One of the hardest battles I chose to fight when I opened my new elementary school library years ago was not what you might think. It was not with the new cadre of teachers who were uncomfortable with flexible access (although that was probably a close second). It was not with the assistant principal who believed that my student-run morning news program wasn’t educational. It was not with the principal who conceded to a parent over a challenged but approved book. Actually, it was with the local fire marshal who insisted that the doors to my library stay closed at all times.
There is just something about a closed door, especially one in a room with no windows, that is forbidding. Open doors were welcoming and inclusive–an invitation to everyone and anyone to come in, enjoy, participate, make yourself at home. Closed doors suggested caution, restraint, restriction, and exclusivity.
I grew up in the South where doors were rarely closed. We only shut our door at night. We welcomed everyone to our homes on wide, covered front porches with open doors and, yes, sweet tea. We celebrated company and it was imperative that guests were made to feel special. We waited on our guests. We cooked special meals for them and included dessert. We used our best dishes. We provided fresh towels and bed linens, offered the most comfortable chairs, the best beds, and the opportunity to get into the bathroom first. This is how I came to understand hospitality and ultimately why I picked this particular battle with the fire marshal.
The doors to the library were heavy, cranky, prohibitive monstrosities. They creaked open and clanged shut with authority. Limited to florescent lighting, reduced to no windows, and barred from the natural light emanating from the hallway outside the library, I felt entombed and claustrophobic in my otherwise beautiful new facility. I don’t know how my students felt but I do know they struggled to open those doors. So, I propped my doors open with door jams, and with every fire inspection my door jams disappeared. Before the firetruck pulled out of the parking lot, I’d propped my doors back open.
I argued that the closed doors made the library inaccessible. Eventually, I won the battle. The solution was to use high-powered magnets to hold the doors open until there was a fire drill. Then the magnets would release and the doors would close automatically. Win/win for me and for the fire marshall. In hindsight now, I realize that the battle really wasn’t over unsanctioned, propped-open doors. Aside from the obvious fact that the doors were prohibitive for anyone with a physical disability, there was much more at stake.
Opening a new school library with receptive faculty, enthusiastic parents, and energetic students was the best opportunity I would ever have to market my library. It was the perfect chance to make the right first impression with my new school community, starting with the sense of welcome, of invitation and especially of hospitality that I wanted to convey.
The best way I knew to be friendly and welcoming to my new school community was to extend my hospitality. Successful restauranteur Danny Meyer (2006) defines hospitality as “the genuine enjoyment of doing something well for the purpose of bringing pleasure to other people” (p. 244). He believes great service with extraordinary hospitality is what has made his restaurants successful.
I don’ remember learning about hospitality in library school. I essentially operated as a school librarian based upon my upbringing and my experiences. I wanted everyone in the school community to feel as special and as welcome in the library as those guests had been made to feel visiting my childhood home. I knew instinctively that I would enjoy my job if I were good at my job, and to be good at my job I needed to offer excellent service and make people feel good about that service.
Meyer credits his successful career to hospitality. He believes there is nothing more important in a business transaction than how one is made to feel and contends that hospitality has “transforming power” for business. He pictures hospitality as a “team sport” that exists, “when you believe the other person is on your side” (p. 11). It is everything thoughtful, generous, and caring that someone does that makes you feel s/he is on your side. When we apply the lens of hospitality to our efforts to build collaboration, to promote literacy, to lead staff development, to administer the school library program, to support student success, it is appropriate to think of what we do with students, teachers, parents, and administrators as a team sport. It then becomes our responsibility, our mandate, intensified by hospitality, to make sure all of our teammates feel that we are on their side.
Great service and hospitality together make for success in business, explains Meyer. The distinction between service and hospitality is between technique and emotion. Service is technical. It is black and white. Hospitality evokes pleasure and enjoyment. Hospitality arouses the feelings a person has when receiving a service. Service is the “monologue” we have with ourselves about what we want and need to do and how we do it. Hospitality, on the other hand is a “dialogue” between us and those we serve (p. 65). The dialogue of hospitality, according to Meyer, is about taking an “active interest” in the people we serve and allowing them to share their stories (p. 78). If we want our teachers, our students, our administrators, and our parents to feel we are on their side, we must open and maintain a dialogue of hospitality, listening carefully and responding thoughtfully, graciously, and appropriately,
Simply, hospitality for Meyer is about treating guests the way we would want to be treated with the understanding that “in business, as in life, you get what you give” (p. 244). Again, what is true in business is true for school libraries and librarians. We will get what we give. Thinking about the transactions we have each day as school librarians, we are, like restaurant workers, also in a position to be concerned about how our students, teachers, staff, administrators, and parents feel about us. And so I am convinced, like Meyer, that hospitality may have “transforming power” for school libraries.
For those of you approaching the new traditional-calendar school year or for anyone wanting a new beginning or a different approach to school library business as usual, I would encourage you to brush up on your hospitality. Throw open your doors and take up the gauntlet against your fire marshal if need be. Roll out your welcome mat. Offer up service with a smile, some sweet tea, and dessert. Encourage your folks to sit a spell on the most comfortable chairs, and ask them to share their stories. Then, above all else, sit back, put your feet up, and listen carefully for those ways you can make everyone feel that you are on their side.
Meyer, D. (2006). Setting the table: The transforming power of hospitality in business. NY: Harper Collins.
Author: Anne Akers
Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.