The Business of Library Services

Last week, I became unexpectedly agitated while reading an article for a class on manuscripts and special collections.

The article described a historical researcher’s relationship with a special collections archivist as fundamentally an exchange of social capital. Therefore, the author claims, researchers who develop relationships with archivists benefit from that connection or are otherwise disadvantaged.

Near the end of the text the author offers an anecdote as an illustration of when this exchange presumably “fails” from the perspective of the patron: a young scholar, a Ph.D. student, comes to the archives with a fuzzy idea for a project, seeking materials related to this topic. The scholar explicitly requests specific materials related to this emerging project, and the archivist provides those materials. The scholar, however, leaves the exchange feeling disappointed that the archivist had not taken greater interest in his project or helped him to define his research question based on potentially useful materials in the collection(s). The scholar sees the archivist as the gatekeeper of privileged information, inaccessible to those users with whom the archivist does not have an established relationship.

But the real disappointment for the scholar, it seemed, was not that the archivist didn’t perform these particular tasks, but that the archivist didn’t perform the emotional labor that would make these tasks possible. “Emotional labor” is a term used to describe the unacknowledged, unpaid, and often-feminized labor that is required of service industry workers. While it may seem counter intuitive, in this sense, the archivist, like many people who work in service (myself included), spend a lot of time and energy in their workplace providing (unacknowledged, unpaid, untrained) emotional labor in their daily exchanges and interactions with patrons.

Reference librarianship is undoubtedly service work. Reference librarians and public service assistants (like me) are expected to maintain an approachable and personable disposition for good reason: patrons should feel welcome to ask questions without the fear that they’re a bother or that they will be judged. Within our circle of public service assistants and supervisors, I’m grateful for the frank discussions that we’ve had about the emotional labor that goes into the routine performance of public service; we’ve agreed that no one can be expected to hold a perky smile through every single shift. And, as I acknowledge the weight of service work, it’s also very important to me that patrons feel respected and heard.

Unlike food service or classroom teaching, I’m not working for generous tips or glowing student evaluations, but I am, in a sense, trying to “sell” the library’s resources and the skills required to navigate them. And it’s the sharing of skills and collaborating with patrons (also emotional labor) that makes most of my exchanges at the reference desk positive and enjoyable, some even leaving me energized, euphoric.

When I put myself in the position of the archivist in the author’s anecdote, I’m reminded of the numerous times in teaching, in serving, and at the reference desk that a student, customer, or patron has asked something of me that I do not owe them or, perhaps worse, they’ve expected something of me without explicitly asking for it. When the expectation in the business world (or the university classroom) is to satisfy the customer at any cost, I’ve had a tendency to allow my personal boundaries to fall away in service to another. At the first hint of dissatisfaction, I’m bending over backwards to anticipate and interpret the customer’s needs and desires. By force of habit, I’ve carried some of these tendencies from the other world into the library, and certainly, I’m not alone. This is where I start to wonder how and where to draw the line between public services at a library and customer service in a business.

What distinguishes one kind of service from the other? What can I do as a librarian-in-training to emphasize the interactional nature of reference service and to move away from the business-like transaction wherein the reference worker is positioned as the gatekeeper of resources (as the young scholar imagined) and also as the customer service worker who must sell their good service and their positive emotional state for the sake of the patron’s satisfaction?

I’m not sure that I have concrete answers to these questions, but at the very least, we can start by naming emotional labor for what it is and then providing space to account for it and setting limits on how we employ it, all as a form of self-care and burnout prevention.

Here are a few readings that I’ve recently come across that may be useful starting points in approaching these questions:

#critlib chat: Working from within the system to create change
The library as a stuck place: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university
Work for hire: Library publishing, scholarly communication, and academic freedom
Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself

-Leah Cover

A Reminder for Impartiality

The other day as I sat at the West Tower circulation desk here at Wells, I was approached by two young men. While the shorter of the two hung back with a smirk on his face, the other one proceeded to ask (quite loudly, as if he had never been in a building before) whether or not the library had any pornography. Surely this young man was joking, trying to get a rise out of me. I committed little effort to helping this man and simply directed him to the Kinsey Institute because again… surely he was not serious. It only took a half hour for me to see the error of my ways.

It was at that time that another young man came to me asking for pornography. Thinking that something had to be going on, I conducted a reference interview (which is something I realize I should have done with the first guy). It was through this reference interview that I came to understand, as an assignment in a gender studies class, students were tasked with finding academic sources focused on pornography and how it affected society as a whole. Once I was able to legitimately help this individual, the shame in how I had treated the first patron soon overwhelmed me. My assumptions had prevented me from effectively helping an individual with a legitimate reference question. While I am not proud of the way I handled that first situation, I hope my errors can serve as a reminder to us all that as librarians we must suspend our judgments and preconceived notions the moment we start our shifts. This reminder for impartiality, however, can go further than just the reference desk. Impartiality and the suspension of judgment should be the foundation of any interaction we have regardless of the state of our relationship with the person, be it stranger, friend, or spouse. The sooner we as a society can open our ears, hear what needs to be said, and work together toward a solution, the sooner we can achieve an inclusive and understanding society.

-Brian Plank

The Only Person You’ll Talk to All Day

A couple of weeks back, The Guardian published an editorial generally discussing how libraries must find more creative services to reach its public in the face of budget cuts, closures, and the competitive rise of Amazon and Google. But this is hardly news; librarians have been hearing some version of this spiel for years now. What caught my eye was the headline, a quote by the anonymous librarian who penned the article: “For many library visitors, I’m the only person they’ve talked to all day.”

This quote is later contextualized within the author’s assertion that libraries provide a community and safe space for otherwise socially-isolated people. And this notion deeply resonated with me in my own experience at the reference desk. Just the other day I was at the desk with a colleague and he took an hour-long phone call from a woman who required citation assistance. I was only privy to half the interaction, but from my colleague’s end of the conversation I could tell it took a distinctly personal direction. From what I overheard, my colleague was prompted to discuss his current academic leanings, the campus he attended for his undergrad, his own encounters with citation, his background in philosophy, and other forms of casual chatter.

I certainly can relate to this encounter in my own experience staffing the reference desk. I can recall quite a few instances where a patron’s simple request regarding library resources transformed into a forty-minute discussion about everything and anything. I remember one woman who approached the reference desk just to ask for directions, only to end up regaling me with jet lag tales so hilarious they left me teetering precariously on my stool with laughter. Another instance involved a patron calling for information about the air time of a televised political debate, which then transitioned into her relating an adorable childhood experience she had with Herman B Wells (her mother was employed as his secretary).

And now here I am, rambling on just as so many library patrons are want to do. But let me clarify—these patron ramblings are not annoying or tedious, and I in no way think it beneath me or time-wasting to listen to these tangents. I like to think that reference librarians are fulfilling a function beyond that of resource assistance; that we are in some capacity contributing to the responsive, welcoming atmosphere that lends relevancy to the library of the 21st century. Some people come to the library needing books. Some people come to the library needing study space. And some people come to the library to, in some way, alleviate their loneliness. All of these needs are legitimate and equal, and as an aspiring reference librarian I hope to address each of these to the best of my abilities.

And now, for a tangent of my own…Here’s my favorite library-related comic (gotta give it up to Calvin & Hobbes):


—Catherine Fonseca

A Confused Library User Turned Library Advocate

My first few years as an undergraduate were marked by an uneasy relationship with the school’s campus library. Every semester, as research papers and assignments rolled around, I dreaded the point when I would have to sit down and use our library’s website to start looking for sources on whatever topic I’d chosen. Outside of our book catalog and OneSearch article database, with which I was generally familiar, I was overwhelmed by the extensive lists of databases, digital collections, and journal titles all over our website. I never knew where to start, or how exactly they differed from one another, and usually decided for sanity’s sake to stick with the catalog and OneSearch for my research, ignoring the rest. While I could usually find enough sources to meet the basic assignment requirements with these two, my searches always felt painstakingly long and difficult. I knew there were a lot of potentially great sources I was missing out on, but I simply had no idea how to get that information.

Despite my persistent frustration with our library, I never bothered to ask anyone for help. I knew we had a Reference Desk at our library, but I always assumed that was where people went to get directional assistance, or if they couldn’t find a particular book they wanted, and that wasn’t exactly the problem I was facing. I didn’t want someone to simply find sources for me; I wanted someone to show me how to use our website more effectively and how to find relevant sources without spending ages combing through catalog result lists that mostly included completely irrelevant sources. I definitely didn’t think the Reference Desk could help me with that.

It wasn’t until I actually landed a job working at our Reference Desk that I realized how completely wrong I’d been about library reference services. Not only could the Reference librarians show me how to use our catalog, databases, and online collections more effectively, they were by far the best people I could turn to for help. I learned so much from simply talking to the different reference librarians I worked alongside and getting their feedback on how to do research in our library, but what struck me the most was how happy they were to share their knowledge, both with me and with anyone who came up to the desk. The librarians I worked with all understood trying to navigate through all of our resources and actually use the library to do research could sometimes be really frustrating, especially for anyone new to the library. They consistently went out of their way to work with students to figure out what problems they were having, and ultimately what tools and skills would best meet their needs and allow them to use the library’s resources effectively on their own.

The two years I spent working at the Reference Desk were what led me to enter the field of librarianship. I had learned so much about all our library had to offer, and I wanted to be able to share that with other students who might be struggling with using the library the same way I had. But I was also motivated to enter librarianship because I only learned about what the Reference Department did and the services it offered once I actually started working there. I knew from talking with other students and peers that many of them were just as unclear about what the Reference department was as I had been, and this made me question whether a deeper disconnect existed between the services our libraries have to offer and what students think their libraries have to offer. And that disconnect is surely affecting the impact we have – after all, how could anyone expect students to use the library, or even simply ask librarians for help, if they don’t really understand who we are, what we do, and what we have to offer?

While I’ve only just started working towards a career in librarianship, I hope to become a part of the conversation on how librarians can break down some of those barriers – and perhaps in doing so, I can help turn a few more wary students into empowered library patrons and advocates.

-Sarah Klimek

Humanizing Librarianship: A Reflection on the Need for Reflection

IM Patron, Hear Me Ask: Hi, I was trying to access an article from the Journal of Underpaid Adjuncts called, “I Wrote This: Hire Me, Please? Pretty Pretty Pwease?”, but OneSearch keeps turning up thousands of articles–just how many articles like this can there be?? Halp!!

IM Librarian, Destroyer of Weeds: Hi there, thanks for holding. Could you repeat your order?

No doubt, online services like our “Ask a Librarian” chat reference can be very convenient in a pinch. Need help finding an article or two for a paper on the fly? You’re in luck–reference operators are standing by, eagerly awaiting your next text or instant message! Yet, speaking for myself, I have to wonder what can get lost in the process of making reference services maximally convenient and efficient, whether it be in the name of promoting “information access” or some other favorite pastime. I ask, in particular, how some of our ideas on librarianship–our reasons for being librarians; our values, our visions, and our ambitions–contribute to the dehumanization and devaluation of librarians and patrons alike.

For me personally, the IM reference service merely foregrounds the impersonal, transactional form of exchange that characterizes much of our social interaction, a state of affairs for which IMs alone are hardly responsible (as anyone who has worked in retail or customer service knows first-hand). I find myself recalling a particular passage from Franz Kafka’s Amerika.[1] As the protagonist Karl Rossmann is about to get thrown out of Hotel Occidental (where he had just been fired from his job as a lift-boy), he ends up in the porters’ lodge. He observes the assistant porters, whose duty it is to dispense information of all kinds to the frenetic shuffle of the manifold hotel guests, with arms outstretched and hands grasping or signing impatiently. With guests always speaking over each other to get out this question or that demand, the assistant porters cannot afford to pause: They dare not stop the deluge of information spilling from their mouths, not even for the sake of clarity, until an exhausting hour has passed and they must rotate out, with nary a guest noticing the switch until much later. Behold, in all their glory, our information specialists avant la lettre!

In the porters’ lodge, we witness a perfectly efficient and bustling information system–along with the mutual dehumanization of guests and workers: Everyone is equally replaceable, equally disposable, as far as this system is concerned. What’s more, the system is not entirely imposed from without; rather, it comes into being, and stays in being, through the hurried exchanges that occur between myriad guests and overburdened workers.

I can’t help but suspect the current devalued state of librarianship is in no small part the product of the ideas and assumptions we ourselves have allowed to shape the profession: ideas on librarianship, on our social and historical circumstances, on human nature and the ways of this world of ours. How might we humanize librarianship? We cannot begin to answer such a question until we engage ourselves in thought and reflection. Almost 40 years ago, André Cossette wrote in his Humanism and Libraries, “Library science is still in a time of pragmatism. Librarians know how to do their work, but do not respond in a systematic way to the primordial question: why do this work?”[2] That question continues to endure for good reason. In striving to answer it, we might not simply reinvigorate our work with renewed purpose and meaning, but humanize it as well.

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: Franz Kafka, The Man who Disappeared (America), trans. Ritchie Robertson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 129-31.
[2]: André Cossette, Humanism and Libraries: An Essay On the Philosophy of Librarianship, trans. and ed. Rory Litwin (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2009), 17.

To Badger or Not to Badger

“I knew I should just turn this question over to a reference librarian. You guys are like badgers.” I received this compliment (?) from a patron when I finally tracked down the article he was looking for after about 30 minutes of searching. At first, I wasn’t sure how to take this, but after thinking for a few minutes, I decided I loved it.

Badgers may not look like much to the casual observer, but when cornered, they can be fierce fighters.

When comparing librarians and badgers, I prefer Roald Dahl’s Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox over Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. While Graham’s badger is a gruff hermit who very reluctantly agrees to help Toad, Dahl’s Badger captures the “good-in-a-pinch” nature of everyone’s favorite Mustelidae. Badger is friendly, loyal, tenacious, and a little bit goofy, character traits befitting a reference librarian.


Being a reference assistant means each shift can bring an onslaught of mind-numbing questions about the location of restrooms and drinking fountains, or my personal favorite: “Do you have books here?” While those questions can sometimes take a toll, it is the in-depth research questions that allow me to take pride in my work. Instead of simply handing off these difficult questions to a subject librarian, I do my best badger impression and fight until I simply cannot find the answer. (Unless the question is about science because…you know…it’s science.)

After spending hours at the reference desk, it can be easy to slip into grumpy librarian mode. While it may seem more interesting to figure out what Disney princess you are than to point a student in the direction of the Digitization Lab, we have to remain open to helping. At the beginning of each semester, new students are learning about using the library. Our hope is that, by helping them with mundane questions early in the semester, we will see them returning in November or April when research papers are due and our expertise is needed.

Over the past three years, I have worked as a reference assistant at two different academic libraries. Despite hundreds of questions that could have been answered by a sign, I have not lost my joy for working with patrons, especially students. Attacking each question eagerly, and working hard to provide the best answer possible, should be the goal of every reference librarian. While this is not easy, neither is defending your neighborhood from three mean farmers. Just ask Badger.

-Ryan Frick

Welcome Back, Hoosiers!

It’s back to school time at Indiana University, and although part of the Wells Library is currently under construction, the library’s reference department is ready and waiting to help you with your reference and research needs! For those of you not familiar with the services our library provides (or haven’t seen our new website), why not take a moment now to familiarize yourself?

You can Ask a Librarian for reference help through phone, text, email, and instant messaging! Reference librarians and staff are also available in the newly-renovated Scholar’s Commons, which is located on the first floor of the East Tower in Wells.


Remember, too, that you can check our online catalog, IUCAT, for whatever books you are looking for. The Wells Library houses a vast research collection and also has a browsing collection that contains more popular and well-known books. And don’t forget that IUCAT also houses movies, sound recordings, and much more.

Best wishes for a fantastic fall semester from everyone at the Wells Library!

-Keila D.