Rose and Thorn

Iris has written a dilly of a blog post about keeping her enthusiasm and optimism for this profession in the face of bitter, crusty librarians who see only the broken side of library users. In light of the idea that “the user is not broken,” I find I have a lot to think about here.

When I was a wee lad, there was a C-list superhero who occasionally appeared in Superman’s comics, Rose and Thorn. Rose Forrest was a demure, glasses-wearing geek of a woman–with a split personality. In certain circumstances, Rose would “black out” and become a green leather-clad hellcat with a snarling face, a mean-tempered, impatient crimefighter called Thorn.

Rose Forrest and her dark alter-ego makes a good metaphor for how I feel much of the time. In general, I’m what you might call a cockeyed optimist (although I don’t really know what “cockeyed” means–sounds a bit weird, whatever it’s meant to imply). I love my specific job, I love the greater profession of being a librarian, and I love the idea that the user is not broken. “The user is not broken.” I usually believe that.

Usually.

But then I encounter a patron who seems to want to take advantage of what the library has to offer. They look for loopholes in our policies, argue about our rules, and complain when they feel we’re blocking them from their goals.

Sometimes, I feel bad about this. I wonder if we’re being too strict with our policies. I fear that we really are blocking our patrons, using our rules and policies to smack the patrons down, to make them think that the library really belongs to us librarians, not them. Not the grubby, ignorant patrons with their overdue items and unruly children and attempts to look at porn on our computers.

Other times, I think that users in general aren’t broken, but some specific users are. Some users don’t care about their fellow patrons. They don’t want policies changed (or bent slightly) because they think the policy is unfair for everyone, they just think it’s unfair for them. They want to be the exception. They don’t think the library belongs to everyone–they don’t care who it belongs to, they just want to do whatever they want and get away with it, with no responsibilities and no consequences.

Honestly, it’s confusing. I wonder if maybe the answer (or something approximating an answer) is this: I’m nowhere near ready to abandon my enthusiasm and optimism for what I do and what libraries are all about; but for all of our talk about “cluetrain this” and “the user is not broken that,” we have to admit that some users are broken, some just don’t have a clue. I will champion library user empowerment to the best of my ability. But with great power comes great responsibility, and if people don’t want the responsibility, they really shouldn’t have the power. (And you know, I think that goes for librarians, too, and not just library users.)

But in the end, I remain somewhat torn. Just like Rose and Thorn.

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6 thoughts on “Rose and Thorn

  1. I agree, Josh. And there are some people who use my library that are at least fractured, if not entirely broken. (One or two are entirely broken. So far beyond broken that they can’t even remember what being whole felt like.) But the point is that you can also see the others, the ones who aren’t broken. And you can see the value of working hard for those unbroken patrons. THAT’s what I don’t want to lose.

    I’m all for constructive complaining, and even a little venting, as long as that’s not the focus of your existence.

  2. But the point is that you can also see the others, the ones who aren’t broken. And you can see the value of working hard for those unbroken patrons. THAT’s what I don’t want to lose.

    Yes, you’re right, Iris. That’s what I was trying to get to. There will always be some fractured users. But if you go into the profession assuming that users are broken, you’ll just create more broken users.

    It is frustrating, though, when the library feels it has to set policy based on the broken users–the old “one bad apple spoiling the bunch.”

  3. I try to remind myself (and everyone I can) that some people (broken and/or clueless) are that way EVERYWHERE THEY GO, and IN EVERYTHING THEY DO. It remains important not to define ourselves, and our services with them as our target since their focus will remain; “what’s wrong with everything”.
    The great majority of our users will help us define our ROSE relevance, not the few who may only respond to THORN.

    PS my usual goal is to get these type out the door ASAP even if it means going against my better judgment to satisfy them. This is the hard part that makes you wonder if it’s “worth it” at times right?

  4. PS my usual goal is to get these type out the door ASAP even if it means going against my better judgment to satisfy them. This is the hard part that makes you wonder if it’s “worth it” at times right?

    That part doesn’t really make me wonder if it’s worth it. (And I also frequently try to get them out the door, hopefully given as much as we can give to them. I think there are some patrons we can stand to lose.) The part that gets me is when the rosy patrons stub their toes on the policies that are there because of the thorny patrons.

    But you’re absolutely right. Most of the rotten users will be rotten everywhere they go, to everyone. (I think other rotten users are being rotten only because we’re catching them at a bad moment. In which case, treating them nicely, giving them the benefit of the doubt, will foster a much better relationship than treating them like the enemy.)

  5. Sure, there are some screwballs in the world, and they don’t just patronize the library. They go to stores, they hang out in parks, they eat out…they’re everywhere. They spice things up; keep us on our toes.
    And sure, there are people who see every rule as an opportunity to challenge the system. From what I can tell, some of them even treat it as a sport.
    I coach my staff to understand that someone else’s personality ticks have nothing to do with us, or with the library. It’s their problem, not our’s. And to me, that is the trick to dealing with this stuff- don’t get sucked into it personally, deal with the issue at hand, don’t escalate the problem, finish it off and move on.
    The next patron is a new opportunity.

  6. don’t get sucked into it personally, deal with the issue at hand, don’t escalate the problem, finish it off and move on.
    The next patron is a new opportunity.

    Good point, Steve. That was always my attitude when I was working retail. Of course, I wasn’t a supervisor then, so I didn’t really have to worry about the policies, I just had to enforce them (and call a supervisor to back me up and deal with things when they got too hairy).

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