• We process the holds lists.  If you reserve a book/CD/DVD/etc., somebody has to find it on the shelf so that we can hold it for you or send it to your local library.  If you don’t pick up the items that were reserved for you, we have to find those items and send them to the next patron on the waiting list.
  • We process the bins of incoming items from our central processing department as well as reserved items that were sent from other libraries in our system.  Depending on the time of the delivery, the number of reserves, the speed or sluggishness of our computer system, and whether or not the library was closed the day before, this process can take several staff members several hours to accomplish.
  • We weed, and we also read the shelves.  We delete items because of age, condition, and shelf space restrictions.  We put our shelves in order — edging the shelves after careless children have pushed all the books in, finding and reshelving copies of Forever and other racy books that teens have hidden throughout the library for future private perusals, etc.
  • We conduct class visits from local schools and community organizations.  This entails a group of staff members working in tandem conducting presentations (introduction to and tours of the library / overviews of research techniques / use of the Dewey Decimal System / booktalks and reading aloud), processing library card applications, checking materials in and out, negotiating library fines, and more.  In addition to the time spent on these visits, staff also have to spend time preparing the presentation, setting up the room where the presentation will take place, and cleaning up after the visitors have gone.
  • We have staff meetings, where we can talk about past and future problems and issues, plan and discuss programs, share information from other meetings and trainings we’ve attended, etc.
  • We get the building ready for the public.  On days when the newspapers are delivered on time and our computer system comes up the way that it’s supposed to, this doesn’t take too long.  But the rest of the time it can take an hour or more to get to the stage where the first patrons who walk through the door will actually be able to make internet appointments.

What we do in the mornings before the patrons come in has occasionally been a point of contention.  I will say that the majority of the public understand that we are not just sitting around goofing off and twiddling our thumbs when the library is closed.  I will also say that the majority of the staff are involved in the kinds of productive activities I just discussed.  There will always be some staff members who will spend the majority of the morning eating breakfast, having coffee, and standing around talking rather than actively contributing to the workplace.  And there will always be some members of the public (an unfortunately vocal minority) who feel that if there is a single staff member in the building, our doors should be open and we should be serving them because they don’t give a damn about behind-the-scenes work and how much longer it takes us to do it when we’re open.

When I started as a librarian trainee fifteen years ago, every library in our system had several “late days” a week.  We could get a lot done during those times; it was always good to plan ahead, to know that Thursdays and Fridays were good for conducting class visits / having staff meetings / catching up with weeding / etc.   Then a few years ago several pilot programs began to be pushed through our system, and the majority of changes were based on What the Patrons Wanted.  The patrons did not want to have to walk through turnstiles and security checkpoints, so the turnstiles and security checkpoints were removed.  The patrons did not like looking through our windows and seeing staff in the building when we were closed, so our “late days” vanished and we opened every morning.  System-wide staff meetings and training sessions were decimated and the central Book Order room was closed, because the priority became that we should always be open and serving the public.  Every hour we were learning to be better librarians was another hour that we weren’t at the information desk, so it didn’t count toward the Greater Good.  Why bother with long-term goals and quality of service when short-term goals look so much better NOW?

You know, every time I think my bitterness has worn off, it resurges like bile at the back of my throat.

Anyway, to continue …

Now that the reality of the economy is hitting home, a choice between laying off staff and cutting back hours has finally tipped on the side of sanity.  Our library system has finally started cutting back its public hours.  I was grateful for this on two levels: the immediate relief of not being laid off (at least for now), and the secondary relief of getting some of those mornings back.  I’ve been looking forward to working with my collection for weeks now, especially with a long-awaited shifting and re-ordering of my manga section.  I need the time to work on it without the patrons interrupting me with questions, and I need the space to pull out shelves of books and lay them out on the tables as I shift the collection.  And I can never do this when the library is open because there are ALWAYS patrons sitting at the tables right in front of those shelves.

But then we learned last week that we won’t be able to have as much time as we expected on our new “late” mornings.  I was on vacation when I first learned about the ruling that staff members could not be scheduled at the library more than one hour before we opened to the public, so I didn’t get the whole story.  My first theory (okay, my ONLY theory) was that the library hoped to save money by conserving heat and electricity for an exta hour.  I mean, the hours are being cut back because of the financial crunch — no new staff are being hired, and staff members who leave are not being replaced — so that HAD to be it, right?  Wrong.  I learned when I returned to work this week that the logic of this decision (and I’m using that term loosely) was that if staff were in the building more than an hour before it opened to the public, that the public and the PRESS (!!!) would be upset about this.  Cue the photographers, news crews, and villagers with torches.  What an outrage!

So, wait … if we come to work ONE hour before opening it’s okay, but if even one staff member comes in TWO hours before opening, that person is … goofing off?  Wasting Our Precious Tax Dollars?  What the HELL???  The rumor is that a local news organization was planning a “gotcha” piece about this.  And again I say, WHAT THE HELL???  What is this, a slow news week?  If reporters discover that teachers are letting their kids run around the school unsupervised, THAT’S a “gotcha” piece.  If they learn that the people who are supposed to be guarding our bridges are sleeping on the job, THAT’S a “gotcha” piece.  But if they learn that library staff members are in the building at 9am processing the bins of incoming materials, starting this enormous task as early as possible so that BY THE TIME THE LIBRARY OPENS MORE OF THE BINS WILL BE PROCESSED, which means that more of the patrons’ reserves will be ready for them to pick up???  Stop the presses! Front page news!  What an expose!

For God’s sake, people.  You’re not Upton Sinclair, and this is not The Jungle.

And now, because I believe in the benefits of constructive criticism, here are my suggestions for how to alleviate this problem, so that more of our workload will be completed more efficiently and so that staff who are WILLING TO COME IN at 9am and who NEED TO GO HOME by 5pm will have that option:

  • Draw the blinds / close the shades / leave the security gates closed at every library until it is ready to open.  What the public can’t see won’t hurt ’em.
  • Install a book drop outside of every library to diffuse 90% of the patrons’ anger at the library being open fewer hours.
  • Instruct all staff members who come in to work before the building is open to stay away from the windows, leave the lights off, and ignore the phone no matter how many times it rings.
  • Make a consistent ruling — don’t say that staff members can’t come in before 10:00 UNLESS they’re seeing a class that can only come in at 9:30.  Why is a class visit that could be witnessed by the public different from a staff meeting that would be held away from prying eyes?
  • Recognize once and for all that the customer ISN’T always right.
  • And on a related note, recognize that removing security checkpoints because your customers don’t like them will have long-term effects on your institution’s finances, as well as on patron morale.  Patrons who steal DVDs, manga, and other popular items will be rewarded, while honest patrons (and the library as a whole) will suffer in the long run.