Greenhorn mistake #1: Feeling responsible for everything

Recently I was able to put into words a nagging feeling that I was taking interactions at the reference desk too personally. The moment of clarity came when a patron nearly chewed me out because the library copier only takes coins, while printing from the computers is a separate payment system. I caught myself on the verge of apologizing profusely, realized there is a distinct difference between sympathy and mea culpa, & resorted to re-stating the facts until he accepted them and walked away to stew privately. And now I’m writing this. (Later I did nicely mention to tech support the copier/printer situation.)

Here are some other things I’ve taken responsibility for at the reference desk, but probably shouldn’t have:

-Frozen computers
-Lack of a change machine in the library
-Miscellaneous office supplies desperately needed
-General MS2007 incompatibility
-Power surges
-Corrupted files
-Buggy flash drives

Now, as my boss wisely points out, librarians do not exist to get stepped on. We are all trying to provide the best library service possible, but we are not doormats. There exists a line between being helpful and allowing ourselves to be the targets of indiscriminate blame.

But it’s so easy for me to get lost in the ephemera of students’ needs! I find myself taking up their causes for a  number of reasons:

First, I’m convinced the library is great, & I’m constantly trying to infect others with my enthusiasm. I’ll admit it: I want them to get excited about research tools and information in general, and I do think it’s possible. Hey, it happened to me. (Or will I later be referring to this as Greenhorn Mistake #564?)

Also, I’m always thinking that if I save the day and fix their computers, they’ll realize I can help with other things, such as their research. This thought makes climbing down on my hands and knees to check cables and wires and locations of USB ports SO much easier.

Lastly, and maybe this makes me a bad librarian (?) I am genuinely interested in whatever problems students bring to me, whether it be personal, absurdly vague, or blatantly impossible to fix. In general I like people, and I usually like the students at the community college where I work. I like being their advocate and helping to fix their problems. I think sometimes they come to school with an “us and them” mentality, where us=students and them=teachers & administration, and maybe this is naive but I’d like to transcend that barrier.

I recently read that the difference between a good and a great computer programmer is knowing when to write original code versus reuse someone else’s. Something similar may be true for librarians, in that the best librarians probably know precisely when they can be helpful, and when someone else would be more so. Admitting that I haven’t been doing this may be a step in the right direction…

7 thoughts on “Greenhorn mistake #1: Feeling responsible for everything”

  1. I think what you’re doing is great

    As a 1st year academic librarian myself I also take a genuine interest in all the questions students ask and try to give them the best possible customer service

    My position description doesnt mention solving technology issues but I still try and solve them if theres no queue at the reference desk eg:

    * fixing wireless access on a laptop computer, or
    * rescuing an assignment from a crashed PC

    Because I used to work in the IT tech support area I can do these with a high % of success

    So go ahead and try and solve all the extra issues that are in your power to solve, just do it with confidence and make it clear you are providing a “bonus service” – you shouldnt have to apologise for stuffups by other staff

  2. It’s a judgement call some days. If there is genuine ignorance displayed, it’s easier to be empathetic. A new student here is unlikely to know that their meal money can’t make copies in the library. If they don’t have cash, I’ll comp them if it’s just a few pages.

    The students who get in my face and gripe about that over which I have no control? I send them along to high muckety-muck with a “that’s above my pay grade.” I don’t earn enough (even after 23 years) to take abuse.

  3. An excellent summary of what I call the “behind the counter” syndrome. When someone works behind a counter (or a desk, in this case), folks may cease to see them as a person and instead see them as either part of the problem or part of the solution — when sometimes, we are neither! Given the scarcity of empathy in our cultures (!), any chance to share a bit of it is probably a good thing. Often I find that people really don’t want me to *fix* their troubles (as if I could!), but simply to *witness* them, give them an attentive hearing. Any time I can do that without compromising my professional responsibilities, I try to do so. After all, as you say, one of the biggest perks of my job is the people I get to work with — who are also one of the biggest headaches! It all depends on the day, doesn’t it?

  4. I’m not a new librarian, but I am new to public services. Part of my new job at an “elite” liberal arts college is to provide service at the reference desk an hour or so a day. (Really I’m the acquisitions librarian but we all pitch in to cover the desk since “non-degreed” staff are not allowed to work the reference desk (which I find ridiculous but that is a whole other debate.)

    I, too, have fallen into the trap of wanting to provide such great “service,” that I feel horrible when I can’t give the students absolutely everything that they want, regardless of how out-of-my-hands it may be. (And the funny thing is, this wanting to please everyone thing is SO not my usual personality, at all.) My situation I face on a daily basis is kids not being able to find books that are supposed to be available but are not on the shelves. I look in the re-shelving area… I ask them to look all around the area where the book should be… but beyond that, who knows where it is? It could be lying around in any carrel, it could have been mis-shelved, it could have been stolen. Sometimes there is just NO way to find a missing book, but students can get extremely upset (and understandably so.) I’m also NOT the one in the library who deals with filling copiers and printers with paper, or fixing paper jams (we have students and support staff for that) but somehow I always end up doing that, and I’m no better at fixing jams than the students are, but they can get so angry when I can’t fix it.

    Talking this out with fellow librarians has helped me… for a short while, I worried that somehow I was not doing all that was expected of me, like somehow I was overlooking some obvious way to find the missing book, or whatever. Then I realized everyone has the same problem and everyone feels bad when they can’t help a student, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so let it go.

  5. I find myself repeating the phrase “I know that its really frustrating when … the copier jams, the books isn’t on the shelf, the computer doesn’t cooperate, etc.”

  6. I loved your article,
    I feel like I have found a support group.
    I am a new academic reference librarian
    and I can relate to your points,
    thanks and lets keep the dialogue going.

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