Yesterday, the amazing Miss Julie posted an important reminder of how we should all conduct ourselves online when it comes to patron privacy. What I love about this post and the responses that it inspired is that it makes us face a continuing human flaw with humility. Most of us probably struggle with casting judgment on the people in our lives and most of us probably don’t express our frustration or opinions in the right place or in the right way 100% of the time. I know I have posted some things and then thought, maybe a few minutes later, “I’m not proud that I posted that. I’m going to delete it.” It’s so important to constantly ask ourselves, “Is what I’m doing the best thing for me right now AND the most considerate way I can handle this?”
I want to take a few moments to expand on this idea of protecting patrons’ privacy by asking us to consider the way we speak and act inside the library as well.
Gossip in the library is something I don’t tolerate. Not as a supervisor, not as a co-worker, not even as a spouse while my husband is visiting. Not behind closed doors or at my very public desk. It just doesn’t fly with me. As a branch manager working at a small branch in a small town in the South, I know too well that people are always listening and that at every moment, I set the tone for how to treat people in my libraries. If I have something funny to say to my teammate about an encounter with a patron, I save it for when we’re closing up and walking out. Even then, I make it clear that while people irritate me, I still care for them. Since we see a lot of the same people and know almost everyone by name, we are able to vent with love for the people that we see more often than we see our own families.
Protecting my patrons’ privacy, for me, also extends to protecting their dignity.
It’s not always about what I say, but it’s also what I don’t say or do. One of my branches is very close to a women’s shelter, an adult assisted living facility, and a special education school. We see patrons who are dealing with substance abuse, are differently-abled or intellectually challenged, and also lots of people who, for one reason or another, just act in socially awkward ways. These patrons might show up drunk or high, make unusual sounds, smell a bit ripe, wear what some people would consider too little clothing, interrupt me while I’m helping other people, or show any number of concerning behaviors. Being a human, of course I’m aggravated or offended sometimes, but I intentionally treat these people in the exact same way I treat my most average and treasured patrons. Everyone is equal. As long as more worrisome patrons aren’t causing a disturbance and they’re being respectful to me and my teammate (or as respectful as they can be), I help them and leave them be. (As a small aside: I don’t call the police. I never would unless someone posed a physical threat or verbally assailed me in a way I couldn’t handle. I never want to be the person responsible for possibly sending a patron back to jail or causing them to be handled roughly, physically or verbally. The exception being a known sexual offender, I cringe from hearing stories of librarians who call the police anytime they spot someone acting “suspicious.” That’s not the kind of person or librarian that I am and that’s certainly not the spirit of the library. When approached with care, the vast majority of people will respond to what you’re saying or choose to leave.)
I also stop patrons and co-workers from making comments about others or passing judgment aloud. When someone approaches me to check-out and begins to describe how a patron smells or how their sounds are annoying, I just shut it down. I might simply say something like, “you know, it takes all types.” I might just abruptly change the subject. In some cases, I’ve said, “let’s not gossip,” accompanied by a disapproving expression.
It’s a small thing that makes SO much difference. Sometimes your care results in a patron experiencing greater quality of life, and sometimes it improves tolerance in your community. I’ll just give you one example to close out.
Over the summer, my smaller branch had a visitor who was…not so much homeless as something of a bohemian. He was passing through our tiny town and found that sitting right outside the library doors was a pretty good deal for him. He wasn’t allowed inside only because he had a dog with him, but he found a shady spot to sit off to the side of the entrance and enjoyed talking to some of the teens who found him fascinating. In my brief interactions with him, I found him to be very intelligent, but he was scruffy and a little smelly from baking in the heat, and lots of patrons considered him unsavory. A few people called the police and he was visited a few times a day while they were patrolling the parking lot. I handled the situation by having a talk with my teammate at this branch. I told him we had to be very careful to treat him as an equal and to not allow anyone to say damaging things about him. While an officer was having a talk with him, I made sure that I had something to carry to my car and casually stopped to say that we were happy that he had a comfortable place to hang out with us and said I couldn’t imagine how he could bother anyone. The police left him alone for awhile after that. That night, he came back to the library without his dog and I welcomed inside. He was very grateful, but I noticed he was cursing and reminded him that we had children in the building and asked him to use his filters. He obliged, but the teachers who were volunteering for a program that night were very shaken by him. As I was sitting with them, I noticed them giving him a lot of side eye and tucking their purses closer to their chairs. Every time he spoke to me or asked for help, they raised their lips a little or arched their brows at things he said. I, on the other hand, just went on with my business as though I didn’t notice anything unusual at all. When it was time to close, he respectfully shut down his computer and he and I had pleasant conversation on the way out about how rural towns often have closed minds. I waved goodbye to him and to the teachers who helped me, who never said a word against him, though their actions said different.
And that’s it. That’s the grand story of tolerance and respect in the library. People who clearly disapproved said nothing to me and that was a big success. I don’t know if the police genuinely lightened up on him or if they just thought they had better things to do. I don’t know if the teachers broadened their perspectives. I do know that we set the example that day in a community that was not being kind or fair. The end.