Service with a Scowl

When you’re working at a public service desk as public librarians usually do, you are somewhat at the mercy of the public. We have all had experiences where we were trapped by someone who just wants to chat. We have had experiences where someone is having a really bad day and you get to be their outlet. And of course, we always are being judged. I’ve always remembered a time when I was in my first library job, and you can tell that I am old because I did not have a computer at my desk. I was reading The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, a longstanding review journal (where I eventually began my reviewing career), and I was reading the reviews and recording on little notecards which books sounded promising. A man came by the desk and wagged his finger at me and said, “Ah-ah-ah! Reading on the job?”

Because it isn’t generally considered polite to reply, “You’re a moron,” instead I explained that I was selecting books for the library. He looked skeptically at me and went on his way. People judge. As a manager, I’ve gotten complaints about staff who talked too loudly, or rudely, or didn’t talk fast enough. People judge.

These days, I try to walk around the library a few times a day just to see what’s going on, to touch base with staff, to see if there’s anything that needs attention. And now I’m the one who’s judging, because the thing I notice a lot is that many staff members, when they are concentrating hard on whatever is on their computer screen, look very grouchy and unapproachable. I know the individuals enough to know that they are just thinking, but the expression on their faces indicates that they are angry or disgusted or perturbed in some way.

I don’t know how to address it. Few things are more annoying in life than being told to smile. People in their judge-y way will sometimes tell a complete stranger who has just suffered a terrible loss, “Cheer up! It’ll get better!” Some people have expressions that are naturally not especially cheerful. So I wrestle with this. It does seem that the patrons are entitled to expect someone at a public service desk who is looking friendly and eager to help, but does that entitle the library to demand that people change their normal facial expressions? I’m not sure.

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4 Responses to Service with a Scowl

  1. Kate Hahn says:

    You can’t. How smiley are you when you’re focused and concentrating on something?

    • sdlempke says:

      But, my dear Kate, there are libraries now who forbid staff to come out with work or even to sit while they are at the desk. It is all in the interest of forcing them to be open to the patrons who need their help. And that sounds great, except I can’t imagine what I would hate more than being stuck at a desk, unable to sit or get any work done. That would be a horrible job.

  2. Holly J. says:

    Susan, this is a genuine concern. A patron recently mentioned this same observation to me and a colleague when she noticed us focusing intently on our computer screens at the Desk. Since so much of our facial expression comes from our eyes, I wonder if it’s the screen that is to blame. I think we’re all going to have to be sure to look up and make eye contact with people from a distance – before they approach the Desk. I know we have to get our work done, but we can’t scare patrons away in the process!

  3. Staff says:

    I do much of my work while on a public desk, and sometimes when I hear a patron approaching my inner self says, “Darn.” But I have found that if I look up, catch their eye, and smile, I have made myself available to them totally. Yes, it means that I have to regroup when I return to my task, and it takes much longer to complete it. But if I am not available to patrons, why am I on the desk?

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