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The Value of No

by on July 31, 2017

Many of us growing up were told “no.” Many of us now as parents tell our children no. This is not said to be mean. On the contrary, the restriction is said for reasons of safety, fiscal management, protection, support, and education.

For years I’ve witnessed librarians shy away from saying no.We try to phrase our signage positively or seek synonyms such as “refrain.” I’ve seen all staffing requests honored, even when it left institutions dangerously short of coverage. I’ve seen abusive patrons placated to the extent that staff was in tears and other library patrons alienated. I’ve seen librarians spend precious hours, made up on their own time, to entertain a vendor presentation for a product for which there was no need or budget. Worse, I’ve seen librarians purchase unneeded items from vendors, saying they didn’t want to hurt the vendor’s feelings by saying no.

Saying no does not mean being rude or mean. Sometimes saying no is necessary. Sometimes saying no is the responsible response. The important thing is knowing when to say it and how. Saying no is boundary setting. It should not be said in anger or vengeance, but with reason and purpose. In a library, we should say no with the same rationales present as when we say no to our family. We should say no for reasons of safety, fiscal management, protection, support, and education.

In the context of libraries, no one is fooled by word choices to soften a message. If anything, it confuses the reader or indicates that the message is insincere; that the message is not really meant to be followed or will not be strongly enforced. If something, such as no eating or cell phone use, should not be done, there is a reason for it and we would have more credibility (and respect) to be direct. Similarly, if there is a patron violating rules, we have an obligation to ourselves, our colleagues, our public, and to our problematic patron to indicate unacceptable behavior and consequences clearly. Patrons behaving badly have negative consequences for libraries. They scare others and they undermine the safety and mission of the library.

We, our co-workers, and vendors should be professional. As such, decisions regarding staffing, collections, or other management or operational concerns should not be happening based on interpersonal relationships. We shouldn’t be worried that our book vendor could be mad at us for a lack of purchase. If such decisions are made this way, it undermines our profession, our integrity, and all of our abilities to do our jobs.

No one likes to be perceived as the ‘bad guy’ and saying no can make us feel in this position. But we would not feel unjust telling our child not to run into the road, telling our spouse not to overspend our savings account, or telling a friend not to engage in dangerous behaviors. We do these things not to be mean, but to be benevolent. We do these things because we care.  Saying no in the library should be considered in kind.

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