Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Anonymity

If you visit the reference desk at the Lake Villa District Library, where I’m often unreasonably proud to be the director, you’ll find a plastic stand that holds the business cards for twelve of the staff members, including me.

A few are for department heads who might be out of the building, but most of them are for reference department members, both librarians and paraprofessionals. They have our staff members’ full names.

This isn’t a very common practice in public libraries. In many cases, if you see business cards at all they will only have first names on them.

The reason is fear. Fear of the occasional unbalanced person who uses the library and who might want to contact a staff member outside the library … if only he/she had a name to look up in the phone book.

There is indeed something to this. I’ve worked in an urban library. I know that the mental hospitals were emptied decades ago and that people who should be under some type of continuing care are walking the streets and into public libraries where odd behavior is generally tolerated.

But the desire to avoid confrontation has a solution, the police, and – from the point of view of library management – creates a great problem.

It de-professionalizes reference services.

Would you let “Doctor Jim” do your annual physical? Would “Attorney Jane” handle your will?

No. We do not want these people to be anonymous. We want to know who they are so they can be accountable for the work they do or the advice they give.

Professionals cannot be anonymous.

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