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Plugging in with Kindness

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on May 27, 2009 - 9:28am

I’ve been talking a lot lately about kindness and how important it is to our profession (hopefully to any service profession).  On my own blog, I waxed touchy-feely about it but I think there is a very practical benefit to kindness. The return on investment can be hard to quantify, but it’s there. Just as they can in other service industries, the intangibles can make or break our libraries.


Danny Meyer at Gel 2007 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

In the video above, Danny Meyer, the king of service, talks about hospitality over service. Service, he tells us, is a monologue while hospitality is a dialogue. But he also talks about the experience of hospitality as having someone on your side. 21st century America is supposedly a service economy (when it’s not an information economy). Service organizations abound. Yet people’s experience of service is usually laden with battle metaphors and a bunker mentality. When we call tech support, when we deal with our insurance companies, when we go to stores, we gear up for a fight. We flock to companies that are kind to us, that make our lives easier, that act like they’re on our side.

Technology can’t be kind and it can’t be on someone’s side. DWIM, while usually meant to amuse, holds an element of truth: technology can’t do what we mean, only what we tell it to do. In service industries, a lot of staff responsibility is to translate between customer and technology, or to get technology to do what people mean. This isn’t limited to modern technology – NUC pre-1956 needed a translator too. Our ILSs, our time management software, our ILL rules, the internet and so on (and on and on) are all technologies that make libraries work better, but they come with limitations and the librarian often acts as a bridge between what our patrons mean and what our technologies can do.

But without kindness, what value are we offering to our members? We can show patrons better ways to search, we can help them place holds on popular novels, we can work with them on their research, but they won’t want that help if they don't think we are on their side. Every librarian has had the experience of being confused about what a patron is asking for. We take whole classes about reference interviews and send our staff to workshops on the fine art of the getting the right questions from patrons. It’s our job to figure out what people want, even when they aren’t sure themselves.

To be sure, people (librarians included) are often unsure about what they want. As a species, we are terrible at predicting our own wants and needs. Don Norman has written extensively on the gap between what we think we want in technologies and what we’ll actually buy. As libraries adopt more technologies for our organizations and our patrons, we will fall into that gap more and more. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, gave a TED talk a few years ago that offers an excellent and amusing summary of his work. The bottom line is that we are not good predictors of what will make us happy.

As organizations and individuals, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. We’re going to pick technologies that aggravate our patrons, we’re going to guess wrong when trying to predict which format or gadget will catch on. It’s tempting to freeze up and wait until we’re sure about something before forging ahead, but dithering and worrying isn’t a good option, either.


What will ameliorate some of the impact of our inevitable mistakes is kindness. Showing our patrons that we’re on their side will make our missteps easier for everyone to bear. In many ways, everyone is feeling their way through the dark when it comes to technology. Bad predictions and guesses are legion and there’s no way to avoid them.

As a service-oriented profession, kindness is one of our most powerful assets. We can see it on a micro level when we have miscommunications with patrons and our reference interview goes awry. It’s so much easier to bring an interaction back from the brink with a little kindness. As we make decisions on a larger scale, truly entering into the dialogue that Meyer’s hospitality calls for with our patrons can help us make better decisions and grant us a little grace for our bad ones.

Comments (5)

Anonymous, you're spot on. I

Anonymous, you're spot on. I was an IT librarian for several years and I almost always found that to be the case. I tried to listen to how people anthropomorphized tech since it's usually a giveaway to their real feelings on it. "I know computers are great, but they hate me!" "I told it to print, but it won't!" Technical information was almost always secondary to being reassuring and friendly.

Mikail, my library moved into a new building in January and I can feel my "librarian sense" falling into place. I know where things are because I know where they are and I know what they look like. Shifting always throws me off! Life is very messy and we're all muddling through together!

hlehman, glad I could brighten your day a bit!

Sharon, as usual, you're making me blush! CT is in your debt for your great work and your kindness. Here's hoping the new budget will be kinder to us than the proposal is.

Well-put (as always) Kate! I

Well-put (as always) Kate! I quote you regularly at our State Library meetings about the importance of kindness as we design & deliver our services. Thank you for your work!

this is EXACTLY the type of

this is EXACTLY the type of talking,writing, and thinking that makes ME more content (if not downright happy).

kindness is best extended as a habit and to local and global contacts. kindness means that you are more vested in community and continuance than bottom-lines and instant returns.

kindness means that you value not only others but also yourself. it is an old adage, that pesky golden rule of behavior that your mom always sawed on. But, it is as true today as ever. treat others as you would be treated. And if you don't want to be treated kindly there are people who can help you in specialty shops or therapist's offices (depending on what you want in terms of "help").

it also requires that you focus a little more and slow down a little bit. and that is good for any one, regardless.

The author notes: "Daniel

The author notes: "Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, gave a TED talk a few years ago that offers an excellent and amusing summary of his work. The bottom line is that we are not good predictors of what will make us happy."

Funny, as many librarians know, that is how most of us find the information or most of the information we seek. If you think librarians consistently use only systematic approaches, just shift the works in the reference room and watch what happens. We cannot find our "standards" because we look for them by location and color (just like our patrons) and we find interesting things that we wouldn't seek out otherwise. Such stumbling appears to be hard wired into our humanity -- so why not use kindness with others and ourselves, acknowledging the messiness of life? Mikail

I so agree with this post --

I so agree with this post -- very well said. In my job as Electronic Resources Librarian, I often feel that the main thing I try to do is to make the technology less intimidating for our patrons. My approach is to assume that maybe the patron is a little bit afraid and just needs a friendly, helpful hand to take them into the land of technology. B It's easy to take for granted how much technology makes things easier. But we have to remember, that some of our patrons may not see it that way; instead, some of them are scared (and scared to admit that they are scared) and some of them are frustrated. Kindness works wonders to ease the way -- for both our patrons and for ourselves.