I know most everyone will think I need my head examined for saying this, but I love tax time at the library. Without fail, I can usually convert a non-library user to library supporter, while helping hand out tax forms. I consider it my big opportunity to sell library service to everyone, especially the elusive non-library user. This is a glorious opportunity to engage patrons on so many levels. Best of all, you don't need an insane amount of time and resources to look sharp and sell the library. Here are three simple strategies to get more out of tax season so you make the library look good and help patrons.
1. Presentation is Everything!
Organize your forms and set up for tax time. Don't use too much signage as it usually doesn't work anyway. Make sure that the forms are located close enough inside the building that patrons are at least forced to come inside and see what is going on. (Think about the supermarket: milk and bread are always deep inside forcing customers to pass by other things to buy) When people ask where the tax forms are located, be ready with cheerful help. A big mistake I have seen in more than a few libraries is a certain attitude that shuts down any further communication. I have even seen huge signs that say "Don't ask for Tax Help". Although professional librarians and attorneys know what this means, everyday patrons now feel that they can't even ask a follow up question.
2. Arm yourself for basic reference.
I use the most current Publication 17 for individuals. Most of the time by using the index you can help folks navigate most common questions. In my experience, most questions posed by patrons can be found using Publication 17. Create a quick referral guide for local tax services in your area. Your local senior center, accounting society might have access to free tax preparation assistance. Don't forget to include any city or state referrals as your area dictates. Don't simply refer patrons to IRS.gov as it is cumbersome. Remember, patrons asking tax questions at the library are probably uncomfortable with technology or are afraid of contacting the IRS. Senior citizens, especially, will want help from live people whenever possible. Create a mantra of how you speak about taxes using phrases like "each tax situation is unique". Treat tax questions as you would medical or other sensitive reference and avoid blanket statements.
Start that conversation about taxes. Offer to make copies or print out information as much as possible. Share that common burden about paperwork. The more harried the person, offer up something fun like DVD suggestion or a trashy novel to take the edge off tax time. Help your patron see beyond the burden of taxes. I often talk about how my father goes to the post office before midnight on April 15 because he doesn't want the government to get his money one minute before it is necessary.
Much of our frustration about taxes is not really the patron's fault. My gripe is that the government (regardless of my order) will send only instructions and then maybe three weeks later, the forms. Or how the state of Michigan doesn't send forms to the libraries until the last minute so they can encourage people to e-file. Yes, my job is to be the bearer of bad news and one more frustration that is now piling up on the average patron. Remember the patron in front of you hasn't heard the explanation you have given a hundred times in the last hour. So take a deep breath and go get yourself a library supporter.
Click here for IRS information about free tax preparation.
Consumer Reports link on Tax Help
AARP Tax Assistance