The tape letter

Because so many asked so nicely. It’s hard to know if this is the right response, the right tactic… but it’s all true. That, as I said previously, is just the best I can do.

Ms. Name Elided To Protect Her Privacy,

This morning I received a note you left at the Circulation Desk in Crumb Library. I’m going to include the text of your note here so that I ensure I address all of your points.

“To whom it may concern… A library should have tape for the students to use.’

Unfortunately, it appears I disagree with you immediately. Our mission is to provide access to information to support learning and teaching, and tape doesn’t really fall into that. Everything we do — providing computers, printers, study rooms, research help, tech support — is in service of our mission to support learning and teaching. I can’t really justify providing free office supplies as a part of that mission.

“This is a STATE SCHOOL. I pay STATE TUITION. If my tuition and fees are not covering tape for public use then I must know who to contact about this RIDICULOUS situation…”

Yes, this is a state-funded school. However, the libraries do not receive any fees, so your tuition is the only money in play for the libraries. And the person to contact is me, the Director of Libraries. If you would like to talk with me about this, you may schedule an appointment at any time. The library secretary is available from 7:45 to 3:00, Monday to Friday, in Crumb 127, and can find a space in my calendar for me to meet with you.

“Why is it hidden??? Did a worker pay for it? If not, I DID!! $20,000k!”

It’s hidden because it’s not for public use; we buy tape so that our employees can use it to do their work. We hide it so that when the staff come to work in the morning, there is still tape for them to use to do their jobs, as, if it is not hidden, it is often stolen or used up by students.

Since you’ve noted that you pay in-state tuition, for a total of $20,000, I’d like to break that down. The College’s operating and personnel budget, taking into account only state funding and tuition dollars, is about $41 million. The Libraries’ share of that is $1.5 million, coming to about 3.7% of the total. So if you take your $20,000 in tuition, and divide it by four years, that’s this year’s $5270 in tuition (as I noted, the libraries don’t receive any fee money). 3.7% of your tuition this year equals about $195, so your contribution to the library in this budget year would buy approximately:
5 books, or
6 interlibrary loan requests, or
1% of JSTOR, or
.05% of Science Direct, or
One year of a humanities journal, or
6 hours of research assistance from a librarian, or
9 hours of circulation staff members’ time working at the circulation desk, or
13 hours of student pay to keep Crumb open in the evening
Or I could buy 40 rolls of tape, which would last approximately two months… but that doesn’t seem like the best use of your tuition dollars, in light of our mission and the needs of our student body. I’d rather pay our expert staff to help you with your research, or buy 5 books, or keep Crumb open for 13 extra hours each year.

Again, if you would like to discuss this, please make an appointment. I’d be happy to explain my position in person.

Jenica P. Rogers
Director of Libraries
College Libraries, SUNY Potsdam

On a personal note, as I reflected on this last night, I patted myself on the back for being no more aggressive than this. Jenica-The-Person wants to glare and be decidedly bitchy. Because, really? Screaming at us in a note because you need scotch tape? The entitlement, it burns.

Jenica-The-Librarian wishes I could provide white out, highlighters, scotch tape, flash drives, and all the other conveniences that students sometimes ask for.

But Jenica-The-Administrator has to prioritize in order to get the most from her limited budget. I’m going to use mission and vision to do that.

So: still no scotch tape.

31 thoughts on “The tape letter

  1. Dances With Books

    I never thought of this being an issue. We here do provide some supplies, including a roll of tape, at the library. We put them on a small table by the reference desk. Having said that, we’ve had the debate (at least among the peon librarians) about whether we should be doing it or not. Anyhow, putting that aside, this is a very good, realistic response. *sigh* The kind of thing I wish my boss had the guts to do now and then.

  2. KIkiP

    I agree. College students should know what essential supplies they need when attending COLLEGE. You don’t know how many times, we get asked for pencils, pens, paper, paper clips and the like and the sometimes nasty attitudes we have to endure for not providing these items.

  3. State Librarian

    Great letter.

    On our campus, I’ve heard that at least one of the open computer labs (not in the library) is considering no longer providing PAPER for the printers due to budget cuts. Printing has always been “free,” so one can only imagine the kind of fury that will be unleashed…

    Unicorn parking on the right.

  4. Andy Woodworth

    At my library (a public one), we do provide some office supplies on a limited basis. If you need a paperclip or something stapled on that scale, then it’s not a problem. A paperclip or staple here and there isn’t a big deal as it fosters an inexpensive but still potent goodwill between the library and the community. However, it becomes a problem when we get treated like a Staples and people abuse this kind of friendly use policy.

    I think you handled that amazingly well considering the rather petty nature of the complaint.

  5. Guest

    It’s understandable that you’d be irritated with the attitude evident in this student’s letter and I think it’s an interesting tactic to talk about the library’s finances. I’m a little surprised that a library administrator would stoop to snarkiness, though. I think other’s think this is awesome because you’ve ‘told it like it is’ and those of us who’ve been in your shoes wish we could be as honest. While I admire the courage to be honest, I have greater appreciation for restraint and professionalism.

    Admittedly, the letter is funny, of course. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Jenica Post author

    Guest, I’m not sure where you see snarkiness — from this angle, what I wrote is a pretty clean statement of facts. I disagree with your request, here’s how to reach me, here’s where your tuition dollars go. What do you see that I don’t?

  7. Anna Creech

    Love the breakdown of just how much of her tuition the library gets and what you have to prioritize with that money. I don’t get any snark from this if I read it as a letter from an administrator I don’t know, but given how much snark you are able to convey as Jenica-my-friend, I could see how someone might perceive it that way.

  8. Jenica Post author

    Bill, I don’t have the budget. Seriously. We’re cutting open hours to make our budget stretch to where we need it to be — how do I justify *tape*? That kind of comment makes me sigh, hard. Yeah, it’d totally be worth it to provide tape *if I could justify it*, just like it’d be SO worth it to be open 24/7 during finals week *if I could afford it*. But I can’t.

  9. AnonLibrarian

    @Bill Drew, I would say it depends on when the student asked for the tape. If it was during hours when the reference or circulation desk were staffed, then yes, by all means, it’s a gesture of good will. The fact that the comments were left in a note and the student claims the tape was “hidden” leads me to believe the student was looking for tape during hours when the library was open, but the reference desk wasn’t staffed.

    Chances are if the supplies were left out in the open after hours, they might be taken by people who didn’t want to buy their own. As in the whole roll of tape or the whole tape dispenser. The the library staff has to was time getting the supplies they need to do their job. And the cost would start adding up. How much good will would it foster if a director has to cut a subscription or defer a purchase to pay for students’ office supplies?

  10. Marliese Thomas

    I recently heard of an episode where a student became indignant because the library did not stock free Scantron sheets. Items that are sold all the time in the bookstore and that the library ever had only by accident or as a by-the-way convenience. It’s in the same vein as ‘yes, you can borrow this pen’, except you can’t return a Scantron or Blue Book or tape once used like you can a pen.

    I cannot tell you the total amount of time I have spent unjamming staplers after students use too much/too few paper, the wrong size staples are loaded, the darn thing just doesn’t work. Blood has been shed. That is my contribution to goodwill.

    I appreciate your response because it shows that the library’s purpose is to spend its budget in a way that provides for the largest group or most lasting way. We’re supposed to be efficient, aren’t we?

  11. Ann

    I think the snark factor is subjective. What one persons sees as unnecessarily aggressive, another person could see a different way.

    What I think is the interesting part of this discussion, is the part about transparency. I once worked at a place where we had more requests for information literacy instruction than we could meet with the staffing level. We already had staff skipping lunch and working way more than the required time. I told the Director: we can’t do it. We are going to start turning people away. Sometimes you have to fail for people to notice enough to fight for you.

    I don’t think we should ever hide the fact that our budgets limit us.

    It’s not an obscene topic or one that should be whispered or hidden or avoided.

    I’d say that Jenica was educating the student about how her money is spent and some of the issues that librarians consider when choosing how to spend that money.

    I once told a patron at a public library how much it cost the library to process ILLs. The look on her face said it all. “Wow.” She said. “I had no idea.” She wasn’t offended by the truth. She was informed.

  12. Jenny R

    zomg, @Marliese the giant stapler. How is it we can engineer implantable medical devices that keep people alive but we can’t make a giant stapler that just works. So irritating!

    I appreciate the budget breakdown – so many of our students have not one clue how the budget works. And how would they? Most of our staff don’t really know either.

    My favorite giveaway episode was when I discovered by accident that some enterprising student was taking our scratch paper giveaway stack every day and turning it into little “eco notebooks” that s/he was selling in the student run co-op store. The scratch paper was botched print jobs, pages left behind in the copier recycling bins and other good-on-one-side paper generated by the staff. We’d flip thru it quickly to pick out anything that should have been shredded, and then we would just put out in a basket. I ran across the notebooks in the store, and recognized the back sides of the pages as photocopies from our journals (only medical library on campus). We still offer the paper, but we make the students ask for it, rather than just letting them help themselves. Gotta give ’em credit for entrepreneurial thinking though!

  13. Fellow Librarian

    This compelling piece is making quite a splash around academic library listserves. Some dislike the tone, some cry triviality, some mutter of insensitivity for patrons, some love it, etc; it hits on many levels. I love it – in-particular the restrained brutality. This is a good thing. The awful sense of entitlement of some college students – often needs brutality – which is, in fact, a good teaching tool. These are 18-year old colts. A yank on their harness might help them submit. Submission is the only rational choice, and most students appreciate that. Most students are good, but one thing is certain: give an inch of tape, they’ll take a mile, and come back demanding ten. Love it. Thanks.

  14. jason kramer

    You are absolutely blowing up the CUNY listserv. Over there the debate seems to be one of tone vs. content.

    This makes me particularly crazy, and seems representative of a larger problem, that is the desire to “seem” nice rather than “be” right.

    I think you treated the student as if they were an adult. You held them accountable for the things they said and forced them to defend their actions. There is far too little of this around. I applaud your action, and salute your willingness to launch this debate.

  15. Heather

    I love this – nicely done. The best part is breaking down exactly how much of her tuition ends up at the library and what that amount could buy her. Does she really want tape instead of access to information? Probably not. But I’m sure she’s never, ever had to think of it that way before. And hopefully this will be something she remembers in the future, when she’s annoyed about something else, and needs some perspective on priorities.

    And the only snark I see here is hers.

    :^) H

  16. Jennifer

    I think this opens the door to some interesting discussion, and for that I appreciate this post. I don’t find snark in the letter, but it is written in a tone I would never use with a patron at my library. And the blog post itself I *do* think is full of snark. What I see is a very one sided response that practically gloats “aha! I have made you look a fool with my facts!” But I predict the patron will only be angrier at this reply. Having “the facts” only gets you so far if you use them as blunt force objects, and I do not think it is good customer service. And (somewhat beside the point), at my State University library we do give away tape, paperclips, kleenex, whiteout etc., although these things sit behind the counter so people need to ask. We haven’t gone through a whole role of tape in over a year. I totally understand budget crunches, but we look at those things as a comfort/ convenience, like providing snack machines, bathrooms, etc.

  17. Jenica Post author

    Tone is an entirely different discussion, I agree — and I’ve noted elsewhere and before that I am not going to be conciliatory when I feel that there’s nothing to apologize for. My tone is my choice, and I will own it. I disagree with the interpretation you’ve offered, though — I am not trying to make anyone look a fool. I am providing data in the face of what is, in my hyperlocal circumstances, an untenable request. Is the post snarky in places? You bet your ass it is. I never argued otherwise. Is the email? I don’t believe it is. I believe that in the face of an aggressive complaint, I replied quickly, clearly, and was forthright about my position and reasons.

    I’m glad to hear that your office supply provision works for you. I wish it could work for us, and perhaps when the 60% of my student worker budget that was cut in the last three years is restored, I will be able to afford to offer these kindnesses again. For now, as I was pointing out above, I can’t. Those of you who keep telling me about how well it works for you seem to be missing the point that it does not, actually, work for us right now. I’m glad for you, and a bit jealous. I wish.

  18. Jake

    My concern is also with the tone (both of the letter and the blog post, which, for all I know, this student has viewed), and I wonder if this student is ever going to ask for help at the library again. I think you’ve put out a candle with a cannonball here. I get the snotty sense of entitlement, and I don’t like it, but on some level college students come by this honestly. They, or someone on their behalf, pays tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, plus additional thousands for textbooks. They lack fully developed brains, they’re impulsive. I view these factors as structural impediments to polite behavior. And so I’m torn between grabbing the reins and calmly explaining policies. From where I sit, this was a rough way to do the former, and could have used more of the latter. That being said, I appreciate that this situation was blogged, and the continued discussion. It goes beyond tape and clearly touched a nerve. Thanks.

  19. Jenica Post author

    “They, or someone on their behalf, pays tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, plus additional thousands for textbooks. They lack fully developed brains, they’re impulsive. I view these factors as structural impediments to polite behavior.”

    Oh, man, I read this and all I can think is “NO.” I refuse to become an apologist for declining standards of behavior, and paying money to an institution for an explicit set of services does not make it okay to rudely demand the moon on a platter with stars as garnish. Nor does the concept “students are on average 20 years old and 20-year-olds aren’t real people” fly with me as an excuse. Many of our students — MOST, even — are polite, engaged, friendly, remarkable, and fascinating people. I prefer to uphold that standard.

    I also continue to wonder why being straightforward and honest is such an affront to so many. I suspect the answer is always going to be “personality types” and “professional norms”. Oh well.

  20. Mary Carmen

    “I also continue to wonder why being straightforward and honest is such an affront to so many. I suspect the answer is always going to be “personality types” and “professional norms.”

    Two words: Conflict Avoidance.

    I think most people hate conflict and many times straightforward and honest is uncomfortable and makes for conflict. I also think as a profession we want to be accommodating, helpful and say yes as much as possible.

  21. Jenica Post author

    in re: conflict avoidance, I had a not-here conversation this afternoon on this topic, and the upshot was that someone was making the argument that by giving as much information as I did, I simply invited further argument from the student in question, and therefore I should simply have said “no”.

    Well, sure, that’s one way to avoid conflict, but I don’t like or want to be that kind of nuance-free authoritarian. “Because I said so” is a terrible answer, so I choose to provide reasons when I can. Which, yes, does invite debate and discussion.

    And, for those who have commented on how the student may have seen my snarky comments on entitlement here, sure. She may have. And if she chooses to make an appointment to talk with me, I’ll talk with her about my perceptions of the way she chose to approach this communication, the ways she has interacted with library staff, and why I responded as I did. If she took issue with what I wrote here, I’d own it, as I would request that she own the things she’s said. All communication is a two-way street.

    If I were afraid of that kind of communication, would I post shit like this on the internet? <---- the answer is no.

  22. Evan

    Jenica,

    I love reading your blog and absolutely loved your concrete, precise, and adult email to a very childish note by a student. We oftentimes ignore these notes and that’s the worst possible response. A calm and measured response (which I very much believe your is) is the best reaction.

    Also, I don’t think anyone’s addressed this, but we tend to only refer to women being honest and straightforward as “snarky” when we disagree with the approach. You’re not snarky, you’re honest and handling the situation.

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