"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Jul 24, 2009

Drawing lines...

Several of the presentations I attended at ALA Annual mentioned the importance in public service positions of drawing a line between your personal and professional lives. A line I heard suggested more than once was, "I'd be happy to talk about anything related to the library with you, but I cannot discuss my personal life."

Sounds sensible and easy in principle, doesn't it? But I'm finding that in practice it's rather blurry. And it's compounded by the fact that when a patron isn't actually breaking rules or being disruptive I'm not always terribly socially assertive, and tend to want to be polite rather than have someone think I'm being rude for no good reason.

For instance: When I was running the teen gaming program on Monday, one of the teens found me in a quiet moment in the kitchen as I was cleaning up and asked me if I am religious. That is clearly a line-crossing question. But I couldn't quickly think of a way to handle it that would be polite and avoid possibly damaging the rapport I was beginning to build with him, so I answered truthfully, "No, I'm not religious," trying to be a little brusque in hopes that that would discourage him from saying anything further without hurting his feelings.

Of course it didn't work. He proceeded to very earnestly and naively (as in, without a lot of knowledge about the religion himself -- he couldn't even explain the Adam and Eve story in a really coherent way) attempt to convert me to Christianity. An apocalyptic, end-times-are-coming strain of Christianity, no less. I was pretty uncomfortable. You just do not debate theology with a thirteen-year-old who clearly hasn't begun thinking critically about anything yet, let alone the beliefs he's clearly been indoctrinated in since childhood. Especially if you are working in a professional capacity in relationship to said thirteen-year-old. (Nor would I have particularly felt comfortable revealing my own thoughts on Christianity to him if he had been capable of engaging in a reasoned debate at a fully adult level. Again, that's crossing a professional line.)

I should've known better than to really answer that first question, because it got me into a situation that made me feel really uncomfortable and because really, my religious beliefs are not the business of my library's patrons. But still, it's taken me days to come up with something that I could've said that might have worked. (I feel as though in this situation, even the line I got from ALA Annual would be too abrupt. But I did finally decide I could have probably modified it to something like, "That's a personal question, and it's not really appropriate for me to be talking about my personal beliefs with library patrons. I'd be happy to discuss a library-related topic with you." -- maybe even following it up with, "Did you know we have a lot of books on religion? Maybe sometime we could try to find something interesting for you to read about religion.") So frustrating!

Then there's the question of how much it's appropriate to reveal in casual chitchat as you go about your job. Sharing personal information is a social lubricant, and I do find myself talking about my academic program, sometimes my future career, and how I grew up in the area with random people. Is that crossing a line? Or is it just polite? I still am not sure on that one...

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