Checked Out: Bedford Part 3

The Woodchipper Family

Burnout can be common in libraries, in any service industry really (look up compassion fatigue if you have never heard of it). My most horrific experiences with burnout came typically from the top down: administrators with unrealistic expectations, demanding managers, or directors who saw no value in what we did.

But my first experiences with burnout started with problem patrons. These were the patrons who demanded, whether they meant to or not, all your time and attention, preventing you from doing any other work for hours at a time. They were the ones who exhausted you to the brink of tears. Interaction after interaction led to no change and you simply repeated the same vicious cycle for months on end until they either left, or they finally had an epiphany and evolved into independent, competent library users.

Bedford was one of the wealthier suburbs of Leagos. Serving a wealthy suburb has its positives and negatives, just as serving a poorer neighborhood does. In Bedford the behavior of patrons was generally better and library staff and users felt safer on the whole. However, suburbs mean entitled library users. People who demand service now, not caring if there’s a line of people already waiting. Patrons who refuse to pay a ¢25 fine because they returned a book late. Or the elderly who pitch a fit because the technology won’t work for them (even though they’re using the tech wrong in the first place).

One family spelled trouble for us daily. The parents arrived with three children in tow the second school let out. The only thing they ever wanted to do was get on the computers. Upon arrival, all five members would get computer passes and take over five of the eight computers we had.

What took us far too long to realize was that these patrons were also opening huge bags of food by the computers and eating the contents like a woodchipper eats wood. I don’t think a single scrap of food made it to their actual mouths. For weeks, the family would descend, play on computers loudly, leave, and then we’d find a radius of chip crumbs all around the computers.

I’m sad to say it took us far too long to put two and two together.

The only defense I can give is that the library’s layout made it impossible to keep an eye on the department. The designers had placed the children’s service desk at the entrance, and then boxed it in with nonfiction shelves, effectively blocking the department from view. On a clear day, you could duck down and peek through the shelves, but that depended on how many books there were. And even then you could only see a small section of tables.

No, the only way to see the computers was to get up and walk around. But when covering the desk, it was hard to make the rounds. There was always a line of people needing help. And those staff who weren’t at this desk were working the upstairs service desk, working in the sorting room, or finishing projects in the work rooms.

Seeing the pile of crumbs was frustrating the first time. But it kept happening over and over again and slowly became maddening. And then we started finding their empty bags crumpled into balls and stuffed underneath the computer screens.

I lucked out one day when a kiddo needed help finding a book and walked her to the stacks to find it. On the way, I finally spotted the family almost ripping the bag apart in their rush to eat. The little ones grabbed handfuls of chips and mashed their hands against their faces, barely checking that the food was going in. The splash-zone of crumbs grew before my eyes.

I deftly pointed the girl towards her book and descended on the family.

“Excuse me,” I said, “But we do not allow food by the children’s computers. We don’t allow food in the children’s area at all, actually. If you’d like, you can take your snacks over to the steps and enjoy them there. But you cannot eat that here.”

Their snorting, laughing response spewed crumbs in my direction. I continued on.

“Please go ahead and take your items over there now.”

They chuckled longer as if I had told some amazing joke. I adjusted my stance, gave a serene smile, and crossed my arms.

Their smiles melted away.

“But we’ve been eating here for weeks.”

“I’m aware of that. I’ve had to clean up your mess each time you do it.”

“But no one said anything to us before!” they argued.

I nodded, “We weren’t aware it was you before this moment. Please gather your food and take it to the steps. I’ll take care of your computers for you. You can get new reservations when you are done with your food.”

Before they could object, I pressed a series of buttons on their computers and shut them down. Then I stood behind them with my arms out.

“Let’s go!” I said merrily.

In a daze, as if unsure how they had lost this battle, they stumbled to the steps as a group where they stayed until their food was demolished. They crumpled up their trash and tossed them over their shoulders. The kids beat the adults back to the desk, running up to me and yelling, “Computer pass! Computer pass!”

I conjured my serene smile again, and pointed at the steps.

“It doesn’t seem as if you’re done! I see tons of trash over there still. Once those are thrown away, you can get your computer passes.”

Without saying anything more, the kids ran for their things and threw them into the nearest trash bin. The adults stayed by the desk, disgruntled with me.

They came back again yelling, “Computer pass! Computer pass!”

My serene smile had never left my face.

“Do you think that’s the best way to ask for a computer pass?” I asked.

They stilled, thinking, before the eldest said, “Can I have a computer pass?”

I raised my eyebrows, waiting for more.

“You forgot to say ‘please!’” the middle child said.

“Can I please have a computer pass?” the youngest strung it all together first.

“Of course you can!” I said, handing them the passes I’d already prepared.

The parents continued pushing lines in this battle for weeks, but they eventually realized we wouldn’t budge. It soon became part of their routine to hunker down on the steps to eat before coming to us. And the kids started asking for passes politely and without any prompting from me.

My next problem patron was a little too bored for his own good.

Until next time, I remain…

-C Quill

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