Scene Missing

I usually don’t write about my work at the library because a good number of solid personal reasons, but something happened today that really shook me. One portion of my job is computer instruction; I teach all of the computer classes at my branch plus I offer one-on-one sessions by appointment. The latter are for subjects that I don’t teach in the classroom setting since they don’t generate enough interest to warrant reserving the computer lab. Plus it also gives me a chance to provide additional individual attention to someone who needs a little extra time or care. Personally, I think it’s great outreach, advocacy, and instruction all rolled into one, but that’s beside the point of this post.

Today I had a situation in a one-on-one that I’ve never experienced before and, quite frankly, it put a damper on my mood for the rest of the afternoon. It was with an older gentlemen to whom I have taught computer basics. In my relatively short tenure, I’ve encountered people who were reluctant, hesitant, and downright fearful about using the computer. I try to soothe their concerns, addresses their needs, and get them to see the computer as something that can be used by anyone.

But today was different. About halfway through our time, he stopped me and told me that he didn’t want to go on. His memory, he went on, was not there anymore. He understood what I was saying, but he wasn’t remembering it. Furthermore, he could feel himself not retaining it. He was frustrated, a hint of angry, and an underlying feeling of disappointment. With that, he didn’t want to go on with the lesson and he wanted to let go of the idea of using the computer.

It was hard thing to hear. Having experienced life with two grandmothers who had dementia who ability to retain short term memories were all but shot, my heart went out to him. I have seen the face of frustration by someone who is desperately trying to remember what happened moments ago or realizing they have asked the same question multiple times over a short time period. I’ve seen the anger that can unfold when the person knows there is a connection to be made but can’t seem to find the right words, terms, or concept. It’s the ultimate mind betrayal.

On the other hand, as we started, he had demonstrated that he remembered some of what I taught him in the previous lesson. In going over the basics again, he was readily picking up on what I was saying and doing. It was my own frustration this time in knowing that he had remembered some things, but he was either not realizing it or putting it down as insufficient. It might not have been rushing forth, but it was there.

In that ensuing conversation that lasted but a few minutes as we wrapped things up, I felt the walls break down. Here was another human being, a bit scared, looking to indulge his interests but his brain wasn’t there for him. We talked about our family histories (he has relatives who had or have the same kinds of memory issues) and about how the brain works in terms of memory, reasoning, and emotion. I wasn’t the librarian anymore, but someone there trying to make him feel better, encouraging him to talk to a doctor about how he felt, and what was important in life (his family). But, even for all those consoling words, I felt very helpless in that moment. I couldn’t offer or provide a solution.

In the end, he walked away. I left the door open to him and reminded him it was not a waste of my time but my job to be there for people who need help just like him. I hope he comes back. I don’t want to give up.


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.

When Patrons Die

When I got to work this morning, a coworker pointed out a local story about a couple who died over the weekend due to an apartment fire. In reading the story in the paper, it was someone who was a library regular that I had helped on a number of occasions.

I had known Joe for a couple of years. He was a student in my computer class as well as some one-on-one help sessions. Together we had created a resume, got it up on one of the New Jersey employment sites, and done some job searching. Over the summer he had come by to tell me that he had found a job; a few weeks ago, he came by to tell me how he was unjustly let go from that job. We had talked about finding another job; he mentioned that he was taking care of his wife afflicted with a short life expectancy prognosis from cancer. Joe was a handyman but without a Facebook account, so I posted it his details on one of the local business groups. He always asked if I was in when he came to check out his movies and I’d nearly always pop out of the back to say hi and see what was going on.

This is my first experience with a library regular passing away. I’ve had a coworker pass away from cancer and encountered death through relatives coming to the library to settle affairs and return items. But, as you can surmise from the previous paragraph, this was someone I got to know on a personal level. It just really hit me.

Rita Meade posted something today that really captures some of what I’m feeling at the moment. The public librarian life is not always glamorous, but I made a difference in Joe’s life. It counts. It matters. And in making a difference in Joe’s life, I made one in my own by remembering that what I do is important. Even if it has some wonky, weird, boring, and/or awful moments between the important times.

If I might ask a favor from my readers, I’d appreciate it if you would so kind as to share your own stories about library regulars passing away.

If Libraries Operated like Health Insurance…

As the title of the post implies, I got to thinking the other night about that. With all the talk about health insurance reform, I think libraries are poised to consider long term changes to how we approach the patron interaction. Some of these are silly, some are relevant, others are perhaps thoughtful, but I think one or two are real questions for libraries looking ahead. (I’ll let you guess which ones I think are the real deal.)

Would people have to pick borrowing plans? Would these borrowing plans be based on tax/levy contribution? Or the ability of neighbors to band together and negotiate services? Would libraries provide service to only those who pay taxes?

Would dyslexics be denied a library card because they had a pre-existing condition? Or people who are illiterate? Or any learning disability? Or people who don’t know how to use the computer?

Would patrons need a referral to read different types of non-fiction? Or would a patron have to choose from a pre-approved list of subjects based on their library plan? Or would we refer them to a subject specialist?

Would there be a limit on the number of items a patron could take out over a year? Would they have to pay for the ability to borrow beyond their limit?

Image by a.diran/FlickrWould use of a computer be restricted by the library to a certain number of times per week/month? Would databases be restricted in the same way?

If a patron wanted to read a banned/challenged book, would they need to get a second opinion of another librarian? Would they need to sign a “informed consent” waiver before we let them take the book?

Would librarians need to get malpractice insurance in case a reading recommendation ends up offending the patron? Would there be a cap on the amount of awards for people who suffered emotional distress, eye strain, or the dreaded “reader’s thumb”?

Would patrons be restricted to only the materials that are deemed ‘necessary’ by the library?

Perhaps this is more waxing philosophic than hard questions about current practices, but I cannot help but think that some of these types of questions start us down the path to more meaningful policy changes.

The Future of Ye Olde Library

Buffy Hamilton (The Unquiet Librarian) introduced me to Helene Blower’s blog Library Bytes the other night. As soon as I added it to my Google Reader, this little gem of a post popped out at me.

An open information bar? Or a theatre of knowledge? of something else? The question is "what is the library of the future in a networked world?"

With this video:

And I watched it again. And then a third time. You get the picture.

In regard to the questions poised, I think an open information bar is an ill-fitting metaphor. While the personalized dispensary aspects of the bar might be more apt to people’s requests for materials, it maintains the traditional patron-librarian-material chain of interaction that has fallen out of favor. Rather than linear, the aspects should represent points on a triangle with all members having equal access to each other. The metaphor’s presence of a barrier to access (i.e. a bar) that is keeping patrons from what they are seeking is unsettling for a future library vision. Although, it certainly does bring new meaning to the phrase “drunk on knowledge”.

I believe that the future of the library is more like a theatre of knowledge; specifically, an information renaissance faire. Whether it is to put on garb and take part in the experience (your serious library users, loyal patrons) or simply to come and enjoy the sights and sounds (casual users, “I have a report due on Monday” now-and-again patrons), patrons will be able to choose their level of interaction, collaboration, and participation in the library. The immersive experience will allow the patrons to dismiss their preconceived notions of the limits of knowledge and open their minds to the full potential of the information age. Just as a regular renaissance fair invokes a friendly form of make believe rooted in the modern age, the future library should seek to create a comfortable and safe environment for people to act upon their imagination, creativity, and curiosity.  This sense of familial connection is what will fuel collaborative intellectual exploration outside of the library through web and mobile applications. These standalone tools will serve as faithful companions, ever present for consultation in the evolving life of a patron. Even if the patron chooses to utilize the library remotely, the information renaissance faire will continue on, presenting and challenging people with a different way to consider the world around them.

Everywhere is here, indeed.