“open to the public” != public library – a day (almost) at the Newberry

I had a free day in Chicago today and was planning some library visits. Usually when I’m in Chicago I just go to the downtown library and then complain. This time I wanted to go someplace different, and out of the CPL system. I decided to go to the Newberry Library, whose website says “free and open to the public.” I took a picture of the exterior and walked inside to the lobby. There was a guard there.

me: “Do I have to check my bag?”
guard: “Well you’re not allowed inside unless you’re here for research.”
me: “Oh, sorry, I had just heard that reading room was lovely, can I just walk upstairs and look inside?”
guard: “You have to be doing RESEARCH to go upstairs, on something in the library’s collection.”
me: “Can I just use the third floor reference collection, maybe talk to one of the librarians?”
guard: “No. You’ll have to wait for a tour, tours are on Thursdays. The only places you can go are the gift shop and here in the lobby.”

At this point I walk over to the brochure stand to see if maybe there is some library interest area I can claim a research interest in. While I’m there, the guard turns two more people away. I decide I’m sick of the stupid secret-handshake routine — it seems fairly obvious that I just have to make up some sort of research objective and they’ll let me go up — and decide to leave.

guard: “Do you have some RESEARCH you’d like to do?” (clearly the emphais on the word, to me, implies “hey dumbass, it’s the most obvious password in the book. Here, I’m giving it to you”)
me: “No, I just wanted to look at the reading room, but I think I’ll go home instead.”

I really try to not use this space to complain about customer service incidents unless I think they can somehow be useful teaching tools, but I just was floored here. I had done my homework and read the website where it said “The Library asks that they have research interest in areas supported by the collections but will give one-day passes to people are who are uncertain and just want to explore.” but at the point at which I was not given that option, I quit.

It’s been a long August and I’m a little overtired perhaps so I didn’t have the strength for either the “Please let me talk to your boss” or the “This is what it says on your website” routines. I was spending the day alone in an only-sort-of familiar city and I just wanted to look at a pretty library for a bit, just like I did in Baltimore where the nice lady in the cardigan showed me around before leaving me to wander around on my own.

11 thoughts on ““open to the public” != public library – a day (almost) at the Newberry

  1. Oh, that is *such* a bummer, Jessamyn! I’m really sorry to hear it. I haven’t been there in years now, but I remember it as a pretty cool place. Why didn’t you just tell the guy you were there to research customer service in specialty libraries? At least then he could have told you that they don’t have a section on customer service…

  2. That’s really ironic since BugHouse Square is in the park next to the Newberry. Interesting Newberry fact…the building was designed by William Frederick Poole who also began the Readers’ Guide.

  3. I work at the Newberry in Special Collections. I’m really, really sorry this was your experience. I want you to know that, had you gotten past the security desk, I think you would have found that there are a lot of very friendly, dedicated librarians working upstairs. We obviously have a lot of work to do to see to it that accessing them — and the reading rooms — isn’t so difficult. I plan to share your post with management; it’s a prime example of how we shouldn’t be greeting visitors.

  4. What an awful encounter. Talk about reasons that libraries are losing patrons. Still, I’m glad that an actual librarian from Newberry is reading this and is taking the matter to management.

  5. >I really try to not use this space
    >to complain about customer service
    >incidents unless I think they can
    >somehow be useful teaching tools,
    >but I just was floored here.

    To be honest, I would like to see more librarian bloggers comment (positively or negatively) on the customer service issues they encounter in other libraries. A lot of public libraries have very poor customer service philosophies, and often management does not keep an eye on the way that librarians and other staff members interact with patrons. Providing excellent, friendly customer service is one of the most important parts of encouraging the public to continue to find value in libraries.

  6. Many cities’ potential public library users/clientele/consumers have had similar experiences. Better guidelines are needed for gatekeeper types at the entrances to our favorite cities’ public libraries. What do any of the divisions of the American Library Association offer with respect to any guidelines for gatekeeper types at the doorways?…

  7. Wow, that sounds almost exactly like an experience I had with a fellow librarian at this really huge & important library in DC. We too were denied access based on lack of research proposal, which none of the documentation required. I wrote a letter and did receive a courteous response and apology, and promise to review their documentation vs. their procedures.

  8. I work in a museum library. We are open to the public – sort of – but it is always best to call ahead. We’re very short staffed, but if I know someone is coming – even just to look around – I can make sure I’m ready. I can pull material ahead of time (our stacks are closed), or arrange a behind the scenes tour. Calling ahead makes things so much easier.

  9. Wow. That really is a shame. On one hand, I can understand that they may have gotten tired of their library being used as a hangout joint as opposed to a research place…(and that is their choice)….

    But, really, the guard did not be so strict about it, especially since most people who want just a place to hang out for the day would be deterred by having to obtain a one day pass to get in. He could have been much more polite about it, and todl you the option of the research pass. I don’t think he stopped to realize how unfriendly he was, or how badly that would reflect on the library, or libraries in general!

  10. The National Library of Scotland, where I used to work, is undergoing a redesign (physically and in its attitude) to be more “open to the public”. It is a tough subject for research-oriented libraries. It is not always feasible to let in anyone who happens to want to have a look around, but I think a little customer service training, friendliness, and leniency goes a long way.

    I agree totally with Jesse’s comment that we should be more willing to comment on the performance of our colleagues and have done so myself occasionally at the LSJ Editors’ Blog

  11. I remembered reading this post when I was just in Chicago and wanted to see the Newberry Library. In the guise of doing genealogy research, I presented my business card at the desk and despite my site seeing out fit of jeans and T shirt, was permitted to fill out the necessary paperwork for admittance. Thanks.

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