Thursday, September 21, 2006

Would You Like Fries with that Book?

I don't think I could stomach watching the conference the Webtamer was so excited about a couple of weeks ago, but one remark did catch my eye. They were doing something somewhere that's supposed to be exciting about Library Five-O or something. I couldn't even stay awake for the insubstantial description. Nevertheless, someone was quoted (approvingly, of course) by the Webtamer as saying: "If you have staff who have butts in seats and they are just me a retail operation that would let people sit." This is the sort of stuff that makes it hard for me to keep from swearing, but as this is a family blog I'll refrain from such a vulgarian response.

Let's put it this way--I don't have to show you a retail operation that would let people sit, BECAUSE I'M NOT A &*%#ing RETAIL CLERK!!! There, I used both the caps and the exclamation points and the little pseudoswearing symbols to try to get the hyperlibrarians excited about something besides the idiotic manure coming out of the business world.

Since apparently there are some people who either confuse me with a retail clerk or want to turn me into one, perhaps I should point out some differences between the two of us. I realize this may not apply to a lot of librarians, but I thought I should make the effort.

The first obvious difference is appearance. I don't wear a name tag that says, "Hi, I'm AL, please abuse me." I don't have a polyester polo shirt with my library logo on it that matches all the other little retail librarian polo shirts. I don't have to submerge my identity into the corporate structure. And I don't even have to dress for success. I dress more like a grad student, frankly.

And then there's something called education. Perhaps you've heard of it. I use mine a lot in my job. I'm not talking about that library school stuff, either. If you want a retail clerk, go pull some pimply teenager off the street, but don't bother me. What I bring to my job is in my head, not on the shelf behind me. I'm an intellectual worker, believe it or not, and comparing me to a retail sales clerk is inappropriate and insulting.

And another thing, I don't sell stuff. Period. I don't even "sell" stuff. Not everything is about selling, and believe it or not there are higher purposes in libraries and in life than mimicking retail sales. If your metaphor for life is sales, then you are a spiritual pauper. If your highest standard of value is retail, then I'm really not sure what to say, because I doubt we could even communicate with one another. If your standards for librarianship come from retail sales, then I also think you're doing a disservice to the profession.

In retail, there is the old saying that the customer is always right. Very different in my world, Mr. Hypersaleslibraryperson. I don't have customers. I don't try to figure out what people desire and then give it to them to make them happy. Making them happy at all costs is not my job.

What do I have? Perhaps the best label is "clients." I have clients, and they're not always right. Sometimes they don't even know enough about what they're doing to even know whether they're right or wrong. That's why they come to me, because I already know what they need to know and I can teach them. I'm more like a lawyer or doctor than a retail clerk, except I don't make as much money. On the other hand, my malpractice insurance is considerably cheaper, and if I'm wrong, nobody dies. Usually.

I don't walk around drumming up business, either. One obvious reason is I have no incentive. Perhaps you've heard of the term "nonprofit." A sales clerk needs to sell stuff. I don't. I don't work on commission. If someone wants what I have to offer, fine. If not, fine. I'm there to help, and if they don't want my help, I really don't care. I get paid the same regardless.

"But you sound all jaded, Annoyed Librarian. You don't have the sort of slaphappy personality we want in public services!"

Wanna bet? I work in public services among other things. And I'm good. I might even say I'm great, if I weren't the incredibly modest gal you all know me to be. Since I happen to be more modest than anyone in the entire world, I won't brag, though. However, my clientele love me, and they always come back for more. I don't have to peddle my wares like some door-to-door sales schmuck because this stuff sells itself, or at least it would if I sold it. But I give it away, and there's always plenty of takers, because what I give away is valuable. I don't have to push it on the resistant public, because they know it's valuable.

They don't always need it, of course, and when they don't need it I don't push it on them. When they need it, I'm there for them, and that's all that matters. People don't want pushy librarians in their face all the time trying to "sell" them stuff. When they don't need it, they don't care about it, and pushy librarians seem just as annoying as pushy sales clerks.

I at least try to deceive myself sometimes that librarianship has a "grand purpose," that it's a meaningful career and not just some hack job. A gal can dream, can't she? But it's impossible to think any such thing if librarianship is so degraded that is has to look to retail sales as the model to be emulated. So why don't you take your nametags and your polyester shirts and your rah-rah sales pitch and your "motivational" speech and go back to the Walmart, because in case you haven't heard, about the only thing good about working in a library is that it's better than Walmart. Take that away, and what's left?


Dances With Books said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. It's about fucking time (there, I actually used the word) someone pointed out that we are not effing retail clerks. When I read his post, to say my blood was boiling would be an understatement. I just love those happy "cumbaya" librarians who clearly have plenty of institutional support and a bit too much time on their hands who just go around thinking if everyone else is not marching on the Clootrain or acting like Wal-mart, then there must be something wrong. Been thinking about posting about it myself, but until I do that, as a professional librarian, you have my extreme gratitude. Keep telling it like it is.

Bob h. said...

Um, dances with books, why do you say "fucking" once and "effing" once...isn't that a wee bit silly :-)

And AL, I think that the "most modest person in the world" joke is beneath you.

Otherwise, right on.

AL said...

Well I just hope no schoolchildren read these comments on their school library computers.

And alright, maybe the joke was a little lame. Even the Annoyed Librarian nods, quite often if you go by some of the comments I've been getting lately.

sassymoll said...

I'm going to make sure every librarian I know reads your blog, especially those I work with. It's wonderful to have an articulate, eloquent librarian speak for all of us who don't agree with the new wave of sales librarians. Please keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I am a lowly library assistant in an academic medical library which has been infected with this business model disease. We have non degreed middle managers making almost all of the decisions about things which impact our patrons (oops, non-degreed middle managers [who make 125% of librarian managers salaries] encourage the use of customer and also helpfully tell you this weeks Newspeak terms). Customer service training is now mandatory! It is taught to me by people who have worked here much less than my 8 years, and these same people usually interact with patrons, I mean future business contacts or revenue generation units a total of 2 hours a week. Efficiency is the new buzzword here. When I tell the same manager that we can do what he wants for 25% of the money by buying a different product I'm told that it's the end of the year we need to spend money. After the new fiscal year starts major changes are made to all shelving procedures in an effort to save money by giving student's less hours. Screwing the student workers out of money and making sure that they always have some sort of manual thing to do (copy, stuff envelopes) maximizes these "investments."

Anonymous said...

I spotted a crappy "head of reference" job somewhere (Kansas, I think) where the ad implied they would prefer a trained "manager" and NOT someone who had ever worked in reference or even a library. They said it would be a great opportunity for managers to enter the profession. I'm just glad I don't work at that dump, because the inevitable retail-speak would make it very difficult to get through the day without killing someone.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I used to work at a public library in Florida. Human resources called an all staff meeting to present ideas on how the library could operate more like Disney World.

Anonymous said...

"I'm an intellectual worker, believe it or not, and comparing me to a retail sales clerk is inappropriate and insulting." Yeh! And I wish SRRT & other so-called progressives would stop comparing us to social workers, "change-agents", and international diplomats. We're librarians, nothing more, nothing less.

Dances With Books said...

Hey Bob:

A good question. While I am not shy about using the swear words in my blogs, I tend to try not to in other people's blogs. However, that one here was a slip as I was so mad at the sales librarian. The second I think was when I managed to cool off a bit. You are right though, it does look silly when you read it. *Smiling*

Hmm, overall, this post seems to be picking up steam as others see it. Cool.

Max said...

Hey Dances
I don't see anything wrong with using "effing." I always associate it with the British and being an Anglophile anything British is cool. Now if you really want to express your feeling, I recommend warming up by watching several episodes of Deadwood. I have learned many new and interesting ways of describing people, events, emotions, etc. watching that show.

AL, thanks for your post. I hadn't realized how pervasive the business model is becoming.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I must disagree to a certain extent. I HATE the retail aspect of our current service model; however, I work in a public library that is totally funded by tax dollars. If we don't "give the people what they want" then we don't get what we need.

Our patrons like it that we're happy-joy-joy public servants who feel their pain and open the book to the page they need. They want us to hold their hands and think for them. They don't want to learn how to find things for themselves.

Empowerment to our patrons means they can sue someone - as long as we can find the correct form for them to use and tell them how and where to file it.

My staff takes a lot of pride in their expertise and ability to assist patrons, but they, too, get frustrated with customer service training that is really just a knee-jerk response to a grumpy patron. Administration is just as inclined to take the easy road of customer service training as the patrons are of taking the easy road of having us do their thinking for them.

Anonymous said...

Ummm, the discussion was about retail. You're the one who pulled "clerk" out of it. Wonder why? Protesting a bit much?

And you said this:

"Sometimes they don't even know enough about what they're doing to even know whether they're right or wrong. That's why they come to me, because I already know what they need to know...."

No you don't, not even close.

But thank you for a line that many people will be quoting as an example of why your style of library service is going to die with a whimper.

Alan Kirk Gray