Friday, April 08, 2005

Knowing when to let go (off that patron that seems to keep asking for more)

In many professions, there are many things you learn at the workplace they don't tell you about in school. Librarianship is no different, and I have written about things they don't tell you in library school before. Odds are I could likely make that a regular column, or just another blog, as I keep discovering things they did not tell me about in library school. Actually, this falls under the "they did tell me about it, but I never thought I would actually see one" category. This happened yesterday afternoon at the end of my day, but I was so tired from the experience I could not get around to writing about it until this morning. So, here goes.

I had an afternoon shift at the Information Desk yesterday. Actually, I had two shifts, but this happened in the later one. It was a one hour shift. When I got to the desk, the librarian on duty before me was already dealing with this particular patron, and I recall distinctly the patron saying something along the lines of "I am being investigated by the FBI" and "I need to deal with this." Needless to say, that sounded kind of ominous, and I was about to get this patron as I was coming on shift. So, what happened then? The lady in question wanted some government information. That in itself is not a difficult request; any librarian with some knowledge of government websites and documents could find it with ease. That is the nice thing about the government; they very often put a lot of their information online to make it accessible, and they are doing it more often these days. Oh no, that was not hard. It was what she was asking for and the way she was basically monopolizing my time quite literally that spelled trouble. To make things worse, this lady was not in the best of health, constantly coughing in a hacking cough so bad I thought I saw the clouds of germs fly in my general direction. Even patrons nearby were shivering at the idea those germs were headed in their direction like Marines storming Normandy on D-Day. Our guess, the assistant director's and mine, was that she likely was indigent or at least of scarce resources. The body odor was the hint that gave us that idea. While we are an academic library, our university's location in the downtown area means we often get patrons the public library, which is a few blocks away, would get. At any rate, what did she want?

She wanted the following:

  1. A list of all (yes, all) the Representatives in the Texas House of Representatives. This had to include their names, contact information, and their committee assignments.
  2. The same type of list for the Senators in the Texas Senate.
  3. Then, do it all over again for the U.S. House of Representatives.
  4. And yet again for the Senators in the U.S. Senate.
  5. A description what the committees did and how they operated. In other words, who did what and who oversaw what.
  6. She had a list of a couple of agencies or organizations, and she wanted to know how they would appeal to certain committees, say the Appropriations Committee in the Federal House, to get their funding.
  7. A couple other miscellaneous items.
Now, questions 1 through 4 are not hard to answer. A visit to the respective websites of the State Legislature and the Federal Legislature will provide the lists in various formats. The level of specificity in the lists varied, but I was able overall to provide the information requested. The catch was she was an elderly lady who claimed was computer illiterate, namely I could not just put her on a computer and tell her go here and here, and good luck. The result was I had to locate the information and print it out for her, and this is part of what made this transaction so time consuming. Add to it the fact she would reveal only one item on her laundry list at a time, and the fact that she kept asking for the same thing more than once, and it made for a long afternoon. As she asked for a repeat item, I often had to tell her I was already printing it out for her. To which she usually replied, "you are doing good" in the same tone you would use to address a puppy dog who was being "a good boy." I figured as long as she did not reach over the desk and pet me, I would be ok. At least I hoped I would be ok, assuming the germs from the extreme coughing she was sending my way did not catch up to me.

The other questions were trickier, and I did a combination of passing the buck with using some print sources. I gave her our copy of the U.S. Government Manual, which is the federal document describing the structure of the government and its functions. While it did not have committees in the legislature, it had a few other pieces of information she likely wanted. For the Texas part of that question, we did have an older manual about the legislature that explained what she wanted, so I let her have that as well. She did sit down happily to look them over once I printed out and pointed out in the printouts the bits and pieces of the "puzzle" she was trying to put together. Initially I took the question as someone wanting to contact their local representatives, but when she asked for all of them, well, I had to wonder. However, my job is to provide the information, not ask what she was doing with it. I did suggest also that for some questions, she might have to contact some of the people on the lists, which made sense to her in terms of they would have better answers that I would.

In library school, when you take one of the reference service classes, they often tell you about knowing how much is too much time spent on a patron. This definitely falls under the example of knowing when to disengage. Now, this sounds nice and easy in the theoretical confines of a classroom, but in the real world, it is a bit more complicated than that. For one, every time I thought I was about to wrap up a query, she would come up with a new one, and this process repeated itself a few more times. I never got to see the whole "laundry list" until the end. Second, I am the type of fellow who finds it difficult to just say no to people. And I am sure a lot of librarians are that way; we are people persons for the most part (unless you are a cataloguer or such. And yes, I know this can be a stereotype open to debate, but I have also met cataloguers and other technical service types who love their computers more than people). So, it made it difficult for me to disengage because I wanted to make sure she had what she needed, even if she seemed a little distressed in the mental faculties area. Given what she was asking for, especially in terms of the later questions, I had no choice but to wonder about the level of sanity. However, since it was not bad enough to have to call someone, I just dealt with it. I am not sure what I can learn from this other than a reminder to know when to quit and tell the patron you have done all you could. She pretty much took over me the whole hour I was at the Information Desk. And to her credit, she was very conscious that she was taking my time and offered to pay for the printouts, to which I told her, "we don't charge for that; it's part of our service." Maybe there was a bit of satisfaction in that, I am not sure. Being able to say someone can come in looking for information, and it does not cost anything. Ok, so, she was a bit more needy (or clingy) than most. Maybe I am thankful I was a teacher before I became a librarian, since teachers have to be very patient, and patient I was last night. Or maybe, it was just one of those moments, one of those once in a blue moon events. I do know it was a draining experience; I was tired when I left for home last evening.

So, if any future librarians is looking to find out "how do I get that clingy patron to move on?," I don't quite have the answer. I think you have to find a logical point to stop and say you have provided what you can, and it is up to the patron to go the rest of the way. The trick is in finding that stopping point, and for me yesterday it was not easy because she kept adding on to her needs list. However, by the end of my shift, she had been satisfied with what she got enough to sit down, pore over it, and give the next librarian a break. I think I managed to find the stopping point; it would have been nicer to have found it a bit sooner, but things don't always wrap up so neatly. Just make sure you have some hand sanitizer handy afterwards.

P.S. For those wanting to locate some of the information:

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