What you check out is your business. This is one of the things library school drills into students. When folks join a library staff, whether or not they’re degreed librarians, managers will often advise not to comment on checkouts. This might be a bit of a surprise to some library users. Not all libraries or library staff uphold this and at first glance, it may even seem silly. After all, if you were to buy a top at a store, you probably wouldn’t be taken aback to hear the cashier compliment your selection. Even at a bookstore, the bookseller may note your good taste or even offer suggestions based on the book you’re purchasing. So why is it different at libraries? Why won’t (or shouldn’t) library staff comment on your library checkouts?
What Is “Commenting”?
Before we discuss why we shouldn’t do a thing, it’s prudent to define the thing. When I talk about “commenting” on checkouts, I mean making any sort of statement — or even asking a question — unprompted by the customer. This could sound as innocent as something like, “I love this book!” It could be more nefarious, like, “This book is for babies. Aren’t you a little old for it?” It could even be an attempt at being helpful, like, “Have you read the other books in this series?” or “Have you read Jane Doe’s books? They’re very similar.” These and other comments about checkouts are things I avoid saying when I’m working at the circulation desk.
But what if the patron wants this kind of interaction? In those cases, I project a friendly demeanor (which I do anyway, in the name of good customer service) and hope customers feel invited to open the conversation themselves. They may ask a question like, “Do you know any other series like this one?” Or, they may say, “I loved Homegoing and heard this was similar.” I will likely still keep comments to a minimum because it’s impossible for me to know if one of the library checkouts might be okay to discuss, but not another in the pile, but I will engage if it’s invited.
As for why I don’t make comments (especially unsolicited), it really comes down to three main things. The first of these: patron privacy. The American Library Association considers privacy and upholding it a core ethic of library service. Privacy in libraries ensures users feel comfortable exploring subjects and ideas without fear of legal consequence. Libraries believe in this concept so strongly, in fact, that they’ve pushed back against the U.S. PATRIOT Act and the FBI, among other things.
Commenting on customer checkouts generally necessitates speaking out loud. Especially if your library is on the quieter side, this means other library users could easily overhear. Automatically, the customer’s privacy is violated. I feel this is the case even if a title isn’t spoken aloud. Often when we make these kinds of comments, we gesture to or hold up the item in question, drawing attention to it.
There’s also the matter of how commenting indicates staff are paying attention to checkouts. This attention is (or at the very least, can very much feel like) a violation of privacy. This is somewhat of a double-edged sword, because I think there is value — particularly if you don’t have access to circulation data — in paying attention to what your community is checking out. With this information, you can better suggest new purchases, curate appropriate and interesting displays, and better understand your community overall. But just acknowledging this gathering of information can make the customer uncomfortable. Just as you might want a clerk at a drugstore to pretend as if they didn’t just scan condoms you intend to purchase, so it should go at libraries, regardless of how unassuming a given item may seem.
An aside — some library staff advocate for tracking (often mentally) what particular users checkout in order to improve their library experience. “Mrs. Jones, a new James Patterson came in. I set it aside for you!” sounds really nice, but if the customer has not asked for this service, it could make them uncomfortable. I’d err on the side of not doing this and instead set up an opt-in recommendation or new-books-from-this-author system if it’s a service a library wishes to offer customers.
Patron privacy helps foster intellectual freedom. The American Library Association defines intellectual freedom as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.”
Does commenting on library checkouts at the circulation desk really restrict the seeking and reception of information? I think it can. Library staff are often upheld as authority figures or otherwise imagined as part of a sacred profession. As a result of these ideas about library staff, the public can easily hold our bookish opinions in too-high regard. What happens if a reader hears from staff that a book is good and then doesn’t like it? Are they then left feeling as if they are somehow not a good reader? This isn’t the kind of impression I want to leave on customers, and so it’s another reason for me to avoid saying anything at all about their checkouts. For intellectual freedom and related motivation to be squashed because of a friendly, throwaway comment, would be a terrible thing.
We Don’t Know Why Things Are Checked Out
I am not a mind reader, though sometimes I think it would make my job easier (reference interviews are not always a walk in the park). When we comment on library checkouts, we are making assumptions. Most of the time, these assumptions are probably accurate! It’s true that your customer is most likely checking out Little Fires Everywhere because it seems like a pretty thrilling leisure read. But it’s possible customer Mary Doe is checking it out because it was her sister’s favorite book and she plans to read an excerpt from it at her sister’s funeral.
By saying, “Oh, I loved Little Fires Everywhere, I hope you enjoy it,” you put the customer in an uncomfortable situation. Do they offer some sort of white lie about it? Do they share their intent to read it at a funeral? There’s no good answer here for the customer and since we can’t know unless a customer shares with us why they’re checking out a book, I say it’s better just to skip the comment.
Alternative Relationship Building Strategies
So what can we talk about instead, rather than standing in awkward silence interrupted by beep after beep as we scan the books? Community and relationship building with customers is important, so it’s natural to want to have some light small talk at the circulation desk. The weather (of course) is always a safe topic. I like to offer information about myself, if it feels natural, like vague weekend plans “because we’re expecting rain,” for example. This gives the customer the opportunity to share information if they choose to, or to say a noncommittal “That’s nice” without further engagement.
In general, I’ve found the customers who want to share things with you will. There’s not too much pressure to pry information out of them for this brief interaction, so don’t feel like you need to volunteer your whole life story just to connect with them.
If you’re a customer reading this, it might be handy to think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your library staff. There’s often more thought we put into these things that seems obvious. If you want us to talk about your excellent literary taste with you, let us know by being the one to make the first move. I’ve never met a library staff member who didn’t love to talk books!