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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How I Beat My "Evil" Name Twin

I'm not saying anything new when I say that being a librarian is a tough job. Yes, I realize it's not rocket science or brain surgery or some other hard work-related cliché, but to anyone who says that being a librarian is easy: I challenge you to a duel. That's right, a duel. Like, with gloves and swords and horses and other duel-y stuff. (Okay, I don't really know how a duel works.)

The job is difficult for numerous reasons, but sometimes it all boils down to the fact that certain people can be outright MEAN. This clip from "Ghostbusters II" (one of the greatest sequels of all time and if you disagree, see my previous comment about dueling) rings a little too close to home sometimes. I'm sure any of you other librarians could insert the name of your city and it would still be applicable.

Don't get me wrong, librarians can handle it. Difficult patrons are part of the job, and difficult people in general are part of the charm of living and working in a busy and diverse city like my beloved Brooklyn. To me, providing good customer service is ultimately what being a librarian is all about. You can't choose your customers, but you can choose how you react to them. (And let's be honest, sometimes librarians are the mean ones. Remember this sad graffiti?)

And of course, here's my favorite mean movie librarian:

This is how I feel when people ask me for the bathroom key.

The challenge of a difficult patron can be invigorating, but also very trying. I like to face the situation as if I'm a doctor making a diagnosis: what is going on with this person? It's almost never personal, so what is the REAL reason he or she is acting in this manner? And most importantly, what can I do to remedy the situation and have he or she be on his or her merry way??

The other day, an elderly-ish woman on a computer waved me over for help. Although I hadn't interacted with her that much as I am usually on the children's desk, I recognized her as being one of the more "unfriendly" patrons - the type of person who thinks that the whole world is plotting against her at all times.

Combine that with the fact that she was in a hurry, had a broken flash drive, needed to revise a cover letter and the fact that she didn't really know how to use a computer in the first place, and we had a DIFFICULT PATRON situation on our hands. Here's a rough depiction of what I saw when I approached her computer:


I calmly tried to guide her in writing the cover letter. I explained each step I took, each cut & paste, each bullet point. She didn't get it. Everything I said was wrong. Everything I did was a source of frustration. She argued, she sighed, she shook her head. "Why does EVERYTHING have to be so difficult?" she finally shouted, throwing her hands up in the air.

Aw. There it was. I know how maddening technology can be when you don't know what you're doing. (Watch me try to use an iPhone sometime. You'd be amazed at the things I click on that shouldn't be clicked on.) But even when I tried to commiserate with her, she was having none of it. To her, I was only trying to make life more difficult. I was one of THEM. 

Honestly, I wasn't having the greatest day either, but I didn't want to lose my cool. That would be unlibrarianish of me, after all. Feeling desperate, I decided to break the cardinal rule of not acknowledging a patron's personal information during a reference transaction. I pointed to her resume on the computer screen, saying "Hey, my name is Rita too."
That was all it took.

Her hands dropped to her lap. Her eyes softened.

"It IS?" She almost smiled.

"Yup!" I replied, showing her my work ID. "There aren't too many of us around, right?"

"That's because we're special," she said, with a hint of what appeared to be wistfulness. 

Then, to my surprise, she put her arm around me and said "You're such a nice person." (And this might sound weird, but it almost made me cry because MAN, sometimes you just need someone to be nice to you.)

I don't know what this lady's story is or what life did to her to make her the way she is, but I'm going to try to use this other Rita as inspiration - to be more patient with patrons and loved ones, to have more compassion for people who may be struggling, and to appreciate the nice things that are done for me.

And by God, I am going to learn how to use a damn iPhone.

(BONUS: just to show you how special "Ritas" really are, above is a clever Venn Diagram that was created by one of my Twitter friends. I don't know about anyone else, but I am proud that my name was featured in an R. Kelly song.)

Be nice to each other.


  1. Very inspirational post! Sometimes it can be really difficult to keep my cool with certain patrons, but like you said... it probably isn't personal.

    I've found that forcing a pleasant face and a calm voice when what I'd really like to do is cry or shout has some kind of psychological effect, making me more pleasant and calm in my own head. Which in turn makes the issue easier to deal with and often helps the upset patron get a grip too.

  2. wow, i loved this! It was amazing how you managed to connect with the woman just by finding you had a shared name!I love your approach! Maybe I will have to make a collection of badges with every name in the world so I can try this one out :P

    no, really, very inspiring, though.


  3. One of my students pointed me to your post today. I'm glad she did. It made me smile. Thanks!

  4. Kudos for the Ghostbusters 2 reference. Vigo, scourge of Carpathia, sorrow of Moldovia, is one of the greatest villains ever. A couple BPL librarians recommended your site. Solid.

  5. First, what retired librarian can resist a moniker like "Screwy Decimal"? I was a catalog librarian. Second, I loved this post! I'm pretty old, too, like your patron, but I'm getting deeper and deeper into this cyberspace world. I'm now following you on Twitter. I just self-published my first SF book. Please do have a look at my blog.

  6. Just reading this post made me tear up. How crazy am I? This may be my new favorite blog.

  7. You're not crazy! Thank you so much.

  8. The "scene with difficult library patron" is a classic Hollywood trick for character-setting both librarians and library users. The library ghost is the first spook the Ghostbusters face, showing up their amateurism, naivety, and differing approaches to carrying out a bust (it's also a perfect way to transform the pacific into the horrific). George Peppard tries to mediate between the flighty Holly Golightly and the sternist of spinster-librarians in Breakfast at Tiffany's, drawing the two lovers together. The Mummy's mummy first takes physical form when Rachel Weisz is alone in her library, driving her to take refuge with the hunk she's just met. And Conan the Librarian simply chops the troublesome patron in two - if only real-life encounters were so simple!