Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reflections on Library Service to a Summer Reading Scammer

Over the past couple of weeks, librarians on PUBYAC and Facebook have been discussing email correspondence they have received from a teen in California, who, for the second year in a row,  has signed up for multiple summer reading programs across the country and then contacted libraries asking to have his prizes sent out-of-state to him. Responses from librarians have been fascinating. Some commend the young man for his out-of-the-box thinking and his devotion to libraries. Others call him a scammer, insisting that he is trying to cheat libraries out of their prizes. I saw one post suggesting that all libraries respond to his emails with cat memes to get him to end contact, and another bragging about asking him meaningless questions over email (presumably to troll him and see if he will give up or reveal himself as a fraud.) The teen himself (whose name I have omitted to protect what little privacy he has left in the library world) claims that his registering for multiple summer reading programs is part of a contest he has going on with his friends. He has supplied the rules for the contest, one of which is to be persistent in "begging" libraries to send some small token to mark the completion of the program even if they initially refuse to send prizes.

I can't tell, based on the comments I've read, whether this so-called scammer's heart is in the right place or not. It does seem that he is legitimately a teenager, so it is possible that much of this is just the behavior of an immature kid with too much time on his hands. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is how librarians are (over)reacting to the emails. Frankly, many librarians are handling their encounters with him in ways that are completely at odds with the spirit of librarianship. Because I am not working in a library right now, I am not likely to be contacted by him myself. I want to share, however, how I would treat him in the event that I did receive one of his emails.

First, I would act under the assumptions that his request is legitimate and that his intentions, good or bad, are not really my business. This teen's question, essentially, is whether he can receive summer reading prizes from a library of which he is not a member, which is located in a community in which he does not reside. My answer to this question doesn't need to be emotional. Either my library allows prizes to be awarded to non-residents, or it doesn't. Libraries may not have a specific policy to address this issue, but they do have precedents based on what they have done in past years. It is perfectly fair to argue that summer reading prizes, which have been purchased with library budgets approved by local taxpayers, can only be awarded to residents of the library's service area. A polite email to this effect, citing any pertinent article numbers from the library's policy documents, is all that is really required. Becoming offended by his request is not only silly and a waste of energy, but poor library service as well. A librarian does not get to decide which questions are worthy of her time. She should receive the questions, provide the requested information, and move on.

Second, I would send this young man a PDF document containing a certificate of completion for the summer reading program. It wouldn't cost me anything to send the attachment, so I wouldn't be placing an undue burden on my library budget. Furthermore, sending the certificate would reflect well on the library. Maybe this teen really is an internet troll, looking to score free stuff and make fools out of librarians. If this is the case, librarians only help him succeed by reacting unprofessionally with anger and online gossip.  The professional reaction is to honor his request as best you can. Offering the certificate shows you can rise above whatever negative feelings you might have about the young man and his behavior, and it shows that your library is non-judgmental and welcoming. It also takes about five minutes, which is a lot less time than it takes to bad-mouth a teenage boy to colleagues and respond to his emails with memes and nonsensical arguments.

Third, after I had answered his question, and determined there was nothing further I could do for him, I would simply stop responding to any additional emails he sent. There is a point with every pushy patron, both in person and online, when you have to end the conversation and move on to assisting other patrons and focusing on tasks that benefit the library as a whole. If I've explained library policy and sent the teen a certificate, and then let him know there is nothing more available to him as a non-resident of my library's service area, I have satisfactorily answered his question. If I have nothing else to say, even if he provokes me to engage in an argument with him, I should have the restraint, as someone who works in customer service, not to let him bring me down to that level.

The bottom line is that it's not inherently offensive for a kid like this, or anyone else, to ask the library to do something above and beyond its capabilities. There is no reason to respond to this teen with anymore anger or frustration than you would have for a patron who wishes to use the public fax machine that you do not have or to borrow the book version of Stuart Little 2 which does not exist. Saying no with kindness is a key part of library customer service, and that's all anyone who doesn't want to send a prize to an unknown teen in California needs to do. Good customer service, even to a patron who might not be completely genuine, never harms your library, and it never harms you. The best thing you can do is offer what you can give, calmly state what you can't, and then forget about the interaction and move on to the next. Doing anything else is a waste of energy, and a waste of time librarians could be spending serving their local patrons.
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