Miss Manners, in the library, with a bad joke

Thanks to DP for pointing me to this post on librarian.net, which calls out Miss Manners for her poor handling of a question from a library patron who felt her privacy had been violated by the librarian.

The author of the post, Jessamyn West, links to a Miss Manners column published May 19, 2010, in the San Jose Mercury News (oddly, I can’t find this column in my usual Miss Manners outlets, the Buffalo News or the Washington Post, which publishes her less frequently).

In fact, because I couldn’t find the column anywhere else, and because it’s quite out of character for Miss Manners, I suspected (hoped?) briefly that it might not be written by her at all–perhaps there was a local columnist dubiously donning her nom de plume, or maybe a substitute had even filled in.  But Judith Martin’s name is right there in the byline, so she’ll have to take 100% of the flak for this one.

Here’s the letter:

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am at a loss about what to say to our very nosy librarian. No matter what books you are checking out, she reads the titles (often out loud and at a high volume so everyone else in the library can hear) and then comments on your selections.

Examples: My husband works in health care and checked out some books on a private and potentially embarrassing disease to help put together a brochure for his clinic. This woman read the titles and asked him (in a very loud voice) if he had the disease!

Another time, I checked out a name book. I’m writing a novel and needed some ideas for my characters. The librarian read the titles and shrieked, “Are you pregnant?! It’s too soon for you to be having another baby!” (I was holding my infant son at the time.)

I wasn’t pregnant, but can you imagine if I was? What business is it of hers how close together my children are spaced? We live in a very small town with limited library hours, so I can’t just avoid going when she is working because she’s always there. How do I tell this woman I don’t appreciate her nosiness without being rude?

GENTLE READER: The way to get to a librarian is to imply that a profession requiring technologically sophisticated researching skills is solely populated by cranky old ladies whose only pleasure in life is to shhh people.

Oh, and a few inhibited young ladies who could find love if only they would remove their glasses.

Miss Manners suggests combining the two offensive images by responding to all comments and questions solely by giving the librarian one of those sweetly vague, nearsighted looks and a regretful smile, and putting the forefinger vertically across your lips. Repeat as often as necessary.

I really just don’t understand what’s going on here.  librarian.net “was a little bummed to see her playing out old tired stereotypes, but…did enjoy the comments…telling her that librarianship is more complicated than she thinks.

My first reaction was, wait, no, you’ve misunderstood Miss Manners–she says explicitly that the stereotypes she trots out are incomplete, even offensive, and acknowledges that librarianship is a skilled profession, requiring “technologically sophisticated researching skills.”  She’s on the side of librarianship, or I think she means to be.

But that doesn’t make her response the right one, or even a good one.  As many others chimed in in the comments section, the librarian in this letter is grossly violating the professional ethics that her colleagues (not to mention her boss, probably) take extremely seriously.  Miss Manners seems eager to show off that she knows something about, and respects, the work of librarians, but she does this clumsily:  first, she brings up the “tired old stereotypes” that no one even raised, and then, immediately belying her (backhanded) praise of the profession, gives a glib answer to a legitimate, serious question.

Beyond this, there’s no need for me to re-state what others have said more eloquently–and with better citation!–than I could. Some samples of comments on the article are below:

“As a librarian, I am both appalled at the idea of a colleague violating a patron’s privacy like this, and also at the stereotyping that makes the response seem more flippant than helpful. If this were happening in my library, I would hope the patron would first ask the staff person to stop reading titles aloud. I would also urge this person find the library’s privacy policy, to have something to point to if the staff person balks at being corrected.

Also, don’t be afraid of going to the library director with this – all libraries are different, put privacy and intellectual freedom are central to the mission of a public library. This situation needs to be rectified regardless of whether the library staff person is doing it deliberately or just trying to be friendly.”

“Dear Miss Manners, Your advice to this reader is inappropriate. The problem that the library user writes about represents a serious breach of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics. Section III states, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted.” Not only do most libraries not keep records of patrons’ transaction histories, most library staff are trained to keep their comments to themselves when helping patrons. A breach of patron confidentiality could lead to all sorts of unfortunate consequences, not least among them embarrassment to the user and the loss of much-needed patronage. Your response devalues the seriousness of the library worker’s conduct and suggests retaliation of the petty sort. Keeping in mind that your advice was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, I am still offended by the perpetuation of the librarian stereotype. Library workers are constantly fighting to prove the legitimacy of their professions and most work diligently to provide equal and confidential access to information for patrons. My advice to the library user would be to take her concerns to library management and arm herself with the ALA Code of Ethics. At the very least, you could have let her know that the library worker should have known better. We work extremely hard to make up for the “few bad apples” and revolutionize the stereotype of the information professional from the disapproving spinster to the socially and environmentally-engaged advocate and educator. In a time when libraries are experiencing extreme budget cuts, we need all the support we can get. Next time, please use your voice to laud our victories and virtues. Sincerely, a concerned library employee”

“Two wrongs don’t exactly make a right. Is Miss Manners suggesting that demeaning an entire profession, in order to get back at one poorly-behaved individual, is appropriate? I hesitate to call the person who was reading the titles out loud “a librarian,” let alone “a colleague,” but trotting out old inaccurate stereotypes is far less likely to get anyone anywhere than, as other posters have said, talking to the library director or printing up the town library’s or American Library Association’s ethics/privacy rules to show her when she begins to act up.

I hope that the person with the question reads these comments, or Miss Manners publishes a correction.”

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2 responses to “Miss Manners, in the library, with a bad joke

  1. Hmm. Yes, Miss Manners often misses the mark in the name of humor. But if you appreciate her humor you will not miss the fact that she is not serious. The writer is asking about “manners” in a case that is not really about manners and Miss Manners gives a humorous response. I hardly think she intended to malign librarians, simply to spoof the very laughable stereotypes. If this was about a jab at silly stereotypes about race or religious background I suppose it could be considered a disguised barb, since social sensitivity is ramped pretty high about those issues. But I would hope a professional could shake off the social errors commonly made about their profession, especially when those errors are being caricatured and clearly not supported. Actually, I am writing mostly to point out that this column was, indeed, included in both the Buffalo paper and the Post, and there were some excellent, pertinent responses from librarians. To expect an etiquette columnist to speak for your professional interests is perhaps a bit off point.

    Happy to discover your blog.

  2. Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

    You’re right that this column did show up in the Buffalo News and Washington Post, but not til 5-7 days after this post was written.

    You’re also right that Miss Manners was poking fun at the stereotypes themselves, not at librarians, and it was clear that she wasn’t aiming to malign the profession.

    However, even though etiquette is her area of expertise (not librarianship or professional ethics), I think she could have given a more useful answer. If an assistant in a store or doctors’ office were being non-discreet about personal information, don’t you think she’d recommend that the affronted party look shocked, ask the oversharer to keep their voice down and, if necessary, ask to speak to a supervisor?

    Pulling faces at someone without explaining why their behavior bothers you isn’t polite, nor is it likely to get this librarian to stop doing what she’s doing.

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