The Flavor of a Place: The Customer is Always Wright Rite Write?

I need to confess something: I don't dislike librarians. Really, I don't. I rather like some of them and outright adore others. I also love libraries, because I love books. But, see, in the past three years I've had a Problem. Only this week have I finally, finally realized what is at its root. And here it is! I know you can hardly wait! But first, a story.

Many years ago Burger King had a sandwich called the Big King. It was basically a BK version of the Big Mac. One day I decided to try it, except I hate the "special sauce" so I said, "I'd like a Big King without the sauce."

"You can't do that," the girl said.

We went back and forth like this until she grew snotty and I said, "I don't like sauce on stuff. Why can't you leave it off?"

"Cause then it ain't a Big King."

Ummmmmm. I talked to the manager, who agreed with her that I could not order a Big King without the sauce. I was so dumbfounded I couldn't speak. I switched to a chicken sandwich. With no mayonnaise. Only later did it occur to me to request the sauce on the side, though I expect by that point they would have come up with some reason against it.

How does this relate to the library? A few years ago we moved, and likewise we switched libraries. I was rather glad. I'd had to drag screaming toddlers out of our old branch so often I dreaded walking through the doors. How nice to start over. New toys! New books!

Quite quickly this new branch surprised me. The patrons. Oh my word. I parked a little over the line once and had a woman try to "rip me a new one" for crowding her spot; a grumpy old man made it his duty to silence loud kids. He was equal opportunity about it: he'd harass whichever mom was there, even if the noisy kids weren't hers. If no mom was in the kid area, he'd grab whichever female was closest and lay into her. Then I overheard a woman say to a librarian, "I want you to Mark Down that there's crayon in the book so I don't get CHARGED for it!" She wasn't very polite. The librarian said, "Oh, we'd never do that!" The woman replied, "Yes you would, you have before." I made it a point to be super polite to the librarians. What happened?

Returning about 40 books at once is common for me. We check out A LOT of books. And I mean a lot. We've come close to reaching the max (100) on my card alone, and frequently have at least a few check-outs on each of four cards. Library day can be a little nutty, except I have a system to minimize error. (Of course I do!) I'd been using it for years and while I earn a good number of fines, they're far less than they could be, believe me. Most of them are "convenience fees" - $0.15 each for ten books vs. going to the library on a busy day. Let them be late! Anyhow, the final step in my system involves checking returns online once I get home because sometimes - with 30, 40, 60 returns, a book or two will slide through without getting checked in. Step 1 in that case: renew the book, just in case I actually *did* still have it (though I have a good visual memory for this sort of useless cr@p), and so no fines would accrue if it takes the librarians a few days to find the book. Then I follow to Step 2.

At my old library, I'd call and say, "I returned Book X but it's not showing as returned." "Oh, ok, we'll look for it." If the librarian found it on the shelf, he'd check it in. This new library? Not so easy.

First, the phone call. "What book is this?" "Book X" "When did you return it?" "Yesterday (or whenever)." "No, according to your account you didn't return that book." "Right. I DID return it but it must not have been checked in." "Well, we usually don't miss them. We have safeguards against that." Followed by, "Are you sure you don't have it at home?" By this point I'm frustrated. "I'm sure." "You will have to come in and check the shelf." "Um, why would I do that?" Eventually the librarian would check the @#$ shelf, find the book, and with a bit of guff say, "Well, I guess we let one slide after all."

Then they quit with phones - I can no longer reach the branch without being routed through several levels of customer disservice. So I've taken to doing step 1 (renew) and following up with step 2 in person the next time I'm at the library. The conversation goes something like:

"Um, hi, I returned a book a while ago and I think it didn't get checked in properly."

"It looks like you renewed it."

"I did, so I wouldn't be charged fines between returning it and coming back to tell you I'd returned it." This typically takes at least one repeat.

"But it has $2 in fines."

"Right, that's because it wasn't registered as being returned, and I haven't been able to come in to tell you--"

"You are responsible for your fines."

"Right, I know. What I'm saying is I returned the book before it was due, so it shouldn't have any fines."

"Do you have the book?"

"No, I--"

"So you can't find the book?"

By this point my resolution to be super polite is wavering. "Look, I returned the book several weeks ago and I haven't had a chance to tell you until now."

"Well, ok, if you say so. I'll look for it on the shelf." Librarian goes, returns with the book. "I'll cancel the fine this time, but I'm making a note of it on your account."

WTF? For someone who is just a wee bit conflict avoidant, this is enough to raise my blood pressure the instant I see the dreaded un-returned returned book. It also got me wondering about the culture of grumpiness at this particular library. Do grumpy patrons a grumpy librarian make? Or do patrons come to expect a certain level of courtesy, or perhaps discourtesy, so every time they approach the circulation desk their hackles are raised?

On a whim I visited my old library. I had a problem with the self-check-out and took the deep breath necessary to approach the librarian. To my absolute shock, I was greeted with a smile and helped happily. The librarian smiled at the kids, answered St. Nick's questions without annoyance and at normal speaking voice (i.e., not whispering), and was generally pleasant. I looked around. Yes, there were the requisite screaming toddlers, but everyone was nice. No one using a computer shot daggers at the moms, no librarians had whispered conversations about this or that horrible patron (another thing I'd overheard at the other library).

I had assumed that all libraries would be the same. A library is a library is a library, isn't it? Now I see each one is an organism. And like all organisms, it is only as healthy as the cells that make it up. Like that Burger King (now out of business), there was something seriously messed up from the manager down to the employee. I'm beginning to think the same is true of this nearest library. It seems to me the Culture is defined by those at the height. Miss Big King would have called back to the kitchen, "Yeah I need a Big King without sauce" had her manager instilled the company value of Your Way Right Away. Likewise, the culture of a library has more to do with the King of that branch than the paupers. And by King, I don't mean Elvis.

1 comment:

  1. I had a similar experience at my library in GR, but they very nicely looked over the shelves and found the book and then emailed me to tell me so. This is service. I once ordered a salad at a local restaurant without the dressing. The waitress told me without a smile that I couldn't have it without the dressing. I, like you, didn't say, "dressing on the side'. That thought didn't occur to me until much later.

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