesn’t care at all about the library. I wanted him to at least have gone into his own library so I brought him over. The visit to the library left him feeling confused, ignored and generally asking “Why did I go here again?”

    If our argument as libraries and librarians as that we should endeavor to provide services to the people who are already there and/or know what they want, that’s one thing. As a public institution, I feel we have an obligation to serve the entire community and understand their desires and concerns.

    I think my post was polite and informative without being snarky or blame-tossing. If a library is understaffed enough that they can’t sign up a resident for a library card without that resident feeling bad about the whole experience or like they were wasting the library workers’ time, I think they could stand to improve their services.

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  18. Elizabeth Says:

    I think it is so important, and yet I find that it is also very difficult for people who work in libraries to look at our practices, rules, and organization from the patron’s point of view. Once you are a part of an organization it is very difficult to unpack all of the information you have about why we do what we do and explain it to patrons each and every time.
    It is so easy to start taking little things for granted, for instance walking away to get a form, which may seem like an obvious step for the employee, but not so to the patron as you pointed out.
    It would be enlightening I am sure if we could all accompany a patron on a visit to our libraries as an observer. I am glad you shared this experience, because it made me think once again about the things we do at my library and how some of those practices might not make a whole lot of sense to a patron.

  19. Marc Says:

    I found this post very interesting. The impartial tone of your post (though I think in essence, you feel this library failed) lends itself to a lot of different interpretations of your dad’s library visit, depending upon the reader’s own experience, either as library staff, as a patron, or both, and so the responses to your post are just as compelling—kinda like a little Rorschach for all of us. I am a reference librarian at a medium-sized public library, so a lot of the small slights you mention hit a nerve, and helped remind me to be more aware of our patrons’ needs, and any confusion new patrons might be experiencing. That said (there’s that phrase!), as is true of any service position, it’s a challenge to anticipate every patron’s need, or to not fall into the trap of jaded routine. It’s cliche, but just because you’ve done it 10 times today already, your procedures aren’t crystal clear to the new guy who’s just walked into your library. I think patrons do need to realize that libraries can be overburdened and understaffed and show an appropriate level of patience, but the plain fact is, libraries need to keep attracting new advocates, and first impressions are important.

    Ann, loved your comment about ‘librarians don’t use other libraries’. I had to visit a library in another county this past week in ‘new patron mode,’ and I was surprised to find myself a little intimidated and confused myself!

    Terrific post, Jessamyn.

  20. agathafrye Says:

    Ummm, for starters, why did they have to walk away to get a library card application? Why didn’t they have a stack of them at the desk? I have lots of other opinions about this post, but this one really hit me upside the head. Sheesh!

  21. Chris Says:

    The catalogue stuff is true, but as for the getting a card, libraries don’t have a monopoly on bad customer service, like the majority of stores staffed by min. wage 16 yr olds. We all have dreams of smiling faces and fantastic pitches by staff but the reality is what it is: sounds like that library is very busy, underfunded and understaffed. Little too anecdotal for my taste but that is the crappy side of blogs, the personal is taken for the general.

  22. Chris in NJ Says:

    Apologies in advance if this has already been said, but I am old enough to remember learning library skills in school. There was a real DIY aspect to using the library. Part of the educational process was figuring out how to use the library for yourself. The prevailing approach was that, after a basic introduction, students need to know how to use the library on their own – looking up items in the card catalog and going to the stacks, also using things like the Reader’s guide to Periodical Literature, was part of the research process, and in order to call your work your own, you had to be able to do this independently. I am under age 50, and I say this because a lot has changed in a very short amount of time. I think old vestiges of the DIY culture/mentality still exist in many libraries. The trick these days is in giving a newbie enough of a welome, and initial instruction, so that eventually this person will be able to look things up on their own. (That old expression about teaching someone to fish comes to mind.) But there still needs to be that initial support. Maybe that’s the piece that was missing here. The staff member saw a gentleman of a certain age and perhaps assumed he knew his way around a library. To me, the lesson here is be welcoming, and explain what you are doing every step of the way. And don’t assume anything, ever.

  23. Penny Says:

    I am not missing the points made here, but all I want to say right now is that I LOVE the photo of your dad, and the entry with your email dialogue about the iBistro thing, the photo is adorable, and the email dialogue sounds like ones my dad and I have (on the phone though, my dad doesn’t use email). So sweet!

  24. GiovanniNVA Says:

    I’m appauled at the behavior of that particular library. I would hate to hear any patron that I have had in the past say that about the library I work. I always make sure I give out a brochure to every new patron and I have a reminder brochure about services that we offer. We are a small town regional library, but we make sure our patrons are always served with a smile!

  25. Anjaana Says:

    I am sorry that your dad did not feel welcome in that particular library. I am giving you invitation to visit Smyth Bland Regional Library here in South West Virginia in a small town named Marion. I want you experiece a good old southern hospitality here in this small library. I am from India, and when we came to visit the area only for couple of monthes. Guess what that was almost 11 years ago. My husband and I love this area so much that we decided to settle down here. I hope you get to read this message and come visit us soon. Thanks
    Anjaana Chadha

  26. Meg Says:

    I’m sorry it wasn’t a positive experience for your father, but I have to say that this was a very helpful post for me as a librarian. I can very easily see the situation devolving into this at almost any library given the right circumstances. I know that it’s so easy when I’m busy and exhausted to just quickly DO something (like walk over to get an application) rather than take the extra five seconds to explain what I am doing to a patron. It’s good to see this from the other side and remember what that feels like when you don’t know what’s going on. So really, I feel tired and sympathetic for the staff of that library, and I hope they get this written up and given to them without them knowing it was about their library so they can learn without being defensive.

    I also think renovations make everyone grumpy.

    And I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this, but when I go on vacation, I actually stop at public libraries and go in and look around to see what they’re like. My boyfriend is used to this and plans for it.

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  28. Sarah Mae Says:

    As someone working in a public library where staff shortages and long lines are becoming increasingly common, I have to say this library is doing things not as well as they could be. Try not to multitask with patrons. There should be a clear place to line up and wait, whether it is for reference or circulation. We have started keeping library card applications at Reference so that we can give new patrons the form and they can fill it out while they wait in line at circ. When someone gets their brand new card, they are given their pin number, a list of all the libraries in our system and information about fines, fees and lending periods.