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4 Sep 2009 / Julie

all alone with information (or, how everyone needs to see their customers)

julie-MonitorAs a graduate of the Maryland Library Leadership Institute (2007) I was recently asked to be a part of the baseball card fundraiser for the 2010 Institute. I was to take some photos of myself and write up a blurb about what MLLI has done for me, and how i’ve been contributing to Maryland Libraries and the field on the whole since my experience with the institute. I didn’t have any photos i could use already so i asked Chris in marketing if he’d take some shots of me. He agreed. On the morning of the photo shoot, driving in to work i had what i thought was a brilliant idea- take a photo of me on a green screen and photoshop myself into a computer monitor. I am, after all, the coordinator of a virtual reference service; the librarian-in-your-computer thing seemed ├╝ber appropriate. I love the shots that came out of the shoot. Even the silly ones.

But then i saw other people’s baseball cards. I’m on the MLLI 2010 Institute Planning Committee and recently the Chair sent around 2 of the baseball cards that had been produced. Both cards, of two different people, had photos of them with customers. the people in the photos (the librarians and the customers) looked happy! they were interacting with other humans and having a good time! sure, it’s a marketing thing and you have to look happy, but you could tell it was genuine.

in one, the front of the card shows the librarian happily holding a book, explaining something to a customer who looks intrigued as she herself also touches the book. a momentary connection between two people over information. The back of the card shows her pointing to something on the computer to an off-camera customer who i imagine is also very engaged and happy.

on the back of the second card we see the other librarian having an educational playtime with adorable children who look as children should- wide eyed, joyful, and hopeful.

and then there’s me. who, at the sight of these cards, suddenly realizes what’s missing from my life- my customers. I’ve been feeling this lack of connection for a while now but seeing the difference between my photos (which i think very well encapsulates what i do and who i am as a librarian right now) and the photos of the other librarians (who get to see the public on a regular basis) really made it all hit home.

i love my job, don’t get me wrong. i love knowing that through my work and the work of the other 250+ librarians across Maryland and countless librarians across the country, that people are getting answers, getting help, saying hi, at all hours of the day. whenever the customer needs it instead of around our business hours. i love traveling as much as i do and getting my hands dirty in new technology. i love the library community i’m in that’s so involved and invested in this initiative. and i love directly helping people the few times i can a month. But my job is lonely. Sure i read the awesome glowing survey comments but i never get to see the glowing faces and thankful eyes of someone who you’ve truly helped. I can’t reach over the desk or through the computer and touch the shoulder of someone who isn’t sure if it’s going to be okay. it will be okay.

my partner in crime here at AskUsNow! has been feeling the same way and will soon be starting a supplemental job at a real live face to face reference desk at a local academic library. sure, our pockets are mostly empty in these hard times but empty hearts are felt much more. it’s hard when you only see the love in word form and then when you go out into the real world no one seems to have ever heard of your service. how can this be? we help hundreds of people a day! surely i would have run into some of them by this point!

I’ve been feeling this more than the librarians who do this in addition to their regular f2f customer work, i’m sure. For me, it was a gradual but all encompassing thing. For them, they see the stark comparison of knowing if you’re on the right track because the customer leans in or mutters “mmm” versus having to explain or describe every minute detail in order to fill in the void. But in the end, their jobs are with real physical customers. I train on interpersonal communication skills- on how to engage in “conversation” and how to keep people engaged when neither of you can see each other. But really, humans need human contact. There’s only so much text in place of a person one can take.

when it comes time to write my grant reports too, i try to find different ways of presenting who our customers are and how we’ve helped them. I created a story campaign to collect people’s stories, hoping to get a good visual from people of the interactions we’ve had and situations we’ve helped them with. It was successful but we were still missing the human visual component. I have names and stories, but i can’t see their smiling faces. i collect survey comments and am trying to put them into a wordle in order to add some sort of visual component to the words they’ve given us, but there still aren’t any bright eyes.

for our 300,000th question since our launch in 2003, i’m hoping that we can find an excited, smiling person to come meet us, get a plaque and take some photos for a press release. the day will go well, people excited, cake to be had, and we will celebrate the success of our service. and i will finally get to see someone in person who we’ve helped.

if you take a look at my job description it’s clear that my immediate customers are the librarians and liaisons around the state that provide the front line service and indeed i get to interact, hear, and see them on a mostly regular basis. But as explained in that book i had to read for Justice + Pluralism class freshman year of college, no matter how much you love your work, if you never see how your widgets contribute to the whole final product, your widget making can get very very tedious and unfulfilling very quickly.

i dont know how to solve this or the other problems in the world but until then, as so eloquently captured with my baseball card photo, i remain alone with the information. a librarian in her castle, trying to build a drawbridge out into the world.

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