I went to a bunch of sessions at ACRL having to do with creating a welcoming space for all patrons, and a couple things stood out to me that are prompting me to change my everyday practice, particularly at the reference desk. The session reported preliminary findings of a qualitative research study of students of color and their experience with libraries and librarians prior to coming to college (conference paper here).
Over the years I’ve unconsciously developed a practice that, if I sat down and thought about it, I would say balances my twin goals of appearing welcoming while also not making patrons feel like I’m surveilling them. I know, for example, that it creeps me out when I’m buying groceries or whatever and the check-out person comments on my purchases, or especially if they mention remembering what I purchased last week. So at work I keep track of how people like me to interact with them, but I don’t notice or remember what they’re studying or checking out or looking at unless they open that conversational door themselves. Sometimes I joke that one of my superpowers is being able to help people with the copier without actually seeing what they’re copying.
And I realized while I was sitting in this session that I’ve adopted a similar practice when it comes to acknowledging people when they walk past me at the desk. If they make eye contact in a way that seems to invite interaction, I’ll smile and greet them. If they don’t, I assume they don’t want overt interaction for whatever reason, so I let them proceed on their way without interruption. Again, I didn’t shape this habit consciously — it just developed over time in response to my cumulative experiences on both sides of a service desk.
This approach comes from a genuine desire to put people at ease on their own terms, but the conference session made me realize that I’ve created another of those situations where good intentions can seriously backfire. There was a theme in the responses from the students of color that “the librarian smiled and greeted the white kid in front of me, but didn’t smile and greet me.” Thinking back to my own practice, I realized that of course if someone is unsure if they belong in the library they won’t initiate interaction with me. Duh. They’ll have their neutral face on, or possibly even a “don’t notice me too much” face on, and in response I’ll put my neutral face on. But here I’ll be valiantly “engaging with people on their own terms,” and they’ll be experiencing me disapproving of their presence in the library.
Clearly I’ve got to adjust my practice — a practice I didn’t even fully know I had until confronted with this mismatch in experiences. And of course there are ways to make people feel welcome without making them feel surveilled. Of course there are ways to be engage proactively without forcing similar engagement from the other person. So now my project is to make this new way of being as habitual as my old way of being was.