Plugging in with Kindness

By Kate Sheehan |

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.