Tuesday, June 14, 2016


It's interesting to work simultaneously at Small Town Library and Downtown Library. Here is a sample of reference questions at both:

At Small Town Library:
Are there any spaces left in the garden program?
Could you please order this for me for my book club?
Where is the children's program that's happening this afternoon?
Do I need a key to get into the restroom?
Where do I sign up to volunteer? 

At Downtown Library:
How much does it cost to get about seven copies from the computer?
Do you have an occult section?
I need to sue my landlord; where is the form? 
How do I make the computer screen bigger?
Do you have another bathroom? Someone's been in there for half an hour and I think he's doing drugs.

At Small Town Library, our patron base is white, upper-middle-class retired people and white, upper-middle-class stay-at-home moms and their children. At Downtown Library, our patron base is pretty much the same as the patron base of the bus station down the block--poor, disproportionally nonwhite, and unemployed.

Many of the differences between how the two libraries work are symptomatic of larger inequalities between wealthy bedroom communities and large-ish urban areas--the differences in the quality of the facilities, the different amounts of funding, the different attitudes of community members toward the library--and are mostly out of not just my control, but any individual library staff member's.

The most striking difference in my everyday life, though, is how staff approaches patrons at each library. At Small Town Library, the patron always has the benefit of the doubt. The rules are designed to be permissive. If you're not sure if something is allowed, you generally let the patron do it. At Downtown Library, it is the exact opposite. The rules are restrictive. If you're not sure if something is allowed, you might get in trouble for letting a patron do it. It's made me wonder about cause and effect. Are Small Town Library patrons appreciative, polite, and patient because of the culture they come from, or because we approach them with the expectation that they will behave that way? Are Downtown Library patrons sometimes adversarial, rule-breaking, and impatient because of all the other stuff they've got going on, or because the library is structured in response to a perception that that is how they will behave?

You can probably tell which way I am leaning. I'd love to have the power to swap the staff and policies of the two libraries for a month and see how people's behavior changes. If only that were remotely possible. Maybe someday when I am the Librarian of Congress...*

*Important note for non-library nerds who might be following this blog: The Librarian of Congress has almost never been an actual librarian, at least not in the sense of having a graduate degree in the subject from an institution accredited by the American Library Association. Carla Hayden is currently in the nomination process. If confirmed, Hayden would be the first woman, the first black person, and basically the first actual librarian to hold the position. By the way, she got that ALA-accredited degree from my alma mater (although it no longer has a library school). Read more in this news article.


  1. Excellent sociological analysis. It must be hard to code-switch between the two work places.

    1. In some ways, the code-switching is easier for me than I would have liked to think. Thanks for the compliment. I have a lot of time to think about these things.

  2. I think the experiences of patrons from their schools probably contributes to a lot of the differences you see. Urban schools are all about control, suburban/small town ones allow more freedom.

    1. I hadn't thought of that, and it explains a lot! A school library is probably most people's fist experience, and it would really shape what people expected the public library to be like!