The Whole Library Approach

When I was still a preschool teacher, we talked a lot about the whole child approach, which, essentially, meant you took a whole child into consideration when you are teaching him or her. When we deal with children we teach, we can’t just have Susie the student. We also have Susie the daughter, the artist, the kid who doesn’t get enough to eat at home, whose parents can’t pay the utility bills so she cries before going to sleep because she’s afraid of the dark. We consider her immediate family, the community she’s in, and the experiences and exposures that impact her life and her development. We teach and take interest in the whole child, and take steps to help her thrive.

In so many public libraries, we’re so concerned with our own private domains. Children’s services, Adult Reference, Circulation, Technical Services, Administration– each little island has its own procedures, processes, vision, and expectations. The best libraries do what they can to unify these disparate departments, and have a library wide vision and mission, but so many don’t. So many libraries have departments that are so disparate in their approaches that it’s amazing they manage to (dys)function at all.

I am a children’s librarian as well as a staunch advocate of teens and those with special needs. (If anyone wants give me a job where my title is Toddler Tween Librarian and Purveyor of Programming, I would gladly accept.) I’ll help anyone who is within my reach, even if they’re not asking for something that a children’s librarian would typically help with.  Because that’s just what you should do.

Even though I work at the children’s desk, we get a lot of adult traffic as well. Some of these adults are parents, others are adults who don’t realize they are at the children’s desk, and others who wander over to us because of our proximity to the photocopier. I never turn adults away when they ask me a question. I will find books or resources for them, help them make photocopies, answer questions about computer classes, and walk them to the appropriate collection area if needed, the same as I would do for any child. My title is Children’s Librarian. Anything a librarian can do, I can do. Answering a reference question, regardless of the age of the asker, is something I should be able to do. I might not be as passionate about some of the reader’s advisory questions I get from adults, but I should know enough to do a RA interview, and I should have a working knowledge of major trends in adult literature.

I believe that in a public library, this should be standard. You should be prepared and equipped to serve the public at any and all times, regardless of age, ethnicity, or ability. If someone’s needs absolutely require someone else in another department, please walk the person over, make contact with your colleague, explain the situation, and make sure everything is ready to go before you leave. There’s nothing worse than being passed from person to person and department to department without any continuity or follow through.

Think about it: when you’re on the phone with customer service, don’t you hate having to give the same damn information over and over again, every time you are transferred? If you don’t like it, then don’t do it to your patrons. It’s not necessary, and it’s bad service.

Which brings me to another point: if you don’t like people, don’t work in a public library, period. Become an archivist, a collection development librarian, or, you know, go live in a cave and don’t bother any one anymore. If you like books–great! I like books too. But in the public library, books are just a means to connect with people.

Further, you need to like all people, and have a strong desire to help them. I don’t necessarily like everyone I help, but I enjoy helping them, even when it’s difficult. Sometimes the most ornery patron is the one who needs you the most.

Of course I have my preferences, like anyone does. I love working with children, which is why I specialized in children’s services, but I like helping everyone. I love talking about Doctor Who with the middle schoolers, and singing “I love my white shoes” from Pete the Cat with the special ed class, and helping an elderly patron make copies of photos at the copier. I don’t ignore or short-shrift any patron because I’m not the adult or teen librarian. If they’re in my library, they are my people, and I need to do what I can for them.

Which brings me back to the way we set up our public libraries. Most people don’t care about our stupid little divisions. This is why I love tiny branch libraries, where the reference desk and check out are usually in the same damn place. I helped you find all this stuff, and  now I am going to check it out to you. From beginning to end, I was with you, and we’ve made a connection. There was no reason for me to shuttle you off to another desk or another person to make things happen for you.

I’ve written about these kinds of issues before, but my ire was raised once again after reading Anthony Molaro’s excellent post The Apple Way for Libraries: A Manifesto? (I’d remove the question mark, though; when your points are as good as these, don’t soften or second guess your message):

In the library environment, the departments feud with each other.  This creates a hostile work environment in which collaboration simply cannot thrive.  In all honesty, when was the last time your technical services and your reference staff actually collaborated?  I’m not talking about a joint project, that a leader approved, but an actually collaboration.

Apple also cuts the fat, or drops dead weight.  Apple is known for only having A players.  Sometimes B players were pushed hard to make them A players, but more often than not, they were fired.  In lots of libraries, we have lousy staff.  We know it.  We joke about it.  We even lament it.  But the truth is if you fail in another profession you end up here.  Even worse, good C players end up with promotions and then you have an entire C rated organization.  Any A players there are pushed downward until they only strive for C results.

Yes, perhaps I’m hard on library staff today.  I have worked with some great people.  But even that statement says a lot.  They are great people not great librarians or library staff.  Most of our staff strives for the status quo, or mediocrity. They plan for tomorrow based on what happened yesterday.

So what are we going to do, guys? Are we going to let these problems destroy our libraries? Or are we going to get serious about solving these problems?

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8 thoughts on “The Whole Library Approach

  1. My only question: how? How do we change things when we fear for our jobs? When unions get in the way? When many of us don’t get sufficient training, at least not current, and no money to afford it ourselves? These are all excuses, of course, but ones I’ve used and heard often. What we need is toolkit for dealing with these roadblocks. Some ideas to get us safely started. I want to make change but am so overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in my system, I’ve no clue where or how to start. Maybe for your next post?
    Thanks for helping keep me inspired and energized about my career!

  2. Oy, Miss Julie. I feel like, as Children’s Librarian, I’m expected to know how to do a little bit of everything in addition to being a children’s expert. This is fine by me: in a small branch, I can’t just go around sending teens and adults away. But I don’t really see it going the other way. Stuff gets forked over to me simply for being kids/child-related. I don’t see Adult Librarians delving into children’s literature or programming. I could definitely teach a computer class, but can’t imagine anyone filling in for my Toddler Time (or offering to).
    Soon, our reference and circulation desks will be combined. I am not looking forward to this at all. Circulation is busy and noisy. Reference is quieter and more appropriate for research, personal questions/privacy, etc. The pockets of quiet in a public library are hard to dig out. I can’t believe we’re going to lose ours. Also, I see myself helping more with circulation, which is fine, but it’s gotta go the other way.
    When Children’s Librarians give, give, give, who’s pitching in to help us?

    • This is exactly what I was getting at–Children’s Librarians, as a group, really come across as being more willing, helpful, and well rounded than the average adult reference librarian–and if they don’t start to follow the example we’ve set for them, they’re going to find themselves out of a job. I can see many libraries justifying firing their adult reference staff, but if you tried to dismantle the average children’s department, there would be a hell of a hue and cry.

      I think the added interactions with patrons will more than make up for the loss of quiet you’ll experience. There are so many patrons who only interact at the check-out desk, and soon they will be interacting with a librarian, who can help them uncover needs they might not even know they had. The chance to hand-sell programs and services that circ clerks might not be aware of or as familiar with seems like a great bonus to me.

      But I do agree, libraries are trying so hard to be everything to everyone, and most of them are poorly designed to function this way. Short of remodeling buildings, there’s not a whole lot we can do about this.

  3. As a Children’s Librarian, I love helping everybody, not just children. I do help teach computer classes, translate for the Spanish-speakers, do adult reference and so forth. But I and the other Children’s Librarian are also putting together “Storytime in a box” kits so that in an emergency, even someone like our circulation manager could do a storytime. Yes, at the next All-Staff meeting, we will be doing a short training on how to do it.

    • I think this is a great idea! The entire staff in a library needs to be invested in children and their families, because when budget cuts come knocking, they are going to be your staunchest advocates. Also, storytimes are fun–why shouldn’t everyone get a chance?

  4. At the library where I work we all cross-train. While I am a Library Associate in the Children’s Department once a week I work in reference and/or circulation and those staff members move around to the other departments as well. This gives us all a taste for what each other does. I will say, however, that none of the non-children’s staff members have to provide story programming during the cross training.

    • Which seems like a double standard, doesn’t it? Children’s librarians are expected to be fluent in everything, but the same isn’t true for non-children’s staff? Granted there will always be librarians who are better performers than the general public, but anyone with a pulse, fluency, and a willing attitude can completely adequately read a book aloud, especially if they are given a good book. I think staff SHOULD have to do at least part of a storytime, so they can fully appreciate all that children’s librarians really do.

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