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

Jan 31, 2010

Just a story

I think it's important to record and share the things that make us smile. So I have a story I'd like to tell.

While I was working the reference desk at my internship the other day, an older woman came up who needed some help signing legal documents electronically. I went over and spent some time helping her open her e-mail, find the right messages, and navigate through the first iteration of the signing process. She had very good mouse skills, but it was clear she didn't understand a whole lot about interacting with things over the Internet. I stepped her through the first of a few documents she needed to sign, then had to get back to the desk. When I came back to check in, she was frustrated -- she didn't understand what to do next, or what had to happen next -- but still wonderfully polite and patient with me. I helped her figure things out, and found the document that she then needed to print. Our printers are sometimes a little cranky with .pdf files, and after a few tries the file consistently refused to print. She was clearly somewhat perplexed and frustrated, but her demeanor was composed as I explained I'd save the file to a flash drive and print it for her from my computer at the desk.

I finally handed the document to her, and she and my supervisor and I chatted a bit about how she was learning computer skills, and how it was hard but she was going to keep at it (good for her!). As she was leaving, she said something like, "I'm going to have to bring you all cookies or flowers or something to thank you!"

I said, "Ma'am, as a reference librarian, what always makes me feel best is just when a patron sincerely says 'thank you'."*

"Thank you," she said, looking me in the eye and smiling, and then she turned to go.

This interaction made my day for a couple of reasons.

- First, the way the patron kept her cool despite clearly being frustrated with some aspects of how things were going. Usually, when patrons get frustrated, their irritation shows in their body language and their tone of voice even if they're still speaking politely, and they can become impatient and less willing to listen to me if I need to explain something a little more complex. The frustration is rarely aimed directly at me (and I certainly can't blame patrons for getting frustrated sometimes!), but even if there is not an intent to express negative emotion toward me, it definitely makes the entire interaction a little more stressful as I try to find ways to satisfy their need. This woman's calm demeanor, and her patience as I tried to find ways to explain things to her that she would understand best, were really wonderful.

- Second -- and this is really what is going to make this memorable for me -- the "thank you." People usually thank me when I've helped them, with varying levels of attention and sincerity. I always appreciate being thanked, even if it's the throwaway formality "thanks" as I hand someone a guest pass to use the computers. But I've had a handful of times now when someone has thanked me in a way that has made me really feel that whatever I've done for that person has been really important to them and made a big difference. What I've actually done doesn't seem to matter so much. I've gotten these kinds of thank-yous for something as simple as finding a book on the shelf. What makes them really powerful for me is the feeling that I have done something that has great significance to the patron, and that they recognize that and deeply appreciate it. I got into this profession because I wanted to change the world by changing individual lives. When someone says "thank you" as if I've just opened doors for them, or as if I've made their week, I know that I'm in the right job.

* Yes, yes, yes, I know that sounds cheesy, but it's absolutely true!

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