WILL UNWOUND #526: “You Make the Call in the Case of the Librarian who Went to Grad School and Got Ethics”August 15, 2011
Many moons ago when I was a working library director, I was faced with the following little conundrum.
Alice, the supervisor of my reference department, began going to night school at the local state university to pursue a master’s degree in public administration. As part of her curriculum she took a course called “Principles of Government Service” in which she was introduced to a concept called service equity.
After a lengthy discussion with Alice, I pretty much determined that service equity was one of those idealistic notions that work better in theory than in practice. According to Alice, service equity meant that you give the same level of service to the panhandler off the street as you give to the mayor and members of the city council. Alice’s professor convinced her that most government services are unfairly biased toward the rich and powerful. As a consequence, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Naturally, in the professor’s eye this was not right, and it was therefore the responsibility of government workers to take it upon themselves to make sure that public services are delivered in a fair and equitable fashion.
Nice theory, right? The problem arose when the Mayor called the reference department for the exact wording of a Will Rogers quote that he intended to use in a speech he was scheduled to give that night. Even though he needed the quote right away, Alice told him that he would have to wait because there were four walk in patrons and two phone callers ahead of him.
This of course prompted immediate calls from the Mayor to the President of the Library Board to me, which meant I had to go down to the reference desk to verify the blasted quote, which I did in less than 60 seconds. At least the Mayor was satisfied if not happy.
Later that afternoon I called Alice into my office to discuss the service priorities of the library. That’s when she told me that she would not compromise her ethical standards by giving preferential treatment to VIPs. She took out the library’s reference policy and showed me that the rule of “first come, first served and walk-ins before call-ins” were the two guiding principles at work.
I countered that the library’s very existence depended upon those VIPs she wanted to make get in line. She did not see my point. She also did not see the irony that her tuition for the class “Principles in Government” was being paid for by the city’s tuition reimbursement program which had been championed by guess who…the Mayor.
As director, how would you have handled the situation?
When all the comments have come in, I will divulge my solution to the problem of an overzealous grad student/reference head.