Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Will you be my friend?

This semester I am taking a class on "information ethics" as part of my library degree. In case I wasn't already extremely primed to think about ethics, this class has made it so I am considering ethical tensions constantly. I am planning to post about a few of my biggest conflicts so I can get advice from the intelligent, talented, and beautiful readers of this blog.

Don't worry, though: Patron eccentricities will continue to be topic number one.

Issue #1: Being 'friends' with patrons

If you are a longtime reader of this blog you will know that every library staff person has her fans, some of which we are happier about than others (My Only Sane Fan, clearly identifiable by her intense smoker's voice, deserves mention here). Usually the concern is keeping the patrons from thinking you are their best friend and as a result they expect to be exempt from rules or get an infinite amount of help when other people are waiting--give Mr. Take My Card an umbrella and he takes a mile, write back to one email from 'Audrey  Hepburn' and now you are her personal consultant, etc.

Making exceptions for known patrons, while tempting, is pretty clearly an ethical infraction, and not too hard to avoid. Even though I know the Retired Police Officer, I make him give me his ID for ransom when he wants to borrow the Consumer Reports just like anyone else. I give every unfamiliar person one chance to bring back the 20 cents I loan them, just like I trust that (most) known patrons are good for the money. Little things like this are pretty simple, but there is a larger question of whether I should treat my relationships with frequent library visitors as relationships or as a series of discrete interactions (SDI from here forward). Considerations:

Library policy, the American Library Association ethical code, etc. says that a cardinal feature of a reference interaction is confidentiality--the librarian won't tell anyone what information you wanted and won't be nosy about why you want it. In fact, the real message is you should not just pretend not to care about what the patron is searching for, you should work to actually not care about it as far as you can. Basically, if the patron starts seeing you as a person, they will be embarrassed to ask the things that they need to know but wouldn't want anyone, especially a stranger, to know they need to know. The promotion of confidentiality argues that treating your job as a series of SDIs is a better approach than treating it as a collection of relationships. A patron who knows your name and how many pets you have, and who knows that you know her name and how many pets she has, is probably going to be embarrassed to ask for help finding books on house foreclosure. By being friendly with this patron, you've lost your 'exempt' status and thus you are less helpful to her.

On the other hand, you can only pretend so effectively that you don't remember a patron, especially if you don't want to seem hostile or rude. After seeing someone 15 times in a month, it's hard to act as though you have never seen him before. Besides, even if you succeed, he is likely to feel like you are being rude or strange--to think things like "How come this woman has no idea who I am? I talked to her for 10 minutes yesterday and it's as though she doesn't recognize me" or "Is she pretending not to know me because I did something to offend her?" Especially because regular commercial establishments consider it good customer service to recognize repeat customers and greet them as such, it seems especially odd when the librarian who helped you find books on dog training two days ago (you told her all about your new puppy!) acts as though you are a totally stranger.

It's a complicated issue since some patrons want you to have a sort of friendship with them, and others would prefer to be completely anonymous. As far as I can think of, there's no way to tell which is which. Am I missing something? And if not, what is the best balance between the relationship approach and  the SDI approach?

1 comment:

  1. This is a tough one. Maybe aim to be friendly but not refer back to previous interactions? And try not to engage in a lot of small talk that includes personal info (e.g., talking about the weather=good, talking about medical issues=bad). Some patrons are just incorrigible, though...