There are people I have worked with over the years who seemed to me to be the definition of hospitable. They will bake dozens of batches of Christmas cookies to give away. They will organize a potluck and make sure everyone–the vegetarians, the gluten-free, the diabetics, etc–has something they will enjoy. They invite people to their homes, and when you get there the homes are immaculate and beautiful and comfortable and welcoming. They make you feel at home.
Hospitality comes hard to me. When I take on the responsibility for, say, providing breakfast for a visiting group to the library, none of the decisions come easily. Just picking out the kind of orange juice takes me ten minutes–pulp? no pulp? calcium? which brand is better? Is only juice enough? Maybe we need some cranberry juice, too. But maybe not. What if it spills? Is it too sugary? By the time I am done I will either have over-purchased or under-purchased, and I will be frayed and tired and sad in the knowledge that whatever I have picked is wrong. And I don’t normally fuss over things! It is hospitality that is my stumbling block.
It is so not-my-thing that I am startled to find that I want to talk about hospitality and libraries. We talk a great deal about customer service. We talk about promoting things in the library–collections, programs, services. We try to make things efficient, and we move increasingly toward having people take care of themselves through self-checks, and picking up their holds instead of asking for them. But I think we don’t talk nearly enough about hospitality.
I started down this road with a piece by Art Petty (thanks, email@example.com!) that talks eloquently about how a mundane-to-unpleasant business flight became memorable through a flight attendant’s announcement of a passenger’s retirement. A great sermon this morning also spoke about hospitality, and made it clear that the essence of hospitality is not if you have picked the correct juice but is all about recognizing someone as a person.
Customer service is a fine thing, but there’s something fundamentally different about hospitality. Service emphasizes servant, and of course we are the servants of the taxpayers and shouldn’t forget that. But hospitality emphasizes welcome and making people feel at home. It might be a better way for public service staff to think of their work–that they are hosts in a way, and it’s their job to make patrons feel comfortable and that we recognize them as individuals, not cogs in a system.
However, Episcopal priest Jane Schaefer makes the good point that “True hospitality is sensitive to the needs of the person receiving it.” Not every patron wants to be greeted as they enter or wants the offer of help. You have to read body language and be sensitive to the signals a patron is sending out, so you aren’t interfering with someone’s privacy. But taking that moment to look and see how you can help, what a person might need (assistance checking out, say, or help finding where they are going) and taking that moment to chat may seem unprofessional, but might be the very thing that makes them feel that their time at your library was well-spent.
So, I guess I will have to revise my notions about hospitality. I will probably never be good at food-related hospitality since the decisions there worry me too much. But the true essence of hospitality has much more to do with being observant and kind, and I would like to see my library turn its attention toward creating a culture of hospitality. We can all use a little more kindness and attention, don’t you think?