“What do you do when a patron lies to you?” I am asked by a co-worker. It is a rhetorical question, a cry of despair rather than a consultation for action. By the time any clerk has the experience to understand they are being lied to they understand also that when it happens they are suddenly faced with thin and unsatisfying options. One of these options is decidedly not setting their hands on the counter, looking earnestly at the patron, and saying “Oh my god, you’re lying to me.” A clerk, surprisingly enough, is not in the business of frankness, and a lying patron is a bitter reminder.
But come over here with me and we’ll take a look.
Mr. Johannes (neither a particular liar nor a fan of western fiction, just a patron I thought it would be nice to immortalize by employing his name) has a book wildly overdue on his card. It is called Slocum, the Six-shooter, and the Harem Gal. I inform him of this.
“What?” he asks.
It is a complicated “What?” with many reasons behind it. Firstly, I am afraid to say, I use my library voice nearly all the time unless I am discussing politics or mocking someone who is standing unbeknownst behind me. While this may seem to be an appropriate voice for a person working at a library let me assure you that it is not. It cannot possibly compete with the heart-rending screams of small children which form the acoustical backdrop of the life of all busy public libraries. (Oddly this always plays out the same way for me; 1. child’s heart-rending screams, 2. me, to myself, with alarm “My god, some psychopath has dipped a small child up to its neck in a vat of undiluted hydrochloric acid!” 3. Some grandmotherly lady clucks bemusedly to the general air “Looks like someone needs a nap.”) This inaudibility leads into the second reason for the “What?” This is that western fiction books, which apparently all mysteriously start with the word “Slocum”, are checked out exclusively by men in their eighties and nineties. This is a group that is highly likely to suffer from hearing loss. But there is a third reason. The third reason is patron shock. They cannot believe what they are hearing.
“Slocum, the Six-shooter, and the Harem Gal” I repeat in a voice straining to be loud “Was due on your card two months ago.”
“It can’t be.” He says indignantly “I never checked that out. I don’t even read that sort of book. There must be some mistake!”
I look down at the three books I am currently checking out to Mr. Johannes. They are entitled
Slocum, His Dusty Saddle, and the Busty Cowgirl
Slocum, the Stallion, and the Dancehall Lady and
Slocum, the Golden Horseshoe, and Dangerous Lil
“But” I counter cleverly “Aren’t all of these Slocum books, just like the one overdue?”
He looks at me like I’ve perhaps scored a small point, but it is small, and we are not in an Encyclopedia Brown story where pointing out a little discrepancy can bring a petty criminal to his or her knees (“Ah, you’re right, frogs are amphibians! Darn, I’ll have to return Stinky’s lucky nickel!”).
“I know they’re all Slocum books.” He says pointedly “But I don’t like belly dancing and would never check out a book that might have some.”
Point to him. I must try a different gambit.
“Could someone else in your family have checked out the book on your card?”
He looks, is it suspiciously, at his unruffled, orange haired wife.
“Honey,” she says, rather nicely under the circumstances “Didn’t I see that Slocum book in a bag of Fritos yesterday?”
Ah! Big point to me. He’ll never recover!
“Well,” he says directly to me “I’ll take a look around for it at home, but I expect you’ve got the book somewhere here already.”
Never expect more than a truce.
What do you do when a patron lies to you?
They aren’t lying. They’re just conveniently deluded in their own favor.
And what are we, we clerks behind the desk? Like I said, we are not in the business of frankness. I can’t check the book out to you. I can’t waive your fine. I can’t get you a card. I can’t renew your book.
Well, I can. The policy is against it. I may have to override. But I can. And sometimes I do. But not for liars, so fly right. Have a little faith that your chances improve. Mercy is by no means assured, but most of us try to guard it from the self-deluded, who cannot be trusted with small and valuable things.