To “hi” or not to “hi”: how should we engage our patrons?

To what extent should we engage our patrons?  This is a questions I think about often because in a library as small as mine, the level of engagement with each patron is often an unavoidable conscious decision.  What I mean by that is I notice every patron that comes into the library, and they notice me (or our other librarian).  The potential is there to engage all the patrons that come into the library.  But should we?

In a recent blog post by David Lee King, he suggests that library’s should be more like Apple Stores in their user experience.  Two particular aspects of customer service that King asks libraries to consider are greeting customers at the door and having library staff approach patrons instead of waiting for patrons to approach library staff.  I’m ambivalent about this approach.

For many reasons, this approach is fitting for a tech retailer – each customer has a limited scope of what they need (buy something or repair something), the likelihood of many customers not understanding the technology, and the general idea that more customer contact lead to more sales.  But these do not apply to libraries.  There a wide variety of reasons for someone to use a library, we can usually assume the basic literacy of the patron, and we’re not selling anything.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from being more engaging.

If someone greet me or if I see a patron who is clearly lost or confused, I absolutely engage with them, no question.  Where I’m not so sure is when a patron enters the library.  Here are the questions I ask myself:

Should I greet them?

Should I ask them how I can help them?

Should I ask them what they are looking for?

Should I engage them at all?

My first inclination is that, yes, I should at least greet patrons.  But I tend not to go beyond a simple greeting and here’s why: I don’t want to force social interaction onto every patron.  I know we have patrons that deal with a variety of social anxieties, and I don’t ever want to get to a point where we discourage anyone from coming to the library because they know they’ll have to talk to a staff member.  I’m like this myself sometimes – I avoid phone calls if there’s an internet alternative and if I ever go to a specialty retailer I prefer a salesperson doesn’t talk to me and if they do I default to “just browsing, thanks”.

So here’s where I come down: I want to engage patrons, but I also want to respect patrons who want to use the library with little to no interaction with others.  Here’s what I do with patrons that come into my library:

  1. Look up from whatever I’m doing and attempt eye contact.
  2. If they don’t make eye contact, go back to what you were doing.
  3. If they do make eye contact smile and greet them.

I feel that if you make eye contact and greet a patron it creates a small but important connection that makes the patron more comfortable to ask for help if they need it.  Unless they continue the interaction after the greeting, I let the patron go about their business.  And this practice works better in a small library because I am more likely to notice them if they appear to need help while in the library and I can approach them at that point.  In a larger library, the only opportunity to engage the patron may only be when they enter the library.

So, for me now in this library I freely offer a warm smile and greeting and will help patrons if they look lost, but it’s up to them to decide to substantially engage with their librarian.

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