360: Being Your Own Patron

As I’m easing back into daily work, I’m becoming increasingly conscious about looking at everything from both sides. It’s very easy to see work, services, decisions, all of that, from my own perspective as a librarian, a service provider, a troubleshooter and tech consultant. What would be easiest for me, what resonates with me, what falls in line with other decisions I’ve made? What processes can I put in place to make my life easier? I know I’m usually starting from there when I’m at work. A me-centred approach. I think most of us do that. It’s pretty natural.

But lately I’ve been thinking about my own process of doing a 360 whenever I’m making decisions. What does it feel like to be my own patron? I think about this a lot, and it’s occurred to me recently that that might not be as common as I thought it was.

The first time I was aware that this way of thinking might be a bit unusual was back in library school. I wrote a paper for a cataloguing class about the history of a classification decision, and what the changes in that classification would have meant for the patron browsing the shelves. This seemed like a natural leap to me, but the comment on my paper when I got it back especially lauded me for thinking about shelves and the patron experience. I couldn’t quite fathom what other way there was to think about it, frankly. I mean, that’s what classification is for in the end, isn’t it? Arranging information for a patron? So a patron can interact with it in a logical way? It’s hard for me to imagine losing sight of that.

But I keep being confronted with experiences where that 360 clearly didn’t happen. I filled out a form the other day, and got a receipt via email that started, “If you typed in your email, you’ll receive a message…” Well, yes. I did type in my email, obviously. And am reading a message. Since the system has just emailed me this one. I wondered if anyone thought about what it would be like to receive that email. It’s not a natural way of thinking, perhaps. Maybe it’s what happens once you get into a groove in your job, when you do things because that’s how they’re done. It must obscure the obvious question about what it would be like to experience from the other side as someone who has no idea what’s commonly done, let alone why, and hasn’t spent a second considering it.

In my spare time, I write fiction. It’s a hobby, I enjoy it. Usually I think this particular hobby has no real bearing on my life as a librarian (in spite of the fact that most people think librarians think about/read fiction all day). But as I’ve been thinking about this 360 process as part of my own decision-making, I’ve realized that it’s one area where fiction and my work life collide.

When I’m writing fiction, I work hard to think about the story as it appears to every character, not just the protagonist. I want every character to be a protagonist in their own unwritten story, with their own goals and perspectives present under the surface. I want every character to feel like a real person who sees the world through their own twisted lens, and thus naturally misunderstand things or make bad decisions from time to time. I want the reader to get the sense, as they run up against these various characters, that there are worlds inside them that we aren’t entering into. As if this story could be written from any one of their perspectives and be just as interesting, yet radically different. Every villain is a hero when they’re the one telling the story, right?

Thinking about being my own patron feels a bit similar to me. I want to stop seeing the world as I see it, and see it from the perspective of a student, or an instructor, or an exhausted sessional. What am I doing because it’s easier for me, or more natural to me, or because it’s always been that way, that would look mystifyingly inexplicable to those people? What would they look at and say, why are you making me do this? Why is this happening to me? When they get that email like I did, does it make sense? Does it tell them anything they care about? Does it seem as though I haven’t thought about what it will feel like for them?

I think this might be the actual definition of a bureaucracy: when we’ve spent all our time thinking about what we need from a patron in order to process a request successfully, we’ve created a service that will feel like an ordeal the patron has to survive rather than a service. You want a book/computer/access? Go over to that terminal, log in with this information, go over here, get this code, write it on a piece of paper, come back to me, and then I help you. We do this a lot. It’s good for our process, I suppose. it feels efficient, but not so fantastic for the patron, who becomes a momentary cog in a process they don’t understand. We insist that they become a minor character in the library’s story when we do that. It must feel like we’re asking them to support the machine we created. The patron knows for sure that whatever’s going on, it’s not them in the heart of it. I suppose sometimes that’s completely appropriate. But it’s the last kind of experience I want to create.

I consider librarianship a service profession. I know that’s a bit controversial in some places, because some consider service to be servile. I don’t feel that way. I think, at it’s very heart, librarianship is about the provision of information, tools, space, and support to patrons, and in that, it seems to be naturally rooted in the most altruistic of services. That’s my favourite part about librarianship, actually. I like helping people meet their goals. I like being part of their successes. I like making sure their successes are easier to achieve, and I absolutely love it when people can accomplish things they thought wouldn’t be possible through a little help and guidance from me. In order to provide a truly great service, I feel like it’s a requirement that I’m constantly questioning who the protagonist is in each interaction I engage in. I want the patron to be the protagonist. I want them to walk away feeling like what just happened was all about them.

What this results in, for me, is what we call paying the pickle man. Sometimes I will bend over backwards to do things that might seem trivial, but if I do those things, I know the patron experience will be effortless. For instance: if I know for a fact that every instructor on campus will need to, say, make their course available to students between Monday and Wednesday of the week after Labour Day, I could just wait for them to forget, and then have to call me to ask how to do it. Or I could just reach out and tell them how to do it before they realize they have to ask. I know their storyline, at least a little bit. I know where it needs a nudge. I’m don’t mind being a minor character if it means they don’t make a mistake or forget something.

This is something I wish I’d been taught in library school. I wish we’d had even just one lecture on it. What do you think you look like to your patrons? What do you want them to think when they’re interacting with you? I think everyone’s answer to this might be very different. Sometimes I think every controversy, every argument, every difference of opinion in librarianship comes down to conflicting answers to this question: what do you want the patron to feel when they’re dealing with you? To me, the answer to this question in any given situation is what dictates my decisions. And because what I want the patron to feel is heard, and understood, and important, 9 times out of 10 the solution that makes my life easier just won’t be good enough.