Why “Work Like a Patron Day” won’t work

I first read aboutA  Work Like a Patron Day on Aaron Schmidt’s Walking Paper.A  At first glance Work Like a Patron Day seemed like a good idea.A  He proposes that library staff:

  • enter and leave the library through the public entrance (not the staff doors)
  • use the public restrooms
  • use the public computers to do your work
  • reserve public meeting rooms for meetings
  • follow all library policies
  • sit in the chairs/use the furniture meant for the public
  • use only the patron interface for searching your catalog
  • pay your library fines (no waiving them the day before!)
  • use a database you’ve never used before

This idea floated around the library blogaratti (1, 2, 3) and was even included on the Library Success best practices wiki.

Something was nagging at me.A  I knew that Work Like a Patron day was fundamentally flawed but couldn’t put my finger on why, let alone articulate it.

Annette DeFaveri instantly pointed out what’s wrong.A  Annette was the national coordinator of the Working Together project, that looked at systemic barriers that socially excluded people (for example, homeless people, Aboriginal people, new immigrants and the working poor) faced in public libraries.A  She said that this approach assumes that our patrons are just like us, and that our experience using the public spaces of the library are the same as our patrons.

In “The Culture of Comfort” that was published in Information for Social Change she writes:

Librarians are a barrier because we are mired in a culture of comfort. Like most people we remain where we are comfortable: comfortable with the programs we offer, comfortable with the services we provide, and comfortable with the people we serve. Even our challenges are comfortable: to do more of what we always do for the people we always serve. As a result we often fail to serve communities that do not look, feel, or think like us.

Work Like a Patron Day won’t give many new insights on how many of our patrons experience the library, especially folks who do not currently use the library.A  The assumptions are flawed and it is a comfortably limited way of analyzing library space, staff and services.

6 thoughts on “Why “Work Like a Patron Day” won’t work”

  1. While I’ve often advocated for spending time and effort exploring new ways to serve library members in many different ways (and spent the time and effort myself), I didn’t interpret this as the intention of Herzog’s great “Work Like a Patron Day” idea.

    Participating in something like “WLaPD” is perhaps more important and fundamental than implementing some innovative new way to serve people online or in house. WIthout a solid foundation of extremely usable buildings, services, and websites, libraries are building their future efforts on sinking sand.

    There’s no running before walking, so while I do indeed think that libraries need to run, there are other things to be addressed before that can happen.

  2. Thanks Aaron for clarifying that it’s Herzog’s idea–sorry about that.

    I can see how this could be a baby step in the right direction, however I suspect many libraries would do this exercise and the process would end there.

    More effective than us pretending to be the public for an afternoon, would be for us to engage the public (including non-users) in an honest dialogue where we would listen to what the community is saying.

    In the Community Led Libraries Toolkit, a community librarian reports some of the concerns that street involved youth and some men recently released from federal prison had about the library security gates: “They asked “will the metal from body piercings set off the alarm?”… “What about a can of pepper spray or a knife?”… “How about a heavy chain belt?” People talked about being embarrassed if the gates went off and worse, wanted to know if they would be searched. If so, will staff find the joint in the back pocket resulting in an arrest for possession? All these questions and concerns about the security gates made the library seem like a risky place.”

    Most librarians (and others who work in the library) wouldn’t ever imagine that the security gates could be perceived in this way. And we would never learn that some of our patrons perceive this unless we build relationships with people, talk, and most importantly listen.

  3. I think Aaron summarized WLAP day accurately – it was mainly an idea of how to get staff to experience what it’s like to actually use the tools and services offered in the library. The point was to take a look at what we are doing, and make sure we’re doing it in a way that meets patron need.

    The fact WLAP Day doesn’t address people who aren’t coming into the library shouldn’t automatically discredit it. Finding out why people don’t come to the library is a complex and long-term undertaking that is important and shouldn’t be taken lightly. WLAP Day is something staff can do anytime, at no cost. I think they are two different things, and are not mutually exclusive.

    In fact, the very name, “Work Like a Patron,” identifies that it focuses on people who are patrons; who are coming into the library. Your idea is much more broad in scope, and sounds more like “Live Like a non-Patron.” An initiative like that would need to be a coordinated effort at many levels of the library and community, and, while resource-intensive, would greatly benefit a library. And I am all for it.

  4. I agree with Aaron and Brian.

    I was drawn to WLaPD because it emphasized something we sometimes forget: looking beyond our desks and the comfortable worlds we’ve build in our libraries to see what policies, physical barriers and spaces might impeded current users in our libraries.

    In talk, I call it having “new eyes” or “user’s eyes.”

  5. Thanks for weighing in Brian.

    I think, at least in a public library setting, that non users are still patrons, so I’m not quite sure that “Live Like a non-Patron” is correct. It’s easy to keep giving the people who are currently using the library more of the same (though I appreciate that’s not what WLAP Day is). I think the more challenging, and critical task is to broaden our base of users.

    Point taken that WLAP Day and community development are different approaches. I’m just afraid that a library would do WLAP Day, take some photos, dust off their hands and say, “Well, that’s it! We now know what our library is like for our patrons.” The critical discussion and the policy piece that gets developed afterward is where I see the real potential.

    I’ve also heard WLAP Day referred to as Library 2.0, which kinda bugs me. But that’s another thread entirely…

  6. WLaPD? I am sorry, but I see this as nothing but a nice gesture with little substance and even less benefits. I completely agree with Tara; it is fundamentally flawed. It is assuming that patrons and staff needs, skills, abilities and knowledge are the same. They are certainly not!

    – use the public computers to do your work: exactly how would I be able to my job when the public computers do not have access to the staff servers, staff version of the ILS and my files? In order to find out the problems or limitations of the public computers, I would have to attempt to emulate what I would need as a patron or even better, I could actually ask patrons (or potential patrons) what kind of problems they have with the computers.

    – reserve public meeting rooms for meetings: as with every other suggestion for WLaPD, as library staff, most probably I know how to reserver these rooms, since I probably had to help people with it, so exactly, what would I gain by doing the reservation?

    – follow all library policies: aren’t we supposed to this on a regular basis?

    – sit in the chairs/use the furniture meant for the public: OK, this might work… although, of course, that would assume that we have diverse enough staff that accurately represents patrons.

    – use only the patron interface for searching your catalog: err… I don’t how they do things at your libraries, but at every single library I’ve worked, library staff assisting patrons, tend to use the OPAC. Also important to point out, I would not be able to do many of the tasks that I need to do everyday by using the public interface and, believe me, this is not what is wrong with it. Staff and patrons have different needs.

    – pay your library fines (no waiving them the day before!): why only on WLaPD? Shouldn’t we always be held to the same standard as our patrons?

    – use a database you’ve never used before: for those of us working in reference, this is a regular occurance and it will not reflect the kind of problems our patrons face.

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