An Old Friend in the Library

When rethinking service imperatives, let compassion be your guide

August 22, 2012


As summer days grew longer and the heat increased, so did my trips to the public library. This summer, I had a companion: a longtime friend’s 84-year-old mother—now another good friend. While I cruised the children’s section, Doris would head to the shelves with large-print books. Her library use heightened my sensibilities about how we serve aging adults.

Despite professional statements about serving the elderly—notably Guidelines for Library and Information Services to Older Adults from ALA’s Reference and User Services Association and Serving Seniors: A Resource Manual for Missouri Libraries—I’ve begun to doubt that these ideals play an active part in our daily practices.

Doris’s library habits wouldn’t, at first glance, seem significant to anyone. It wasn’t until I’d been in the building with her over the course of a few weeks, attempting to find a balance between watching to make sure she didn’t fall and leaving her to her own devices, that I started to recognize the patterns.

On almost every visit, she looked for books in the exact same part of the large-print section. Eventually I realized this shelf wasn’t populated with her favorite authors; rather, that particular row, closest to both an entrance and a self-check station, didn’t require her to walk the full length of the building. Also, someone regularly left one of those round scooting stools in that aisle, undoubtedly to aid young, able-bodied shelvers. Doris could never have used the stool for its intended purpose—to stand on it—but the stool did provide her with a place to sit while she browsed. She is, admittedly, tiny, but you could be a few inches taller and still be incapable of reaching, or even really seeing, a third of the books on these shelves. Plus, I’ve scanned the new bookstore-emulating part of the library that is furnished with real chairs, easy-to-reach shelves, and cover-forward shelving. Large-print titles aren’t to be found there.

Watching the staff interact with her was frustrating. I know they were trying to treat her as the capable, independent woman she would very much like to be—and how she tries to present herself. Once, I came looking for her after finding my own books. She had asked for help locating the DVD of Brideshead Revisited, and a staff member had given her a slip of paper on which three call letters were written in the penmanship equivalent of 10-point type. The item Doris sought was on a bottom shelf at the far side of the room.

I know that libraries are busy places and staffers face many demands. I know all elderly people aren’t the same and that some truly don’t want or need that much assistance. Still, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is how you serve a 4-foot-11 woman with white hair, trifocals, and a hesitating gait?”

My concerns are framed by the time I spend in youth services departments. Think of all the things we do to make those spaces usable for kids: low shelves; bold, attractive signage. Think of all the training and professional rhetoric about establishing ways to interact with teens that recognize their need for independence versus the inherent limitations of their age. Why don’t we strive to serve the elderly in the same ways?

Such an endeavor brings us back to the roots of our profession, to Samuel S. Green’s 1876 article, “Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers,” in which he urged librarians to attend to all patrons’ varied needs. Three years later he wrote, “I would have in every library a friend of the young, whom they can consult freely when in want of assistance” (Library Journal, vol. 4, no. 9).

I would also have in every library a friend of the elderly, tactful and sensitive to their changing needs.

JENNIFER BUREK PIERCE is associate professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.



What’s New in LIS Schools

A snapshot of librarianship’s never-ending metamorphosis


Working Part-Time After Retirement

Whether you work by choice or out of necessity, you’ll find that opportunities abound for library retirees