or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


The Patron Whisperer (+ contest)

   August 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Unshelved comic stripI'm not sure what got me on this, but all week I've been thinking about the language library staff use with patrons, and what we're able to convey beyond the actual words we use.

I'm sure I learned about this in various customer service workshops in the past, and I'm also sure there's a name for it, but I can't remember what it is. It seems to be most relevant when there is a problem or staff has to correct a patron for violating a policy - in those cases, the words we use can go a long way to either help diffuse or inflame the situation. Here are a couple examples of what I'm talking about:

Example 1: A patron asks for help locating a book that the computer says is Checked In, but when the staff person goes to the shelf with the patron, the book isn't there.

  • Staff Response A: "It looks like someone put the book in the wrong place; let's go back to the desk and request it from another library."
  • Staff Response B: "It should be right here, but is definitely missing; let's go back to the desk and request it from another library."

Example 2: A patron walks by the desk eating a hamburger, which violates the library's no-food policy.

  • Staff Response A: "They don't allow food in the library, you'll have to throw that away."
  • Staff Response B: "Could you please finish your meal outside before you come into the library?"

Example 3: The computer a patron is using is extremely slow.

  • Staff Response A: "Yeah, these computers are really old, so you'll just have to wait."
  • Staff Response B: "I'm not sure what the problem is, but you're welcome to move to a different computer or I can reboot this one for you."

Alright, these aren't great examples, but here's my point: in all the Response A's, the patron is getting the message that someone is to blame, whereas the Response B's provide the patron with a solution without any passive-aggressiveness.

This is probably a major sociological interpersonal communication issue - whether it's better to give someone a neutral third-party "they" to focus their displeasure upon, or to dissipate the anger by working on a solution rather than assigning blame. I suppose it varies depending on the level of emotion involved, but I personally prefer the Response B approach, because it addresses the cause of the problem, rather than symptoms.

Let's have a contest!
Librarian's Book of Lists, by George EberhartSince I can't remember what this type of phrasing is called, I can't look up examples or tips on implementing it. So I was hoping that other library staff could suggest some common patron interactions, and some good wording to handle the situations.

I posted this as a question on Unshelved Answers, and whichever answer there gets the most votes over there will win a copy of The Librarian's Book of Lists, by George M. Eberhart. It's an interesting book, and not just because it includes my list of 10 Patron Pet Peeves.

Even if you're not interested in the contest, please do post any wording suggestions you have - I'm really interested in the subtleties of language (like the difference between "yes, but..." and "yes, and..."), and this is something that can be practically useful to a lot of people. Thanks.

Update 8/20/10: Congratulations to Jeff from Gather No Dust - his suggestion got the most votes, so he wins the book. Thanks to everyone, and be sure to check out the suggestions at Unshelved Answers.



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