Needs and Wants
It’s no secret to librarians that many patrons come to the library for more than our collections. Most people can find books and DVDs online. They can use our research databases without getting out of bed. For reference questions they can call, email, text, or instant message. We have reference resources that don’t circulate, and anyone who’s worked in a children’s room knows that parents don’t want to buy the thirty-five books their child wants that day, so coming to the library can be a life (and pocketbook) saver. Still, many patrons who come in the door don’t, strictly speaking, need our services. Many come for another free service we provide, albeit indirectly: human contact.
This topic was discussed in the anonymous Guardian article, “For Many Library Visitors, I’m the Only Person they’ve Talked to All Day.” The content of this article doesn’t surprise library staff, since so many of our patrons come in to have someone to talk to, or even just to be around people.
These patrons can be divided into two types. The first is a library regular who comes here to use the computers, maybe watch a DVD, or just sit and read, but they’re here several days a week. Some people hang out at their local coffee shop, others at their local bar—and for many, it’s their local library.
The second type is a talker. A patron might ask for help finding a book and then try spending the next half hour telling you why they want that book. Usually I’m more than happy to go along with this as far as is practical. Part of our job is customer service, so being pleasant and conversational is the deal. Of course, sometimes the conversation goes on too long, becomes overtly political or personal, or otherwise crosses a line, but until it does I tend to humor it.
These patrons come from all over. Sometimes it’s a patron experiencing homelessness, or an elderly patron who’s outlived their loved ones, or a latchkey kid whose house is too quiet. Some people are just shy, but they know that librarians tend to be approachable. After all, we’re polite, usually appear relaxed, and we’re not selling anything.
Libraries vs. Bookstores vs. Amazon
The fact that we’re not selling anything really is crucial here. At the turn of the century, when there were so many claims that big box book and music stores would close (they mostly did) and that libraries would collapse (they mostly didn’t), human interaction was a big part of what was left out of the calculations. Barnes & Noble and Borders had employees every bit as nice as librarians, but their job, even if it was 100 percent customer service-orientated, was to sell things. The cafés with comfy chairs were staffed by pleasant people who had nothing to do with selling books, but you were still supposed to buy a latte or a brownie, and you knew it.
The job of bookstore employees was to be friendly, but the job of the place, its sin qua non, was to sell you things. A librarian’s sin qua non is to help people find things, and we think of that as including more than just books. “Things,” in this sense, can be CDs or DVDs, free Internet, information, or even just a dry place when it’s raining. If a bookstore’s purpose was to get you to buy something before you left, our purpose is to get you to come in at all. It’s a completely different attitude, and, because of it, our pleasantness comes with a lot less pressure. For lonely people, that unconditional friendliness is extremely valuable.
Viewed through this lens, Amazon isn’t a competitor. The few times I’ve used their customer service it went far better than expected. The people on the other end of the phone and email were polite and helped me with everything I needed. But their disembodied voices and typed script were that of professionals doing a job, and they’re only available after a transaction goes wrong. While Amazon is much better than libraries at helping you find even the rarest of books or music, its algorithms can’t fill the need for an interpersonal connection. Library staff can. It’s not the only reason that libraries thrive, but it is, perhaps, a big part of our success in the face of Amazon.
When you work behind a counter, it’s easy to see people as a transaction, to move them along because you know there’s another patron waiting. Whether we’re the only person a patron talks to all day, or all week, isn’t really the point. Libraries, like any customer service environment, need to consider that our patrons have different needs. Some are here to pick something up or print something, and even if they approach us for help they don’t want to chat. Others are here precisely to chat and might pick something up or use the Internet while they’re here. Though librarians are generally cognizant of the attitudes and needs of our patrons, we should keep in mind that for many of them, the need isn’t the book we’re handing them, it’s the conversation we’re having with them while we do it.
 “For Many Library Visitors, I’m the Only Person they’ve Talked to All Day,” Guardian (Manchester), February 6, 2016.