Cruelty Should Never be the Point

John Hubbard
3 min readMar 25

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see”
—Theodore Roethke

Anybody who’s used self-checkout enough has on occasion gone through the aggravating experience of being treated by an automated process which assumes you are stealing. Such safeguards are part of modern life. We accept CAPTCHA challenges, body scans, and any number of time-consuming inconveniences, all in the name of being afforded a little better safety.

As part of one of those workplace wellness programs, for example, I can get a $50 gift card by disclosing my blood levels to an entity associated with my employer—never mind the flimsy evidence on these sorts of programs doing any good. Also, consider how a growing number of car insurance companies will give you better rates if you allow them to install an app on your phone that constantly monitors your location and driving behavior.

My spouse and I are attempting to settle the estate of a recently deceased relative. Cancelling the cable bill has been the easy part, believe it or not. We are trying to do things the right way. We have all of the legal forms that should be necessary to do so. But just try telling a poorly-trained Tier 1 support representative that their organization is legally required to obey a set of rules that runs afoul of the inadequate procedures they have been trained to mindlessly follow, and let me tell you, it does not make for an enjoyable experience, at what already isn’t the best of times.

What makes ordeals such as this all the more exhausting is that there’s absolutely no reason for stuff to be so difficult. Some of this is due to capitalism run amok. Moreover, whether or not it’s always the root cause, the fact is, there are people out there who get their jollies out of shutting others down. Take this situation, recently described by Jessamyn West:

“I had a friend who’s doing some complicated paperwork to help her aging parents with things and she had a fairly involved set of paperwork returned b/c she didn’t fill it in in ALL CAPS.”

The question here is not so much, “What kind of person would enforce a rule such as that?” as it is, “How can we not be like that ourselves?” There’s not a single one of us that can’t do a little bit better, after all.

This family crisis of ours has gotten me thinking about how the library user experience, likewise, does not always happen without the presence of organizational policies and interfaces that needlessly antagonize people who are just trying to use a library.

Good intentions are sometimes even to blame for us making things harder than they should be. “People might have to sign in later, so let’s force them to sign in now” is actually an argument I’ve heard from multiple librarians. I’m still waiting to see the login-gated library homepage, based on this rationale.

The customer isn’t always right. Having said that, think about the last time you told a patron “no, we don’t do that here” (or, worse yet, asked them for money). Was it because the request was truly impossible to fulfill, or was it the result of you mindlessly parroting some dumbass rule?

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis