It’s been a very busy month — almost two — since I last posted here (if you are ever wondering what else I’m up to, visit my review blog, bookconscious, which I tend to post to more frequently). One of the challenges we’ve been facing at my library is that although it hasn’t been truly “wicked cold” yet, as they say here in northern New England, it’s cool and wet enough that people are looking for a place to be warm and dry. And as I’ve written here before, that’s an important part of a public library’s mission. Personally, I feel good knowing we help people stay safe and comfortable.*
But what about those regular patrons, regardless of their reasons for coming to the library, who are “difficult” in some way. That’s a catchphrase that can mean everything from “hard to please” to mentally ill. Public libraries serve a broad cross section of citizens, and we experience every kind of “difficult” you can imagine. We train regularly to deal with everything from complaints to outright paranoia. Lately we’ve been talking a great deal at my library about mental illness, because some of the behaviors we see every day seem to go beyond eccentricity (much as I’d like to explain, for privacy reasons I am not going to go into detail).
And some of our staff feel like they’ve had enough — they want someone else to take this on. Unfortunately, that’s usually not possible. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of caseworkers we can call and talk to and last week I did that twice. The advice they gave on engaging with people who seem so “out there” as to be a little scary to other patrons and staff was very helpful.** But what they can’t help me with is reassuring the staff of something I heard Steve Inskeep say on Morning Edition today: “everyone is a little bit weird.”
This is something I’ve been telling my kids for years. They laugh, but I’m serious. In some way, every one of us does things that to another person seem strange, different, hard to understand, maybe even off-putting or alarming. Most of us are only just a little bit weird — we have a quirk or habit, a mannerism, or a personality trait that is close enough to the mainstream as to be mostly noticeable. But all of us are somebody’s weirdo. It helps to remember that.
It also helps to combat compassion fatigue to remember that every person I engage with at the library, from those who are pleasant or “normal” to those who seem painfully strange or even a little threatening, is someone. Each of them is someone’s relative. Each of them is a person, not a problem. Each of them is looking for what we’re all looking for on any given day: a connection with another person. I’ve noted before that working in a library for me means being fueled by both “the conviction in my heart and the ideas in my head” (Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative). If I can do anything at all to reassure and equip staff to deal with difficulty and difference, and also be present to patrons and coach staff to do the same, both my heart and my head tell me that’s my job, even if I didn’t learn it in library school.
* To those who say libraries aren’t the place for sheltering people from life’s troubles, I generally point out that we have services many underprivileged people need: computers and internet access, job hunting resources, public restrooms. Even more importantly, we have newspapers, so people can stay informed, and books, so people can learn and even just escape. Neil Gaiman notes that reading is escapist in the best sense: “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”
** The most effective advice seems to be to to listen, smile, thank the person for sharing their thoughts/concerns/suggestions, assure them (and actually do) pass those on to your boss, and then politely get back to work. This gentle approach offers presence and validation to the person for a moment, but allows the staff member to extricate him or herself from what can often be a lengthy ramble or tirade. It lets the person be heard, but doesn’t promise particular outcomes, which is key if the requests are beyond the library’s means or mission.