No, I Can’t Braid Your Hair: Why Librarians Need Boundaries Too
Please Respect Information Professionals, and Do Not Follow Them Home
With the advent of social media and online identities, we’re given unlimited access to people’s daily lives. Jenny got a roast beef sandwich at the deli and the meat was kind of dry. Daniel is tweeting about our bad president again! Oh look, Karen posted a picture of her dog wearing a cowboy hat (thank you, Karen, more of this, please). We see everyone’s lives 24/7 and it’s a very strange form of strange intimacy. But there are limits when it comes to access. Lines that shouldn’t be crossed. This holds true when it comes to interacting with your library staff.
Boundaries! We need them.
Boundaries are extremely important in librarianship. Ask any librarian—we’ve all experienced occasions when an appropriate question suddenly morphs into “Can you help me remove this Band-Aid?” When you work in public service, especially when you’re answering questions all day, the line of acceptability begins to blur.
Because we spend so much time assisting others, it’s easy to lose track of how we “work.” We aren’t the only profession in the public service industry who has this problem, for sure, but librarians really never leave our work behind. When I’m home, I’m still answering questions. Out at the bar? Ready reference. I answer questions online, with my friends, through Twitter, via text message. If I’m not careful to give myself a break, I wind up exhausted.
It’s also true that patrons sometimes assume that our time is flexible. For them, we’re always on. Many times people have approached me in the parking lot outside of the library to ask follow-up questions to their earlier reference queries. They don’t think about the fact I just got off a ten-hour shift. They don’t recognize that my day has ended, because that’s not how the relationship works for them. It’s just a question, right? Why shouldn’t I be able to answer it right then?
Here’s the thing: I want to help them! It takes everything within me to gently inform them that I can answer those questions later, when I’m back on the clock. Because if I don’t do that, if I don’t give myself small breathers, I’ll get completely burnt out.
I want to help all the time; I legitimately can’t help all the time. It’s wildly confusing. For instance, many of the patrons who come into the library are friendly, wonderful people. I love interacting with them, asking them about their day, and seeing pictures of their pets. We discuss what kind of frozen pizza tastes best and laugh about TV shows and joke around about who broke the copy machine (just kidding, I NEVER joke about that). But those boundaries are in place for a good reason.
To illustrate, a spooky Halloween tale of library horror:
When I worked at the public library, I often walked home on my lunch breaks. I lived only a couple blocks away from the building, which meant I could pop home any time I wanted to feed the dogs or watch some quick TV. It also gave me the opportunity to enjoy the nice Florida weather (like one month out of the year) and sometimes listen to music. One afternoon I got all the way to my front door before I realized that someone had followed me home.
It was a woman that I’d talked to a few times at library programs. She was nice. We’d had some good conversations.
I stood there in total shock as she waved at me. “Now I know where you live!” she yelled, before continuing onward down the street.
Patrons sometimes cross these lines because they genuinely forget about them. There’s an intimacy that comes with answering reference questions. Lots of people ask for help with very personal, private matters. We provide assistance with job applications and resumes, grants papers, bank loans, tax documents, answer questions about healthcare. We help people with things they won’t even discuss with their friends and family. We want to be able to provide assistance, but at the same time, librarians and staff have to make sure that we’re also taking care of ourselves.
Several librarians have already written about the sexual harassment that can and does happen in libraries. Boundaries are important. We have them for a reason. We work to keep the library open and available so that people can use it; it’s a free space. We want everyone in the community to have access. But it also means that it becomes extremely difficult to enforce those boundaries when patrons cross the line. We see a lot of the same faces every day, sometimes for the entirety of our shifts. Unlike other industries, there isn’t a time limit on how long a person can hang out at the library. If someone is being a problem and not respecting our time, it’s difficult to know how best to deal with these issues.
So as we work to set those boundaries, I’d ask that patrons would be mindful of them, too. We know you appreciate the work we do. You can show you care by how you treat us: with respect as information professionals. We want to give you the very best help we can. We want to support you. Support us, too, by understanding why boundaries are necessary and respecting them. Don’t cross that line.
Also you can bring us donuts. Donuts would be good.