Approachable You

Aren’t you looking at me?

February 8, 2011

I am not a behavioral psychologist but it seems to me the most basic element of establishing a connection with someone is making eye contact. Take my granddaughter, Sophia. She’s 3 years old and is always the most popular person wherever she goes because she loves to go right up to people, look them in the eye, and with unbridled enthusiasm blurt out, “Hi, my name is Sophie!”

Unfortunately in today’s world, even our most extroverted librarians are not making eye contact with the people in their libraries. Walk into any library at any time and you will see the same sorry syndrome. Librarians at public services desks are not looking at the public, but at their computer screens. Nothing makes me angrier. And everybody wonders how best to frame library advocacy in a time of dwindling resources and Tea Party politics. How’s this for advocacy? Look like you give a darn! Keep your eyes on the prize—the patrons!

You librarians, what are you doing? A patron has to wonder. You’re not laughing while you’re looking at your screens so you’re probably not watching YouTube clips of great moments in comedy. You don’t look terribly absorbed so you’re probably not reading a Stephen King novel. You don’t look particularly serious so you’re probably not doing anything very important for your actual job. You also don’t look half asleep so you’re not reading library literature.

To be precise, you have that bored, listless look about you, as though you are engaging in that great America at Work time waster: surfing the internet. At least that’s what it looks like to me and everyone else trying to get your attention. What a great way to reinforce one of the library profession’s most odious stereotypes: “Oh, you’re a librarian? You must get to do a lot of reading on the job.”

This is not fair. Back in the Dark Ages, when I worked the reference desk (and yes there were no “snow days” then so you walked three miles through a blizzard to get to work) we were not allowed to read at the reference desk because of that very stereotype; it made us look unapproachable. So why is it okay now to move your eyes over a computer screen? How is that different from a book or a magazine?

I suppose the theory today is that if you are staring at a computer, you are doing something serious, like research. Serious research, my foot! We all know where internet surfing takes you: into the most inane sites imaginable. I mean this really bugs me.

So, today I’m shopping out of town and pass a library I’d never been in before. Like any nosy librarian, to the great frustration of the family members I am with, I just have to go in for a look/see. What do I see? I see a reference librarian staring at a computer screen. This makes me really flippin’ mad.

Since no one knows me at this library, I decide to sneak up behind the reference desk and see what inane, inconsequential, and idiotic site this librarian is staring at. It’s my daily blog Will Unwound. I’m not kidding.

Did I say I have a problem with reference librarians looking at computer screens? You must have misunderstood me. I actually think it’s very important for librarians to keep up with their library blogs, especially those that tell them to keep their eyes on the customers.

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and in nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.