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Those who can…

April 1, 2019

My name is Daniel De Kok, and I’m the Reference and Special Collections Assistant at the Langston Hughes Memorial Library, Lincoln University. Lincoln is the nation’s oldest degree-granting HBCU, founded in 1854, and our alumni include Thurgood Marshall, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, and the past presidents of several African countries. We’re a stone’s throw from US-1 on the southwestern end of Chester County, about 10 miles north of the Maryland/Pennsylvania border.  I’m telling you all this because at the last conference I attended, it seemed no one knew who or where we were.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about patron service lately. Like you, I have had customer service experiences in my daily life that range from wonderful to wretched, and could talk about them at length. As library professionals, we take pride in the service we offer patrons, and we take great care to be thorough and precise in offering information. I would go so far as to say that all working in the library and information science field are called upon to teach. We may not have a formal classroom, but surely we have an opportunity to teach every time we remind a patron of an unpopular policy, take a struggling student through the process with citing an article in the proper style, or show someone how to access a database one more time. When we are presented with a patron with a willingness to learn, we have an obligation to teach them, and it’s a great feeling when you know you’ve helped a student untie a knotty problem.

But there can be a downside. I have noticed in many people an unwillingness to ask for help, accept instruction, or to discipline themselves sufficiently to follow a plan of action (My current students notwithstanding—who I find polite, well-spoken, and eager to learn). How often have we heard, after an exhaustive reference interview, the patron exhale a resigned sigh and “Oh, I’ll just Google it”, as though the information we help them gather is dubious at best. Whether it’s a barbecue cookbook or instructions for assembling a desk, people seem bound and determined to follow the lead of Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor, who was heard to say “real men don’t need instructions”.

There is something to be said for self-reliance—“Figuring it out yourself”—but everyone needs an independent, objective guiding hand at some point. The elementary school that our children attended had a mantra that many of the teachers used, “Ask three before me”–in other words, find three other sources of information (classmates, web or printed sources, etc.) before you ask the teacher. How do we as library professionals change patron’s hearts and minds and create a culture of trust, integrity and mutual learning? How do we get them to ask us?

I don’t claim to have all the answers. Perhaps we must accept that patron stubbornness is part of human nature and it will always be with us. Meanwhile, all we can do is our best. I’m hoping that this blog will in part assist me in becoming a better library professional. Onward.

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