As the "person in charge" (PIC) coordinator at Central Library, Stephanie White works to achieve a delicate balance. "Every day, our goal is to ensure access," she says. "But ‘welcome’ looks different to every population, so I work closely with our patrons to see how the library can be welcoming for everyone."
To help achieve this goal, Stephanie aligns the work of 17 Central Library PIC staff members with the individual needs and circumstances of the nearly 13,000 people who visit the historic downtown building every week. All libraries have a person in charge on duty during every open hour. Those staff members interpret and apply library rules, address building maintenance needs, respond to medical emergencies and make numerous other decisions to keep the library safe and welcoming. Stephanie also serves as a scheduler, an advisor, a problem solver and one of the primary trainers for the library’s safety and security program.
Stephanie joined the library in 2016 after an 18-year career at Powell’s City of Books. As a manager there, she had similar duties, but she points to a fundamental difference regarding the library’s end goal: access.
Like all library staff, PICs look for every way to help deliver patrons what they need— a "think yes" model to customer service. "While my role requires addressing security concerns and applying the library rules, I focus on ways to help people use the library successfully. Interactions shouldn’t be punitive. They should feel like a collaboration between patrons and staff to help the library be welcoming and safe. It requires being part of the fabric of daily library life and doing many other things beyond applying rules— it means relationship building," she says.
In the past two years, the library has expanded safety and security efforts, including adding a new category of library safety officers; creating new training curricula for staff; adopting a new model of PIC staffing, and revising library rules significantly for the first time in decades. To Stephanie, those rules are much more than a list of "don’ts."
"It’s not just about the content of the rules to ensure a welcoming environment; the rules were reworked to make them easier to apply equitably. That's our goal — apply library rules as consistently as possible to ensure fairness and equity. We all need to be on the same page to get there."
For some library patrons, the library is a place of safety and refuge from the pressures and danger of living outside. Stephanie says she came to understand the needs of people experiencing homelessness differently than before she worked in the library. She talks about learning of the idea of “prosocial” behavior (as opposed to its antonym, antisocial, which is more common and familiar). In Stephanie’s role, she sees opportunity to help people whose situations compromise their ability to be prosocial.
"While I considered myself compassionate and empathetic, I just didn’t have the tools to understand the minute-to-minute struggles people experiencing homelessness encounter every day,” Stephanie says. “If I had to think constantly about where I was going to use a bathroom, charge my phone, get something to eat, or avoid people stealing my things or assaulting me, I don’t know how long my own prosocial skills would last."
It doesn’t take long to discover Stephanie’s ability to make positive and lasting connections with people. Colleagues are quick to praise her abilities and approach. She reciprocates those sentiments. "The well of thoughtfulness here is infinite," she says. "The library system is so large, yet people at every level are so thoughtful about how we meet the needs of various communities, though our perspectives are all different. We all have very job-focused goals in addition to creating a welcoming environment. The intersection of all that is the most fascinating and challenging part of this job for me."
When she’s not at work, Stephanie enjoys the solitude of being outdoors and the company of her rottweiler/shepherd/pitbull mix, Jackson (he's a good boy). She also loves to spend time in a warm kitchen, refining her techniques for the perfect pie crust or souffle. Like her work, those efforts are an intricate exercise in achieving just the right balance.