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.