anxiety, career, community, coworkers, information, joy, reading, strangers

Balance.. and working

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I’m writing about balance. People with anxiety know that balance is essential to avoid spinning out into spirals. I knew August would be tough, work-wise, because I accepted a lot of extra night/weekend shifts at the library. I just counted, and I worked 39 shifts over the course of the month (aka going from full-time job to part-time job multiple times, plus the beloved weekend shifts). Sometimes when I’m in self-pitying moods, I think I work a second job because I like to whine and tell everyone how hard I work. I have to remind myself that in reality, I love both my jobs, and up until recently I haven’t really had that much other stuff going on that I would rather be doing.

I know I did it to myself. I overcommitted, thinking it would balance itself out with the fact that I didn’t really work at the library in June. And now that August is over, maybe balance is achieved! The extra income is nice, and for every customer who makes my skin crawl, there is an equal if not greater than pleasant customer who knows my name or otherwise warms my heart.

And so without further ado, picture the following scenarios (presented in a glorified list). One bad for one good.. or maybe the scales tip slightly toward the pleasant.

Bad: when on the third day of working 5-9 after working 8:30-4:30, a guy who feels he is your friend (he is not) lets his young child continue on his way out (to dick around and be generally unsupervised) in order to tell you a longwinded tale of who from church asked him to look up the lyrics and sheet music (you don’t care), after you have already spent at least 15 minutes of your life helping him find this sheet music and him asking if he can just take a photo of it and print it and you say no, that is a copyright violation so he needs to buy it and he asks you to buy it and he can pay you and you say no while silently begging him to walk away and instead, like you hoped he wouldn’t but knew he would, he tells you what religion he is and asks you about yours. You wonder why people still think this is appropriate to ask someone who is on the clock at their job. Thankfully, he only guesses, and does not do so correctly, and then he leaves.

Good: when a high schooler who you knew as an awkward seventh grader walks towards you at the desk and greets you by name even though you haven’t worked at his school for two years, and generally teens don’t A) remember you or B) approach you even if they do. You talk to him about his favorite teachers from the last year and you think about the difference between a seventh grader and a tenth grader and how crazy that that difference happens in just over two years.

Bad: when people uncomfortable with technology call in to ask how to use the technology, and get confused and angry at you when you tell them the proper buttons to press, and they have to hang up to perform the action because they are trying to do it on their phone. You wonder why these people don’t come into the library to ask when you know they are otherwise capable of leaving their homes.

Good: when you help the upbeat youngish dad who works at the wine store use Adobe Acrobat (the fancy kind) to edit his visa application to visit China, and he is so effusively appreciative the day of, plus when you are working next, he returns and tells you he had his in-person interview at the consulate and everything is IN and approved and thanks you again, and smiles even bigger whenever he sees you in the wine store or he is in the library, like you are acquaintance-friends (you are!).

Bad: when customers overhear, misunderstand, and jump into your conversations with other customers, resulting in lengthy, factually inaccurate conversations you attempt to thwart but continue nevertheless about parking validation, or how to download ebooks, or any number of topics that you know you and your colleagues will have to set right, one person at a time.

Good: speaking of setting things right, you get the opportunity to give that woman the correct information about smartphone-less Uber, despite your still wondering why she thinks it will be different than a traditional taxi service, but you also give her some resources for concierge services that may help her get errands done.

Good: when an email in the general staff account is from an airline representative who found a library book in the customer lounge and they want to know how to get in touch with the customer to mail it back (bless their heart). Then, a week later, your boss emails you that there is a piece of mail for you and you are baffled until you go in and open it and see that the airline representative has mailed the book to you, and then you go show everyone working the book and use it as evidence that not all people suck and your coworkers view it the same way.

Bad: the sad feeling you get when you are near the smelly people or the people whose brains limit what they can do in the world, people who you help apply for a job on Indeed.com and you have to direct them exactly where to click, and then again to instruct them to click.

Mediocre: you walk back to the desk after walking around at close to find a note that reads “You’re Doing Great!” and you, knowing how few people are in the building at that time of Friday night, wonder whether a coworker or the teen boy you startled by opening the bathroom door just as he was exiting to announce that the library is closing or the guy you just helped with uploading his resume into Indeed left it. You identify that several of these options are more harmless than others. But like, you bring it home because it kind of makes you feel nice, when you think about how this person could have said this to your face but instead chose to write it on a slip of paper.

Great: when a woman comes in and asks you to find a “camp” she and her sister attended in the 1950s when she was 5 and her sister was 8 and after speaking with her a little while, you learn that this took place when their mother had TB, and while she recovered, her young children listened to stories and ran around and made fond memories of their time at camp, and then you find a New York Times article from 1955 (because bless the NYT and their archives) that identifies exactly what this place from 60 years ago that this woman never asked her mother about as an adult and now doesn’t have the option. You discuss that neither of you would ever have known that such a place was called a “preventorium” and you marvel about language and how even medical, scientific vocabularies change so much, much less how these topics are handled and treated. And you print out the article for her, because this is just really fucking cool, and she is from out of town so you never see her again but she asks your name, introduces herself, and tells you she really appreciates it.

So, yes, morale can be low at times, but you decide that there is a kind of expertise in shaking off the weird interactions and starting over with the next person. And there is a special kind of bond when someone really needs something and you’re the one to provide it. And at the very least, there is something extremely human in how people navigate the weird space that is a library, which is to say: community.

empathy, information, kindness, librarians, strangers

The Ones Who Call

Answering the phone at work is one of my favorite activities. I already like talking on the phone, which is more than many people can say. However, when people call in to the public library (note: I did not say THEIR public library, since we get scores of calls from far, far away), there are good chances the encounter will be positive. This is because:

  1. The caller is likely to be older. Maybe they are physically restricted and can’t make it in, but gosh darn it, they are pleasant on the phone. All it takes is a sweet old lady calling me ‘dear’ and telling me I’ve been ‘so very helpful’ and I am struck with a good mood for at least two hours.
  2. Often, a mobile customer is asking a brief question, ie “are you open?” or “do you have [this book]/a color printer/paper federal tax forms?” and in a ten second interaction, I can provide a solution to their information need. One reason I’m a librarian is that I actively enjoy answering questions and sharing information.
  3. The library employee maintains a healthy amount of control in the event that a customer becomes demeaning or inappropriate. While this does not happen often, in person or on the phone, I treasure the ability to not have to endure verbal abuse for longer than it takes me to say, “sir/ma’am, if you continue to disrespect me like this, I will hang up.”
    • My wise and talented colleague taught me a librarian lesson (our version of life lessons) one day with a customer who wanted to babble with no perceived purpose. She told the man politely, “I’m sorry, I have a customer here and I need to hang up.” And then she did! It was crazy how simple it was to reclaim her time.

That said, phone interactions can go south in many ways. You never know who will call in. There is one frequent caller who asks for various conversions of inches to millimeters and for phone numbers to businesses in the United Kingdom. It is not her questions that rub me the wrong way, but her snappish, pushy tone, and the way she does not believe what I report to her. There are weeks where patients in psychiatric facilities call us and we have to encourage them to call priests or pastors because we cannot answer their questions about sin and forgiveness. There are teens who clearly have not used their cell phones for the purposes of communicating voice-to-voice with other human beings, and people who get angry at us because we can’t hear them due to their poor cell reception.

When I worked in Youth Services, we received many phone calls from one mother whose son visited the library for many hours each school night, and Saturdays, and Sundays. He did not have a cell phone, and she knew to find him there. She called once and asked for her son and when I said sure, I will go get him, she lashed into me. “Why do you know my kid?” The thing about librarians who work with kids is that we get to know them in a safe space: what they like, what they read and what magic makes them who they are. We care about them. This is what makes good youth librarians good at their jobs. I told her that I knew him because he was there every day, and she lost it. She screamed at me about how I was judging her for having to work and not being home with her child. She told me she was tired of us at the library and how if we thought her kid was there too much, she wouldn’t let him go there after school. In between saying that that was not necessary, that of course he is welcome and we all really liked him, she projected all of her guilt and single-parenting issues directly onto me. Though I was conscious I didn’t deserve her misplaced anger, I was still rattled. When she was done berating me, I brought him to the phone to talk to her. Then I took a break to walk it off.

And then there is thank-you-for-taking-my-call guy (TYFTMCG). He earned his moniker because he begins each and every call by verifying the library employee’s name and then thanking us for taking his call. If he is not hard of hearing, he does a very convincing portrayal of someone who is, and he is notorious at our library. An elderly gentleman, he never visits our location. Just calls. All the time.  The first time I had him on the line, he verified my name. “Emory?” “My name is Emily. How can I help you?” “Ah, Emory. Great. Thank you for taking my call.” There is no one on our staff who he does not irritate. After the second call, I memorized the last four digits of his phone number (0241), so I could at least know I was headed into the Emory phone calls, mustering some degree of preparedness.

He asks inane, often un-answerable trivia questions that feel like when your mom asks you “what restaurant did we go to that one time?” or “what is that thing you were talking about that one time when we were at [that restaurant]?” He asks us to repeat our guesses around a dozen times, and often, to spell them, often a dozen times. On one such call, he asked me the name of places where pregnant girls go for counsel. This led to me near-shouting “pregnancy crisis centers!?! Abortion clinics?!!” over and over again. He also doesn’t accept your responses, which means he denies you have found the answer the whole call, and often calls back to try to speak to a different employee.

Many people have competing theories about whether he is annoying on purpose/calls us for crossword clues or Jeopardy questions, but my theory is that he calls us because he probably has dementia and forgets things he has heard about. I believe we are his external memory.

I have been thinking about this man and that boy lately. No one had seen the kid or his mother in a while, and apparently the overdue notices had come back with a forwarding address in another town, where I hope he has a new library with a great youth team. There were many dormant months when we received no TYFTMCG calls. When he called again, I was glad to hear his voice, but I’m worried that we are nearing a time when he won’t call anymore.

The phone is an exercise in kindness, in dedicating your energy to communicating with someone whose body language is absent. One bad customer service call can essentially convince anyone that the person on the other side of the phone is a fool. During my most recent shift, I returned a customer’s voicemail, and concluded my message on her machine by asking her to give us a call back. I started to give the phone number as I have done hundreds of times, paused for an awkward length, and had to conclude by stating I literally forgot our phone number, but she found it before so to try us again.

I aim to grant people as much benefit of the doubt as I hope she gave me listening to that message.

I hope she doesn’t think I’m a terrible employee. I hope she chuckles at my silliness, or understands that everyone has those days. I hope she grants that there are many reasons why the employee could have forgotten. Maybe, for example, she woke up at 6am after 5 hours of sleep, not able to fall back for another couple hours because she is moving in two weeks, breaking up with her lovely boyfriend, and her mind won’t stop, and she was in pain because her neck/shoulder muscles froze from all the tension she’s carrying but she didn’t want to call out to her very-part-time job and she is trying to make the best of the day, though she can neither remember the library’s phone number nor turn her head.

So, yeah. Conversing on the phone is a solid indicator of who a person is in a moment in time. Call your loved ones, call your libraries, call anyone you want to vet before meeting. And be kind.

information, judgment, kindness, librarians, strangers

What does it mean to be an “Information Professional?”

A recent trend in graduate programs for librarianship is to take out the word “librarian.” Leaving just the “ship.” Jk jk. What universities are actually doing is transitioning to “iSchools:” Information Schools (for those of you who prefer less trendy jargon). The title of the degree once was Library Science, then was Library and Information Science, and it seems now to be morphing towards just Information Science.

I, thankfully, could choose what I wanted my degree to be called. Since I don’t think “Library” is a dirty word, I named my degree Master Library [and] Information Science. My degree is almost two years old, knows its ABCs through A-L, loves avocado, and is cute as a button.

iSchool is a stupid name for a school.*

First and foremost, iSchool looks like it is trying to be an Apple product. Jump off that corporate bandwagon, universities! Though we love iPhones and iWatches and iWhateverElses, you as an institution of higher learning should be better than that!

Second, no one outside our profession understands what being a professional of information means. Libraries, yes, are changing–as are the skills librarian has, and how people are interacting with information–but leave the degree alone. If you are a database programmer, a medical/law librarian, a data manager or anything else where your relationship to information is a wrangler, organizer, streamliner or finder/retriever… you’re using those librarian skills.

Here is a TRUE, not-too-brief narrative about what I think of when I hear the term information professional:

At the orientation for our program, AKA first interaction I would have with my future classmates, representatives from library school clubs stood up and made pitches for interested parties to attend a meeting/ join their ranks. A joiner by nature, this new pool of groups to join excited me, but I didn’t know how to balance that with the questionably-less-healthy skepticism (cynicism masquerading as skepticism) also in my nature wherein I threw shade at everything and everyone in grad school on a whim. In one case, this disdain was justified.

One middle-aged career-changer began his pitch by saying, AND I QUOTE: “If you frequently find yourself the smartest person in the room, this is the club for you.”

I won’t even address the multitude of ways you could convey the same principles (intelligence, presumed love of Jeopardy) in a non-asshole series of words. But this dude had clearly thought this exact series of words in many a room. And he did not feel the need to disguise his assholeishness.

Dear reader, I wish I could say I stood up in front of the seminar room of my new peers and told him how smug and obnoxious this sounded.

In real life, however, I did not call him out on this ridiculousness. My mouth gaped open for far too long, in disbelief. After all, I was in the same room with him right now; did this man therefore believe he was smarter than everyone else?

In a practiced and particular mode of Librarian Acceptance (which I do not yet possess), however, this was more or less waved away with a “well, that’s Lester** for ya.”

Unclear whether anyone joined his club, nor whether they did so because of this statement or in spite of it.

Lester’s business cards probably identify him as an “Information Professional.”

In my [the real] world, I try to avoid thinking I am better than other people because I am smart. (Note: this has become increasingly hard since November 2016. But, I would argue that the prominent draw pulling many people toward political views diametrically opposed to mine is actually the lack of empathy, rather than intelligence–or a combination of the two.)

At any rate, I know I did next to nothing to earn the gift of my brain, though I appreciate and constantly try to stimulate and expand it. I try to withhold judgment and act with empathy and genuine (not condescending) kindness.

Because there have been plenty enough times where I have a migraine and stutter my words, or can’t make a decision whether to buy the proposed reusable bag at checkout, or just generally act uncomfortable and awkward around people I don’t know. Some people judge and condescend, and some are patient and don’t look for ways to look down on people. I aim to be the former, but occasionally I don’t catch my skeptic instincts in time.

All I’m saying is call a spade a spade, call a library degree a library degree, and don’t call yourself a [very stable] genius!

 

 

 

*I don’t mean ‘stupid’ in a lacking intelligence way…. I apologize to the Political Correctness police, and acknowledge that this is slang and suggests I act in the direct opposite way of what I claim in this blog. I just mean it’s trendy and tedious and silly, not what universities should be about.

**Lester is not his real name. He will likely show up in a future blog for his role in the worst road trip of my life.