All You Have to Do is Ask

Every now and then at the reference desk, I end an interaction feeling frustrated that I have not provided the level of service I want for our member. The feeling is familiar to any librarian, I’m sure, and there are a variety of reasons for it. But one I notice consistently is that I find myself unprepared or unsure when talking to a member who is deaf, or who has a disability that makes it hard to communicate, or whose needs I know I am not filling. Even when the end result is sending the person away with the item or help they came for, I always end up wishing I had found a way to do better, but unsure how.

Well, it seems I may have been overthinking things. As it turns out, perhaps all I had to do was ask.
Over the summer, I was fortunate to have a dynamic group high school volunteers, including one teen who is deaf.  “Heather” was passionate, engaged, and full of ideas. And she was excited and enthusiastic about helping the library improve our services to the deaf community. She didn’t owe it to me to educate me, but she was happy to do it, and I have learned so much from her over the past few months.  She suggested small steps we could take to better serve the deaf community – for instance as it turns out, YouTube’s automatic video captions are terrible. We’re working on transcribing our videos to improve the captions now. She suggested an American Sign Language (ASL) video tour of the library, incorporating sign language into story time, better resources for learning ASL, and staff training. In the grand scheme of things, all easy items to get and easy steps to implement.  We’re working across departments to get started on all of these suggestions right now. Simply asking Heather for ideas took away a lot of the stress I, and I’m sure many of us, were feeling. With Heather’s help, I felt like I had a road map of steps we could take to improve our services to the deaf community and the confidence that better service was easily achievable, plus some good logic for what to focus on.

You may not be lucky enough to have a “Heather,” but my biggest takeaway from this experience is “When in doubt, ask!” Of course, I don’t mean pester patrons with disabilities to provide education.  But there are online resources, organizations, and individuals who are more than happy to educate and advise, and it’s easy to reach out. I’ve used the strategy in the past with special education classes at the local high schools – by communicating with the teacher about what they need, I’ve been able to improve our resources and services for teens with disabilities in those classes and beyond, and am constantly finding new ways to be better. Even for groups as broad as “teens” – my specialty – asking for their input has vastly improved our services, and helped us zero in on the best ways to reach and serve that community.

In the end, the most valuable thing I learned working with Heather this summer was that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, or try to guess at a community’s needs. As it turns out, the simplest answer is usually to just…ask. When I have, I’ve gained confidence in the steps I have taken, since they come directly from the individuals and communities I am trying to serve, and found that often, the best ways of improving our services are simpler and easier than I had imagined. Now when I have questions about something or want to improve our services to any particular group, community, or demographic, the first thing I think about isn’t what to do or how to do it, but who to ask.

This guest blog post was written by Hannah Rapp, Young Adult Librarian at Glen Ellyn Public Library. She can be reached at hrapp(at)gepl(dot)org.