Touch

I really wanted to give a library member a hug last week. It wasn’t because they had done something awesome for the library, but they were in pain. It was a deep personal pain, far detached from anything at the library. I wanted to put my arm around them, tell them that things were going to be alright, and give offer them comfort in their time of sadness.

I wouldn’t have simply walked over and hugged them (I know how people can be about being touched), but I really wished I had offered them a hug. Even if they had turned it down, at least I could say that I offered it and it was declined. I wouldn’t take it personally but it’s better than feeling regret at not offering them a hug. The impulse comes out of the larger sense of empathy that I feel when it comes to helping people who come to the library. Sometimes a helping hand is the most literal one that offers comfort in a time of emotional stress in a way that no book, database, or service can offer.

I think librarians have a common connection with law enforcement at times; we do not see people at their best. Librarians can see people at their most stressed, most frazzled, and most in need of help. I’ve seen it people typing up resumes desperately looking for work, frustrated by online job applications, and looking for solutions that will get them to the next payday, the next grocery trip, and the next heating bill. I’ve seen people toiling with taxes, fighting with banks and insurance companies, and trying to fit five hours of errands into a three hour window. (I would imagine my academic and school peers see their share as students of all ages struggle with their grades and assignments.) I empathize with each and every one of them and try my best to ease their day. But, that day last week, there was nothing I could do to help someone who is going through such a rough personal issue. A hug was all I could think of, but I couldn’t even bring myself to articulate the simple question (“Would you like a hug?”).

The thoughts of policy went through my head with a customer conduct manual that repeats the line, “Do not touch the patron” through the different scenarios. This line is found in the negative interactions outlined in which the patrons are drunk, being unruly, or otherwise abusive. It’s a pretty good guideline for those kinds of incidents, but it infects other thoughts as well. Would this be crossing a line even if the other person was consenting? Is there some county attorney who would give me trouble for this, even with permission?

To me, this should be easy issue: offer, then act accordingly. Hug or no hug, either way works, and life moves on. But as a white male, over six feet in height and the weight to match, and has been called “intimidating” in the past, it presents its own quagmires. These factors do not work in my favor. The horror stories of sexual harassment accusations have been played time over time through friends and the news. A long time ago, I adopted a “no touching anybody ever” professional policy to safeguard against even the most remote chance of an accusation. I wasn’t exactly a touchy feely person before (save for loved ones and close friends), but this made the personal space barrier even more rigid and inflexible. Even then, it sometimes makes me feel lonely and aloof.

As I was putting this post together in my head, I thought about my friends and librarian friends online who deal with the other end of this question: the unwanted contact. Creeps, jerks, and other obnoxious asshats who find an excuse to initiate touching, whether it is a seemingly casual brush-by or full-on grope. It saddens me that some of my amazing colleagues have to be cautious and aware of their surroundings anytime they are in the public. (I know this goes into deeper societal and cultural issues, but I’m not heading into that territory for this post. I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that they exist and I’m aware of them.) This bothers me to the point where I lose the words to describe my burning, blinding rage. It invokes dark fantasies of vigilante justice involving hammering fingers and crushing larynxes. It angers me that anyone (librarian or not) has to put up this kind of bullshit behavior. If there was an occasion for God to use lightning bolts to smite people right where they stand, this would be one of my top choices.

Over the weekend, I’ve thought about that encounter. I believe it is one in which that I’m not a librarian and they aren’t a library member, but two human beings in the same place where one is going through a tough, emotional crisis. The empathetic side of me told me that the ‘right’ thing to do was to offer comfort by way of a hug. The logic and reasoning side only saw the potential dangers in that situation. In this round, fear won over compassion. And I wish it hadn’t. I really wanted to reach out because I know how even the gesture can make the difference in someone’s life. We are in a business of small acts that lead to bigger and life-changing results. I felt that this was one of those moments and I let it slip away. I just hope I don’t fail to act upon what I think is right the next time.

7 thoughts on “Touch

  1. On Saturday, I had an open mic event at the library. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go as far as participation went. There’s a halfway house near the library and the women there visit the library 2 days every week. One of the women was interested in reading at the open mic and she and some of the other women were able to get special day passes to leave the house on a Saturday.

    She was so nervous about reading her poetry, which was really emotional and personal. So before she went on, I gave her a hug. I hugged her at the end of the event, too. I’m not a person who usually touches patrons. I think I’ve hugged one other patron before, high school girl who was a regular and upset by what another library employee said to her. I saw high school self in her, so I offered her a hug and she accepted.

    And I think you’re right. When someone is hurting emotionally, your roles vanish. I’ve never hugged a person as a librarian, but as another human being. I honestly don’t know if my library has a “no touching” policy. I’ll have to investigate that today. But I think personal contact only crosses the line when it’s unwanted or has some sort of underlying motivation, like if you were hoping to cop a feel under the guise of comfort. I think anything with a pure motivation of empathy and compassion couldn’t be taken any other way.

    • I really like the line, “I’ve never hugged a person as a librarian, but as another human being.” Makes so much sense, but not sure how the rest of the world feels about it :( I’m sure that the girl you hugged is really glad that you gave her support and stability!

  2. I work in a community where people commonly greet each other with a handshake and an air kiss or hug. This is not a rural setting – it’s a city! I had to adapt to that and find that it makes a stronger connection between people. It must be tough for the germophobes, but, when I stick out my hand and someone pulls me in for a hug, I find myself smiling.
    I have given some staff members a genuine hug (in sorrow or happiness for them) and had them return the favor when I’m happy or hurting (my birthday, the death of my mother). I can’t say that I have hugged a member of the public who is hurting, but I have put my hand on their arm, as a sort of consolation.
    I did have a Reference Department head who was so tactful at this; I have seen her helping people who were having difficulty manuvering through a website by leaning over, asking them “may I put my hand on your hand?” while the hand was on the mouse and show them what to do in that way. I am SURE that those people left with a positive attitude toward the library.
    I once read a study that was conducted in a retail store that surveyed people who were leaving the store regarding their purchasing experience. Apparently, if the store clerk gave change and even brushed the hand of the customer, the level of positive experience increased dramatically. I think this can be easily transferred to a library setting.

    • I’ve done the ‘hand over hand’ thing when I’m teaching my computer classes. It helps give people a better feel for how to move the mouse as well as aim it. I don’t do it often since I prefer to grab the cord right where it comes out of the mouse and move it that way. (It also helps me steady them since I can hold the cord down to make sure they don’t move it when they click.)

  3. Empathy is a boon and a burden when you have to deal with the public on a daily basis. There are definitely patrons who will welcome the occasional hug or other commiserating touch, others who won’t, and that is part of knowing your patrons.

  4. As I was reading the beginning of your post, I was thinking that women have it easier with this experience. I’m not particularly huggy; but, I have hugged two patrons (oddly, both were burly biker dudes) and given a few pats on the back. But for better or worse women have the role of comforter and it is probably more welcome. I find this sad. I’m sorry you had to think and mull over and then decide not to, when your impulse was motivated by compassion.

  5. Great post, Andy, and is extremely sad. Library staff work with people who can be highly stressful and also emotional – as you pointed out – and people that work in this profession naturally, I think, have an inclination to help others. The urge to offer solace and to heal through touch is there, but we cannot do this. The people commenting above have done this and it most likely helped the individuals that they were consoling, but a male doing this is unheard of. I know it is not the same but have you thought about writing that patron a letter stating how you feel and to let them know you are there if they need any support? I feel that this is probably crossing different lines, but maybe it’s doable?

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