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Keeping It Real – But Not Personal

by on April 28, 2013

My library is small in both size and staff. We serve a fairly rural community. We are the kind of library and patron base in which we know people by first names, ask about their relatives, know their reading preferences and listen to their knock-knock jokes. Further, we all appreciate this small town and small community feel.

Recently one of our long time youth volunteers (turned staff member), R., came home from college and was filling in at the library while seeking her “real job.”  It was not long before she  announced that in a few months she would  be joining the Peace Corps. News spread through the town like wild fire.

Patrons started asking us about it. Would we have a party? And if a present was being purchased, many of them wanted to chip in. On the surface, we found this endearing. However, R. was not as enthused. Yes, it was nice that people – people she didn’t really know – cared for her, but as she said, “the creep factor is a little high.”

It was only after a discussion with R. that I found out that she had had many conversations with patrons she did not know, who had  approached her in the stacks with unsought-after advice. One patron informed her that where she was going there were a lot of bugs and she should cut her hair.That same patron followed up, repeatedly asking when she’d be cutting it. Another, wanted to know what she’d be wearing in her future employment. As these questions and comments were coming from people R. felt that she did not know very well, the possible implications for staff safety seemed large.

It is a difficult goal for the small library: to keep the friendly, personal service and not let things become too personal. There are of course, formal ways this can be done: Keep certain topics off limits. Be addressed and address others formally. Keep an air of distance. But this then affects the culture.

What was good, was that this unique circumstance initiated a conversation among all of the staff and I’ve added the probing question, “any concerns about patrons?” to my standard conversations with staff members.