My library has an unwritten policy. I’m sure a lot of libraries have this policy. It is, put bluntly, that we don’t like to leave patrons waiting. If there is one staff member at the desk, and there are suddenly two or more patrons waiting to be served, additional staff must leap into action. If no rescuers appear, the staff on-deck may send out an SOS to try to get someone’s attention.
“Help! The public is waiting!”
This is a nice policy. It’s a noble policy. But is it a necessary policy? Is it even a good policy?
We are accustomed to waiting in most other areas of our life, in most other service situations we enter. We wait at the post office. We wait at the grocery store. We wait at the doctor’s office. We wait at the movie theater. We wait at sporting events. We wait at the DMV.
In most of those situations, we bear our waiting with good grace. We are aware that there are only so many slots of attention that those who serve us can have engaged at one time. Usually we are okay with it, with the notable exception of the DMV—and, it seems likely, at the library.
It feels like people would go nuts if ever the line at the circulation desk got more than two deep. I can’t bear this out with any evidence, of course, because we almost never let it get to that point. We send out our SOS. We leap into action.
And now people expect to be served promptly at the library, with even less than the reasonable minimal expectation of a delay. I think we’ve conditioned people in this direction with our damn attention to customer service and overall respect for our patrons. And I feel that, brooding just beneath the surface of the happy, polite patrons’ faces, is a lava flow of rage and impatience barely held in check by our persistently high-quality responsiveness.
I catch hints of it on the rare occasions when the line of patrons stretches slightly back toward the first shelf of the stacks. I can see it in the way there is, actually, no cohesive line, just a sort of general milling about, waiting for a staff member to signal for the next person. When our timing gets off, when responses slow down, when the line gets long at the library—it’s like civilization is straining at its seams.
People are okay with waiting for their Bieber concert or their Bills game. They’re less okay with waiting for the things the library offers. And they know that, by and large, they don’t have to. Librarians and library staff make sure of it.
On second thought, let’s not re-think the goodness or the necessity of this unwritten policy.