No Shaming! The Dos and Don’ts of Using Social Media to Talk about Library Patrons

Likely StoriesAround the table in our break rooms, down the bar at our favorite watering holes, and increasingly, on social media, we’re talking about patrons. From the heinous to the hilarious, librarians love to chat about what we hear at work. But should we?

Obviously, we write in professional magazines and other publications about patron peccadilloes. Yet the average customer may never see those observations, nor would they be likely to connect them to their own experiences as print publications aren’t generated instantly. In print, there’s a cushion of time and space that allows professionals to critically examine our own practices, to reach out and say “You, too? I thought it was just my community!”

Librarians love to chat about what we hear at work.
But should we?

However, online communications like Facebook and Twitter are instantly accessible, hardly anonymous, and have the potential to be read by our customers. While some employers have strict regulations regarding what can be shared about our jobs, others don’t have such guidelines. What’s a librarian to do? (Please note that I’m talking about personal social media accounts, not official library social media accounts.)

One approach to this is to observe the Golden Rule: if you can’t say something nice online, just don’t say anything at all. Lots of librarians have adopted this mantra and use it in various ways. After all, there’s a difference between posting something like

Crabby Librarian @crabrarian
ARRRRRGH If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: stupid parents, we don’t have dinosaur books with PHOTOGRAPHS in them! DUH!


At Your Wrybrary @wrybrary
Sadly, I still don’t know of any dinosaur books with photos of live dinosaurs. Will let you know if this changes. #jurassicworld2015 #visitscenicislanublar

One is posting with wit and humor (as well as a veil of anonymity) while the other is, well, just venting. If we’re meant to keep customer inquiries and reading habits confidential, a gentle sense of compassion is required in order to retain public trust.

Here’s another example where you can lean towards sly wit rather than acerbic wit:

Crabby Librarian @crabrarian
What sort of jerk uses our magnetic alphabet letters to spell out obscenities? Ugh, I hate working with the public.


At Your Wrybrary @wrybrary
Personally, I’d prefer it if we didn’t use the magnetic alphabet letters to describe last night’s episode of American Horror Story. #focusonearlyliteracy #clownsnotrequired

Our desire to post about the wild and wacky world of library service is not likely to diminish anytime soon, as more and more of us join the ranks online. Here’s how one librarian makes it work. Gina Sheridan, whose blog, I Work at a Public Library, is now a book of the same name, chatted with me about how she reconciles her stories of all the humanity with the realities of public sharing online.

EDH: What inspired you to share library stories online? Are your readers mostly other librarians, or members of the public?

Gina Sheridan

Gina Sheridan

GS: I began to share stories online just for myself—I truly wanted to collect the stories that made me laugh, cringe, cry, and smile. The best part about being a public librarian is getting to interact with people from all walks of life and I treasure and learn something from each of the stories on my blog: how to help specific people, how to provide proactive customer service, how the library is different than any other industry or government agency. First, I began sharing the link with library friends who in turn shared it with their friends, and the readership has slowly grown over time. It’s definitely expanded to readers outside of librarianship. If I had to guess, I’d say most of my Tumblr followers are non-librarians and most of the people who bought or checked out or reviewed the book are librarians. Go figure!

EDH: How do you decide which stories to share? Do you change identifying details or do you just tell it straight? [Note: Gina’s blog also accepts submitted stories, so the tales aren’t all just from her library.]

GS: The submissions I receive are almost always edited. I receive tons of fantastic submissions and some that don’t fit with the tone of the blog. My tone is one of objectivity—”just the facts.” The stories are shared not to make light of people, not to vent about work, not to shame library patrons, and not to comment on what happened. The stories are offered up to say, “this is what happened in a place where everyone is welcome—is this life, or what?” Plus, I like to show off what libraries can do for people (offer readers’ advisory, computer help, really great customer service, a place to just be). I do change identifying details when I think it will matter—a man might become a woman or a situation might be altered slightly. Real names are never used.

EDH: Do you post immediately about library stories, or do you wait awhile?

GS: When something happens to me and it’s appropriate for the blog, I usually post it right away. Lately, most of these have been heartwarming.

“Hopefully, people who resort to venting about work
are also actively looking for another job
that might make them happy.”

EDH: How has your workplace responded to your book?

GS: I’ll admit it: at first, I was worried. I told my literary agent, Kate McKean, “So, I’m a bit concerned about how my supervisors will react. But I guess if they freak out, I’m not working at the right place.” I took my husband’s advice and just presented it like it was good news all around. I sent an email: “Good news! I have a book coming out. It’s a compilation of stories from public libraries around the world. Don’t worry—this project won’t affect the quality of my work, it’s just something I’m doing on the side.” The response was great! My fabulous library director mentioned the book at a board meeting, many copies were purchased for the collection, and several of my staff attended my book launch party. They get it—that makes me pretty lucky.

EDH: Do you have any general thoughts about sharing patron stories online?

A Collection of Crazy Stories from the StacksGS: Librarians are charged with protecting patron privacy and my greatest goal and hope is that the tone and presentation of the stories on my blog are sensitive to that. The sharing of patron stories publicly often makes me cringe. There are some library blogs that are just plain negative. Hopefully, people who resort to venting about work are also actively looking for another job that might make them happy. I do know of a few librarians who heard about I Work at a Public Library and have assumed it’s one of those blogs, but after they read it, they acknowledged their surprise at its objective nature and have become regular readers. I’ve gotten a few comments from people outside of the profession who want to write spinoffs:I Work at a Mental Institution, I Work at a Zoo, I Work at a Prison who have similar stories to tell. I think that the sharing of stories is important—it’s what humans do, it’s what libraries do.

Considering how important it can be to put our best foot forward online, here are some tips for keeping it sane and kind on social media:

  1. Don’t blindly post in the frenzy of the moment. It’s worthwhile to think about how your words might be received and to revise them before hitting send.
  2. Keep your tone positive and light whenever possible. If we’re always negative and complaining online, we run the risk of losing audience members—and potential customers.
  3. Use your post to highlight the wonderful things libraries can do for people. Keep the focus on how libraries make a difference, even if that difference isn’t always what we expected.
  4. Don’t shame people. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we don’t always share the same background as the people we serve. The main reason we’re here is to help everyone find the right information at the right time—not to pass judgment or turn up our noses at other people’s tastes or situations.

Now, denizens of the closed stacks, it’s your turn. Give us your takeaway in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Erin Downey Howerton is a public librarian in Kansas. Follow her on Twitter at @hybridlib.

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