Thursday, April 12, 2007

Librarians, Celebrity

Moral of this blog: This is exactly what work is like. For me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mental Illness, Dealing with

mental!Gentle Readers, I know this is a touchy subject, and as usual, I will deal with the subject carefully.

When we leave the hallowed halls of Library School ™, we are ready to catalog, provide readers advisory, conduct a fairly decent reference interview - and some people even leave with a firm grasp of bibliometrics. Dealing with mental illness is not one of those subjects that most Universities deal with.

And before you think I'm referring to your co-workers, let me assure you I am talking about customers.

Rarely, if ever are we briefed on the ways of customer service - let alone mental illness. It can be very scary for a new librarian to deal with. Yet at some point, all of us do. It might be people from group homes, meth-clinics, or just good old fashioned crazy people. Nevertheless, we are sometimes dealt a hand we are not prepared to deal with.

Often, we learn on our feet how to deal with this from wizened co-workers who have been dealing with said customer for years. It might be a new customer that no one has figured out yet. These are the moments when we must rely on our own good judgment, if we have any to start with.

Most librarians are trained to gather information. I do not think this stops with the "book kind" - we can assess a situation quickly and clearly, and start thinking of answers or where we can get those answers.

So is dealing with a mentally ill person like the performing the ultimate Reference Transaction? Quite possibly.

First we have to size up the situation - is the person mentally ill or just really quirky? Or are they a bonafide nut job? This is where our journey begins. Sadly, unlike tartan plaids, we can not identify them easily. What then can we look for?

A few quick tips:

They have a shopping cart.

"Wait!" you cry "They might be homeless", but I haven't finished.

They have a shopping cart filled with clown costumes.

They talk to themselves angrily - and not the way you and I do when we can't figure out where we put the portable phone down somewhere in the stacks.

Mismatched socks, and not in the cute, bohemian style favored by punk teens and aspiring geeks.

They are wearing more than one watch.

Quick, tourette-like barks at their reflection in shiny objects.

Manic pacing.

They are wearing shorts during the winter. Academic Librarians may be confused by this point. Bear with me.

Arguments with potted plants.

Seemingly bewitched screaming and kicking a la 17th C Salem.

Now that you have identified your mentally ill person, how do you deal with it? Often, we are tempted to pretend we don't notice it. Customers that come to the desk and complain are greeted with "I have no idea what you are talking about" looks, and or frightened reassurances that "they'll probably leave soon."

This doesn't cut it. The public library is for everyone, but it is also our job to make sure the people using the library are getting the most out of their experience.
It is our job to make sure that the majority of our customers can continue doing what they are doing. This is the part that makes most of us nervous. We have to confront the customer who is upsetting the rest of the library users.

A good start is to ask "Is everything OK today?"

Usually, you'll receive an affirmative answer. This will have to do until they start acting up again. Acting up. That little phrase means so little and so much all at the same time. Grandmother's use it to describe mendacious little children. Farmers use it to describe randy cattle. I use it to describe behavior that is not acceptable in a library - or behavior causing a disturbance or feelings of fear to other customers.

Our own safety is an issue. My cardigan and silk neck wear are not exactly going to keep me safe from a sudden lash out. Though in my vivid imagination, they are.

A second approach to the customer should be a gentle but firm statement of what you perceive the problem to be.

"Your behavior is making other customers upset. Is there anything I can help you with today?"

Mumbled responses are not acceptable. If they say there is nothing you can help them with, remind them that you do not want to speak with them again, or you will have to ask them to leave.

Three strikes your out in my world. Remember, if you feel unsafe, take another staff person with you. I prefer large, uniformed staff. Cleaning people and security are great. A second line of defense includes senior librarians who have seen everything, and third interns who have no idea what is going on. Plus it is good for them to learn sooner than later.

It is always an option to call the police. They may not respond, but you should make that effort if you are afraid, or if the behavior escalates.

It is important to remember that many mentally ill people do not know that they are upsetting other people, frightening children, or communicating with artificial, potted plants.

Libraries are about the last place mentally ill people can go. Public policy prohibits us from profiling, or kicking out people we just deem hard to deal with. Mental illness is a handicap, and must be treated as one. But just like a customer who will not behave, should a mentally ill person BE that person, they too must leave our small bastion of civility.

You are not a bad person for making a library feel like a safe place for others.

You might be a bad person if you ran your neighbors dog over on the way to work. You also might be a bad person if you are stealing tea bags out of the staff canteen. Finally, you might be a bad person if you regularly have cell phone conversations while sitting Reference Desk - but that is just my firm judgment.

So new librarians, welcome to the public library. This welcome is extended to those who have yet to deal with this on the public floor.

How do we show up prepared? Perhaps a few classes on Customer Service, Social Work, or Diversity would prepare us a little better. I can catalog a 17th century Bible translated from German - but I still wonder what to do about the man who yells at the recycling bins.

Moral of this blog: Happy days are here again....

Monday, April 02, 2007

Fence, Rabbit Proof

no no naughty bunnyIt should not surprise any of you that I am not only an impressively talented librarian, but also a consummate gardener. Gardening allows me literally to plan for the future. So last fall, I spent an entire afternoon planting no less than 200 bulbs, in the lawn of my gracious, yet historic home.

And would you believe this Spring, as if called from the heavens, little sprouts came up, exactly where I wanted them. Dozens and dozens. It was lovely. I admired them each morning, squatting carefully - coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other. I'm sure my neighbors wondered why someone would be admiring the ground so closely in such nice trousers. I'm very sure one of my neighbors did, and she may win the award for being even nosier than me.

At any rate, on Saturday morning, I noticed that some of the tops of my sure to be prize winning tulips had been eaten. Not nicely chewed, or even mowed down - but eaten. With no time to be lost, I slipped out of my wellies, and into my loafers. I was off to the hardware store.

I bought cedar stakes and heavy, mesh netting - and constructed my very own Rabbit Proof Fence ™.

You sit and wonder, what the hell is he talking about? Has the public library finally driven him batty? No gentle readers.

As I pounded in the last of the fence, I thought to myself "I wonder if this is what the Reference Desk is like to the public". I actually thought that, in addition to the fact that I was thinking that my scarf was blowing rather dramatically behind me as I stood in the yard. The breeze was quite strong, I'm sure it gave quite an effect to who ever was in the Italian Villa across the street - I saw their net curtains move.

But returning to my point - in Library School ™, we learned about something called Fort Reference. And we were warned that it was quite possibly the most awful thing in the world we could do to our customers. And it is true.

First of all, customers don't say "REFERENCE", that is a librarian word. We have lots of them, and we are all slightly guilty (some more than others)of employing the lingo as if we studied library elocution at Mrs. Porters School for Girls. They don't get it, and we just scare them away.

Then the desk, that big formidable desk with the sign (or three) near by that tells the customer they are approaching something that looks like a desk, but its labeled something else.

Sort of like me in an automotive supply store - belts and car bits and other whatnot. I don't know what the hell it all means - I have to count on a)accurate signage that speaks my layman language and b)something practical and noticeable.

And is the desk approachable? Do folks in wheelchairs have to look up at you? Does the counter hit the customer at the waist or higher? More over, do you loom behind the desk? Classic Red Flags.

Is your Fort Reference covered even more with lots of brochures, business cards, phones, and computer monitors? Hmm. Bad news.

Is your Fort Reference a Rabbit Proof Fence?

Trust me, the customers want to get at our greens - and we need to let them have at.

You might be the best librarian in the world, and your Fort Reference is scaring them away. Assess your situation and make appropriate changes.

If you can't get rid of the desk, stand in front of it. You shouldn't be working on off desk projects while you are on desk anyway. How do I know this? I, gentle reader, am the Well Dressed Librarian. I just know these things. Don't question me.

Moral of this blog: Aww. Bunnies.