Life Lessons from the Library: Learn How and When to Give Bad News.

In the library, it is our job occasionally to give bad news. Usually, it goes something like this:

Student: Can you get this book for me?

Librarian: There is only one copy. In Alaska. I can put in an ILL request. When do you need it?

Student: My paper is due tomorrow.

Or something like this:

Student: Is my Works Cited page okay?

Librarian: There are several problems here. Why don’t you open your document, and we’ll fix them?

Student: But my paper is due in five minutes. 

There is obviously a pattern here. In neither case are librarians really giving bad news. They are simply making statements of fact. But it is certainly taken that way by poor students who are now under incredible time pressure. Through much experience, we have learned the following about giving bad news:

  • Never follow up with something like “Well, this is your own fault.” Most people know when things are their fault and having it pointed out to them does not lead to an epiphany, usually just a defensive explosion.
  • Expressing sympathy can often make people feel a little better. I might say, “I’m sorry. There is no way the book will get here from Alaska by then.” 
  • Try to find an alternative. Usually if a student wants a book that’s only in Alaska, it’s because it was the first thing that came up on a Google search. We can usually find materials in our library that will work for a paper.

And sometimes the best approach is to simply not give the bad news at all if there is nothing that can be done about it. For example, when a student asks me to review a paper and and it’s close to the time a class is starting, I often say that I’m busy right then but probably can get to it later. If the paper is due, the student doesn’t return. If it’s not, he/she will set up an appointment. Okay, maybe it makes me a little cowardly. But I’ve discovered over the years that when I’m asked to review something right before it’s due, the only answer wanted is “It’s great! It deserves the best grade ever!” So I no longer participate in that game.

Let’s face it. There are times that people really don’t want bad news. They simply want their opinions confirmed as in:

  • What do you really think of my fiance?
  • Do you think I’m a spendthrift?
  • Should I lose weight?
  • Do you like my singing? (especially after a drunken karaoke performance)

I’m a fan of honesty. But I’m also a fan of not being brutally honest if honesty can’t help the situation. Sometimes, the right thing is to say no. Other times, the right thing is to simply say nothing.  





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