No one has ever come to me at the front desk of my Library and ordered a corned beef sandwich, don't be shy about the mustard. Requests for obscure bits of a/v technology are about as exciting as requests for things we don't have gets, which is to say, not very exciting. "Do you check out slide projectors?" No. The request itself is far less odd than the decade in which it is happening. The other day someone asked if we had any typewriters. We never have had, but I used to hear that occasionally, almost regularly. However, at the time of this recent inquiry it had been so long since anyone asked for a typewriter that I hugged the patron, weeping, and started to sing Auld Lang Syne.
The great majority of things people ask me for, that we don't have, are office related. We seem to have several hundred staplers up at the front desk, but no three hole punch. If you ask me for a paper cutter you're also completely out of luck. No cutting and punching of paper at my Library! There has always been in me the slightest, unexpressed, deep down touch of irritation when people ask me for these office services and supplies we don't have. "Do you have a fax machine?" I have heard that question a thousand times. I'm reasonably nice about it and try to offer helpful alternatives, but also I am thinking, almost unconsciously "Why would we have a fax machine, we're a Library!" What are these people doing coming to the Library to fax? We don't have a fax. And though we do have copiers, why on earth would they come to us for some complicated copy job. We certainly do not charge less than well equipped, vastly more full service stores. Enough already.
And then, one day recently, like the Grinch, when he was hanging on that precipice, poised for disaster, my heart suddenly grew. It grew three sizes.
What is a Library? If we think clearly and bravely, and our hearts are in the right place, a Library is half what we, the Library, say it is and what we can make it be. The other half of what a Library is is what the Library users want and expect it to be. If they're coming in every day going on about wanting corned beef sandwiches we should be thinking about how and why we might be able to and want to provide them, not doing that whole "Ugh! Patrons! This place would be perfect without them" thing. But they don't want corned beef sandwiches, they want a fax machine.
When did my heart grow three sizes? I think it was when I was at an office supply store with my wife. She was looking for something. I was dawdling, looking at things in a desultory manner when my eye landed upon a display of fax machines. They were $60. Sixty dollars! I had told a thousand people we couldn't help them because we didn't have something that cost less than three James Patterson novels. I had sent them off to pay $1.50 a page at some Fed Ex Kinkos because we didn't have a fax machine! With my new big heart I suddenly just felt bad for all those people.
Not long ago a person who works in a different Library system than my own was in and asked if we had a fax machine. When I gave her the rundown about how we didn't, she said, with a touch of awe "How do you get away with that?" The implication is that having a fax is really irritating. I am well enough acquainted with all the printers and projectors and computers and copiers to understand that a fax machine would be an additional, small, but irritating task. But like any person working in a Library who actually cares, any number of glitches and paper jams will be less irritating than saying "No." Because saying no, unjustified, is the most irritating task of them all.