Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Playing the heavy

I'll freely admit it -- I'm not the confrontational type. Given the decision between calling someone out on their mistakes and letting it slide, I will almost always opt for the latter course of action. Call it the path of resistance, call it the coward's way out, that's just how I'm wired, and fighting it is a difficult thing for me to do.

Unfortunately in my newfound role as "management" (a.k.a. The Man), I find myself forced to fight my instincts on a daily if not hourly basis. It's hard enough to figure out when to draw the line with tardy work-study students and staffers creatively interpreting our policies and procedures, but most trying of all is when I have to deal with library patrons.

Take now, for example: as the end of the semester approaches, our normally placid and tranquil reading room fills up with students desperate for a quiet place to study for exams or bang out that pesky term paper. Which is all well and good, provided that they don't poach the tables that are reserved for people working with the rare and noncirculating material which are the reason for the room's existence. But suppose it's a slow day and the kids have nowhere else to sit -- do you keep the reserved seats empty, or do you let people use them to study, knowing full well that you may have to ask them to leave if a visiting scholar shows up?

Our other perennial problem is food and drink. While our patrons are pretty good about not bringing in a meatball sub or a tray of nachos from the local 7-11 and chowing down next to the Gutenberg Bible, they're not so observant of our beverage policy, which permits only water (and only in covered containers). A generation raised to expect a Starbucks in every bookstore is going to want to bring in his or her liquid of choice, and while other areas of the library have relented somewhat on the enforcement of this rule we as a "medium rare" books room try to toe the line on this issue.

But how far does one go? I'll stop people whom I see entering the room with a cup of coffee or tea, but is it a valuable use of my time to roam around and bust those who got past me when I wasn't looking? While I believe it's a good idea not to allow any kinds of liquids into a library environment, knowing full well that accidents inevitably happen, do these accidents happen often enough to justify such draconian measures?

Some would say yes, but only a person who doesn't supervise for a living thinks that absolutism is any way to run an operation. I know it's a little trite to say that you have to pick your battles, but this is unavoidable in management unless you want to spend every last second of your day correcting the behavior of staff and patrons alike. No, things may not be exactly the way that you want them to be, but if that is your goal not only are you never going to be satisfied, but you are going to make everyone who works under you absolutely miserable in your pointless pursuit of "perfection".

This is not to say that you shouldn't strive to do things well and constantly be on the lookout for ways to do them even better. However, it does mean letting the little things go if they don't really matter in the long run. Of course, the hard part is learning out how to divine which details to sweat, and which not to. But that's another post!