Tuesday 4 June 2024

Has the world changed or have I changed?

After many, many years of delivering face-to-face customer service, I worked my last desk shift in February 2019. That's over five years ago.

That's not to say that it was the end of my work in customer service. I've still continued to have many years of responding to public enquiries, mostly in digital form via email and social media, or over the phone. And people can continue to behave in many challenging ways, especially when you're a faceless channel that represents an potentially oppressive or at best bureacratic institution.

But it's been more than five years since I've had to physically put myself on the frontline and deliver immediate in-person services to a member of the general public.

Of course, things have happened in those five years that have impacted face-to-face customer service. One very big thing in particular - the COVID-19 pandemic.

Libraries closed in line with public health orders. Well, most of them. With time, they reopened, but with requirements for social distancing, QR code check-in, room capacity limits and mask-wearing.

And guess who often had to enforce these requirements? You got it - the frontline staff.

I've heard many stories from library staff on the frontline who were abused by the public on a daily basis. In one extreme example, a staff member at a university library was spat on. Such an act would be considered assault at the best of times, but in the middle of a pandemic for a highly contagious disease where there had not yet been adequate vaccination programs in place, it seems particularly malicious.

Whilst many in society seemed mostly compliant at this time, it was those who objected to these orders who would make life particularly difficult for our frontline customer service staff. I feel somewhat fortunate that I'd somehow managed to pivot away from working in the front-of-house side of things.

At the same time, responding to some of the online discourse when moderating online communities and responding to social media enquiries also seems to be getting increasingly more abusive and fraught with inflammatory behaviour. Perhaps this is a consequence of our online environments being the main platform for widespread disinformation, misinformation and the perpetuation of communities that seek to discriminate and harm others in our communities.

It feels easier to dismiss a lot of this, saying that it's just a vocal minority of people making life difficult wherever they can. But I feel like it's just getting worse. Or maybe I'm just a bit tired and don't want to argue with people anymore.

The thing is, I do miss working with the general public. At least some of the time, I'd have positive interactions with regulars, interesting conversations with researchers - and I love the thrill of helping people find that piece of a puzzle that they need to complete their work. And finding ways to surprise and delight people with stories and collections that come with working in a cultural institution. That's the job that I signed up for. But is it worth the job that I *didn't* sign up for?

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