technostress and jerks in the library

I have two things to talk about that seem unrelated until I explain more. I wrote a chapter in the book everyone’s been writing about: Information Tomorrow. There are a ton of excellent chapters in it, and I am also pleased with mine It is about Technostress. My general thesis is that technology stresses us out when we get stuck in between other people’s expectations of what we need to do with technology and what we are actually able to do with it, for whatever reason. This covers a wide range of problems including

  • Reference staff being seated nearest to the public access computers and being continually asked for help despite not haivng enough free time to actually help patrons.
  • Staff being expected to offer training to patrons without getting trained themselves
  • Designers and IT people being expected to build 2.0 tools without any clear sense of WHY they’re building them.
  • Managers getting snippy with staff for explaining technology in a way that is over their head, and both people being unclear whose responsibility it is to clear up the lack of knowledge.
  • Vendors rolling out new features without fixing core functionality issues in their software
  • Updates, from anyone, that break things.
  • Everyone needing to recognize that in order to improve a lot of the technology we deal with, we may have to admit that some of it is lacking.

In any case, it’s a decent chapter. I think for many of us at home with our computers, we don’t get as stressed out as when we’re at work because we’re using it for whatever it is we want to do. We have the time we need and most of us are savvy enough to track down the resources when we hit a wall. However when someone is breathing down our neck to tell us to get Office 2007 on the public access machines and then deal with the patron issues with it and all the while doing the same things we’ve been doing every other week, you can see how it might make us stressed, even jerkish.

Which brings me to my next point, Ryan Deschamps’ post Jerk: The Current Library Brand. It can be hard not to take out technostress and other stresses on patrons, especially trying, complaining, angry or jerkish patrons. Over time as I’ve been reading the library_mofo group at LiveJournal I’ve been surprised just how many of these encounters are the result of the library worker trying to enforce a somewhat confusing or counterintuitive policy and the patron reacting with confusion or doing something “wrong” as a result. Granted, some people in the library are just being jerks, but with 20/20 hindsight a lot of these bad patron/librarian interactions seem like the result of odd, misguided, confusing or outdated policies. The library workers have to try to enforce these policies or get into trouble themselves, and yet when viewed from the outside at least some of these personal interaction disasters seem avoidable.

We get more positive accolades from our jobs if we uphold policies and protect materials (and our bottom line) than we do if we do all the warm fuzzy stuff that always makes the local papers. Being a patron asking the librarian to bend the rules is likely to result in you being branded a mofo, even if the rule is stupid. I enjoy reading the blogs of librarians who show the human side of the difficult work that is librarianship and public service. When I did my lifeguard training a few months ago, I was surprised that one of the things we learned, that was on the test even, was how to convey the rules to people in a way that actually tried to ensure that they hear and understand you. This included limited use of the whistle, a friendly and approachable tone, and keeping a level head when there was a crisis. While I think some of us excel at these sorts of things at our jobs, it seems rare that solving these sorts of patron-librarian (or patron-librarian-technology) problems in a way that keeps everyone’s dignity intact is the desired outcome. To my mind, if you can’t both do your job and not be a jerk you may be in the wrong line of work or working with the wrong ruleset.

The Librarian and the Lifeguard – Social Access to Resources

I’ve started swimming at the local pool because I’m out of shape and swimming is about the best exercise that doesn’t leave me gasping for breath because of my asthma. I’ve done it all of two days now, so I’m not bragging, just had an observation. There are a few lifeguards at our pool. When I was a kid at the pool the lifeguards were hunky older kids. Now that I’m an adult, I’m somewhat amused to find that the lifeguards are children. The pool has a long set of complex rules to follow, most of which I understand and some of which I don’t.

I found myself on one end of the pool yesterday contemplating a swim to the other side when I remembered one of the rules: “no swimming in the diving area.” I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I was in the diving area, I was certainly in the roped off section of the pool where the diving board is, but that’s half the pool. I’m not sure how you get out of the diving area without swimming, so maybe they meant “no lap swimming.” I’m not sure if that’s one of those rules that’s only for kids, in the same way all the kids have to get out of the pool once an hour so the lifeguards can have a break, but the adults don’t have to. I considered asking one of the lifeguards, but she was up on a big tall chair and I felt like it might be sort of a stupid question. I stayed on the side of the pool for a while before I decided to forge ahead, figuring someone would stop me if I were wrong. Can you see where I am going with this?

I had one of those “Aha!” moments where I realized that my feelings of confusion probably mirrored how people feel in the library all the time. All I wanted to do was enjoy the community resource, but I was having a hard time understanding the norms, and was trying to avoid attracting attention from the powers-that-be. There are a lot of rules, some of which are very important and some of which are less important. Some of the rules are severely enforced, some of them are occasionally enforced, some of them are never enforced. They are usually enforced by the librarian, who gets his/her authority from places unknown [to most people who have a loose idea that they work for the town/city]. Rule enforcement can be a gentle reminder or a harsh reprimand. The librarian can often be inaccessible in various ways [refdesk as barrier, computer monitor as barrier, lack of smile as barrier] and patrons often have the feeling that the librarian has “real work” to do that does not involve helping them.

I think we’ve made great strides, as a professsion, removing people’s physical and technical access barriers from library services. I think more and more people, when asked about their childhood libraries, are going to have positive stories of story times, community programs, and great YA book, instead of stern admonishments and shushing. I also think that the more comfortable we feel within our institutions and with our communities, we may start to forget what our library looks like to someone seeing it for the very first time. That person may be from a different city, state, or culture, and may have a different understanding, or a total lack of understanding, of our library norms. Access also means social access.