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




An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy

   March 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

For the last few years at my library, our public computers all looked the same - Windows XP with a custom wallpaper displaying instructions on how to print. Our setup looked like this:

Wallpaper with printing instructions

A month or so ago, we upgraded to Windows 7, and thought we'd also change the wallpaper.

Our goal in this was to improve patron privacy. The timer software we use is Time Limit Manager (TLM), by Fortress Grand (the little "Time Remaining" clock at the top of the screen above). I like this software because it is very customer service oriented, and patrons don't need to log in with a barcode to start their session - they can just sit down, click "I Agree" to our policies, and go. The timer is basically a courtesy reminder, and for the most part we can get away with using the honor system (TLM does offer additional features for when push comes to shove).

But the main problem we were seeing wasn't that people wouldn't leave the computer - it was that patrons weren't ending their session when they left the computer. This set up the scenario where a second patron could come along and just continuing using the session of the previous patron.

This never caused a real problem in my library, but the potential was there, so we thought the upgrade would be a good time to address it.

With the Windows 7 rollout, we designed new wallpaper, hoping to prompt people end their session when they were finished with the computer. The new wallpaper looks like this:

Wallpaper with privacy reminder

The result? Absolutely no change whatsoever.

I didn't do a scientific survey, but just from the number of times staff has to end the session at an abandoned computer, the privacy reminder didn't seem to affect anyone at all.

I can't believe people aren't seeing this message, so it's tough not to conclude that, at least in my library, most patrons don't care much about their privacy.

So, I wanted to ask the question here - what do other libraries do to get patrons to end their session?



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk

   June 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

checklistIn library near me, the Director did most of the reference work. When she announced her retirement, the staff was worried about having to do reference themselves, until a replacement was found.

She emailed me saying she had just read The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, and asked for my help in creating a "reference checklist" for her staff - hopefully, it would help them cover all the bases when helping patrons at the Reference Desk.

I haven't actually read the book (although did read lots of reviews when it was published), but I think the general idea is summarized in this quote from the New York Times review:

In medicine, he writes, the problem is “making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.” Failure, he argues, results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).

This is also true of reference work. Some sort of checklist or decision tree is probably covered in most library school reference text books, but I thought I'd take a crack at it. Of course, any checklist like this could vary widely by library, depending on available resources, but the following few questions might help make sure all bases are covered consistently:

Are you sure you understand the question?

  • Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions and to restate the question in your own words to make sure you and the patron are on the same page

Is the patron looking for a specific item?

  • It's okay to use Amazon to verify the spelling of an author's name or title, and Novelist or other websites to check titles in a series. Once you know what you're looking for, be sure to check the local catalog, other libraries in the network, and also the state-wide catalog (if you have one) to interlibrary loan the item if necessary. If it's nowhere to be found, should this item be purchased? (refer to your Collection Development policy)
  • If the patron is comfortable with it, many books are now available online through Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other ebook sources

Is the patron looking for a subject?

  • Use the catalog to find the right Dewey range so the patron can browse the shelf, and see where other libraries have cataloged their books on this subject
  • Remember to also check
    • other collections (Reference, Young Adult, Childrens, Oversized, Vertical File, Special Collections, etc)
    • research databases (especially for homework research or very current information)
    • the library's website (for subject guides, readers advisory, web links, etc)
    • general internet searching to find public websites
      • remember also to search government websites - add site:.gov to Google searches to limit to government websites
    • if you're in the right Dewey section but there are no books on the specific topic, look for a general book on the subject and check the book's index for your specific topic

Is the question about something local?

  • Check the local newspaper, local websites (especially newspaper and municipal websites, as well as meetup.com and yelp.com for socializing and events), printed brochures and fliers available in the library, event calendars, etc. Remember also to ask coworkers, as they may have heard of something or be involved with it

Is your answer still “no” or “I don't know” - what else can you do?

  • Is the problem that you're in the right place and the information is just not there, or that you can't think of where to look? Keep the patron informed, but don't waste their time - there is nothing wrong with referring them to a larger or specialized library, another Town office, or organization that is more likely to have the resources to answer their question. Be sure to give them contact phone numbers/email address/web address/driving directions/operating hours
  • Ask a coworker or supervisor for help
  • Take the patron's name and number and offer to contact them when you find something

A strategy I use to try to make reference interactions go more smoothly is this:

  • Sometimes it's hard to find the answer with the patron hovering above you watching and waiting. If possible, get the patron started on looking in one area, and then go back to the catalog/database on your own for more thorough research

And to make future reference questions better, here's a checklist about patron interactions in general:

  • Have there been a lot of questions on the same topic? If so, is there a way to make this information more readily available for future patrons?
  • Pay attention to what kind of questions make you uncomfortable, and then ask for training or explore those areas further
  • Remember to show patrons how to do something, instead of just giving them answers. It's also okay to think out loud when working on a question - explaining why you're consulting the resources you are, or why books are in a certain spot in the library, will help the patron and possibly make you think of something you may have otherwise forgotten.
  • Look around the Reference Desk - things within reach are probably there for a reason, but can also be the hardest to find if you don't know where they are
  • Remember to review applicable common tasks and policies, such as booking museum passes, helping with printing, turning everything on/off

This could definitely be distilled more. At the same time, no checklist will cover every patron interaction, but should at least get people started down the right road. And I'm sure I missed things - what are more tips to give staff new to the Reference Desk?



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 6/13/10

   June 19th, 2010 Brian Herzog

pron computerOne of the complaints I have with my library are the questionable architectural decisions made when the building was designed - lots of glass, so even small sound echos a great deal, aisles that are blocked because fixtures stick out to far, not enough meeting space, etc.

Another quirk is our Quiet Study Room - it sits at the end of the Reference collection, next to one of our computer areas. Half the computers face it and half face away, and whoever is in the Quiet Study Room could look up and see a lot of computer screens (but so can anyone walking by).

One afternoon, the phone rings, and the patron says,

Hi, I'm in your study room right now. I can see the computer screen of the first guy right outside the room, and he's been looking at graphic porn for ten minutes.

Most of the time we get porn complaints, it's after the porn viewer has left, so there's not much we can do about it. When we're able to "catch someone in the act," I print our Computer Use Policy and hand it to them saying something like,

Another patron objected to something they saw on your screen. This is a public building, so please remember that anything appearing on your screen must be suitable for children who might accidentally see it walking by.

I did that in this case, and then went back to the Reference Desk. A few minutes later, the phone rang again:

Hi, this is me, in the study room. Thank you for talking to him - he stopped looking at porn.

Her calling back made me laugh, but I hope she wasn't continually monitoring what the guy was doing.

Lots of porn stuff recently - to read what other libraries do with porn offenders, check out Unshelved Answers (my answer is there, too), and of course the Foolproof Porn Filter from earlier this week. Also, check out the Blackbelt Librarian's tips for handling difficult patrons.

Hmm - maybe we should just install a hotline in the study room for people to report porn offenders.



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,



Bad Advice Serves as Good Reminder

   May 25th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Erasing PrivacyA recent Miss Manners column gave advice to a library patron who wrote about a library employee repeatedly reading aloud the titles of the books patrons were checking out.

I, and others, commented (more here) to suggest better ways of handling the situation, but it is truly sad that this situation happened in the first place. From what the person writing in said, this staff person does this all the time - this behavior is certainly not appropriate for the circulation desk, and should have been corrected by the library administration long ago.

Even though the advice provided wasn't helpful, this is a good reminder for libraries to review their privacy policies - both to see if it is up to snuff and to remind staff why this is important. Check out the ALA's resources on privacy:

Somewhat related (in my head, anyway), is The Other Librarian's post of Ten Reasons Why 'Professional Librarian' is an Oxymoron. I don't completely agree with it, but they are valid points.

via LISNews, LibraryStuff



Tags: , , , ,



Secret Social Networking

   May 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Seen in this week's Post Secrets:

Post Secret - Library Receipts

I've thought there was an unusually large number of checkout receipts left in books, and maybe this is why. Although I usually keep the things I find around the library, checkout receipts are one thing I always throw away.

But what if we did offer some sort of in-book messaging? Maybe a sticker with a link to the library's record of the book on LibraryThing or Goodreads, telling people they could discuss it there and meet other people who liked it. Or better yet, remind them to write a review in the library's catalog, along with an opt-in social feature (I wish we had that functionality, but maybe soon).



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,



MLA2010: Black Belt Librarians: Dealing with Difficult Patrons

   April 28th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Warren Graham teaches how to handle different kinds of difficult patrons, from bad-day-having, irritable, cranky ones to those who may have serious mental health issues and pose a safety risk. Warren will teach you how to:

  • Inform patrons of rules in a way that will most ensure compliance
  • Say "no” in the most effective way
  • Recognize levels of emotion that a patron may have and identify strategies for responding
  • Stay safe
  • Control your work environment

Speaker: Warren Graham, is a nationally recognized trainer and consultant, with 17 years experience as the Security and Safety Manager for the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. He is the author of Black Belt Librarians: Every Librarian's Real World Guide to a Safer Workplace.


The essential elements of library security

Three most important things

  1. Some people feel it is wrong to deny anyone access to a library and its collection, including disruptive patrons. However, by allowing disruptive behavior, you are denying free and comfortable access to the patrons around that disruptive patron
  2. The inmates should not run the asylum (you should be in charge of the library environment)
  3. Librarians deserve respect, and staff should not take abuse from uncivil patrons

Patrons get themselves ejected from the library - the responsibility for acceptable behavior is on the patron. The baseline is that we have rules for library use, people need to follow those rules, or else they can't use the library.

How to make this work (and not get sued or yelled at):

  • An enforcement policy needs to be simple. Patrons need to know it, but staff needs to be able to follow it in a crisis situation
  • Everyone needs to be trained
  • Policies need to be fair, and should accommodate what patrons what to do. Give patrons lattitude, but be clear in the gray areas
  • Treat everyone the same. Kids should not have a different set of rules from the adults

Any library environment can be controlled. Must haves:

  1. Library must have rules (and it should be simple - don't need to have everything written down, ie - don't need a "no prostitution" rule). All you need is a rule that says "No disruptive behavior" and let the activity and behavior - and how it affects other patrons - draw the line.
    A word on "Welcoming Rules" - which sign works better:

    • No cell phones allowed (with cell phone inside of a red-slash-circle)
    • Welcome to the library, for everyone's comfort, please do not use your cell phone in the library

    The first one works better - people just need to know the information. It is clear and concise.

  2. Rules must have enforcement guidelines. If you don't allow sleeping, how many times do you wake someone up before some consequence kicks in. Do they get five warnings before they're kicked out? No warnings? What if you are kicking out the same patron every day? Do they get banned for six months? Staff must be consistent - and they must be backed-up by library management.
  3. When you enforce rules, everyone needs to be treated based on activity, not appearance. Staff need to be careful of language - patrons can hear what they say, so don't refer to patrons with negative or disparaging language
  4. We must be consistent in rule enforcement. Patrons need to get the same story and treatment from all staff. If you don't allow something, never allow it.
  5. Staff need to understand that safety is up to them - not security staff or cameras - and they need to increase their own environmental awareness. Follow 30-30-30: for the next 30 days, stop every 30 minutes, and look around for 30 seconds. Where are you, what can you see, what is happening?
  6. Must have a way to document problems, so trends can be used to justify budgets.
    1. Have an incident report - be simple, accurate and quick: what happened, why you responded the way you did
    2. Use a notebook to record number of times you correct patrons' behavior
    3. Keep a Potential Problem Log: at top of each page, write the patron's name (or accurate [and clean, non-offensive] description) and behavior. On the rest of the sheet, keep track of the date and staff person who have addressed this problem. This helps to follow-up on suspicions, and also keeps staff communicating about the work environment
  7. Have staff training. And then, hold staff accountable.
  8. Have a good relationship with local Police. Make sure they know you have procedures that you follow, and when you call them, you really need them. Also, have contacts at schools, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other community services.
  9. Most libraries need a fundamental camera system - at least who is coming and going through the door (to see if someone walks out with a child, to record someone's image getting thrown out)
  10. You have to have the right managers in the right positions. You cannot have too-passive managers in a branch with problems. At the same time, managers at the top cannot lose touch with what's going on on the front line service desks
  11. Have a periodic review of policies and procedures, and change them when necessary - and they will need changes from time to time. You can look to other libraries for examples, but no two libraries are the same - location and clientele make a bit difference
  12. For everyone to remain safe, there has to be adequate staffing. No one can ever work alone anymore. If you have security staff, they should be library employees rather than contractors - they will be better trained and more accountable, and understand that library security is totally unique. Security staff should look like an authority figure (with a uniform that fits) and professional, and should be trained in self-defense

In general...

  • libraries that require patrons to log into a computer with a library card and have a time limit
  • libraries that require patrons to be doing something library-related while in the library

...have fewer problems that those that don't.

How to (safely) approach a stranger and get them to comply with policy

Things to remember when telling someone they can't do something in the library (no matter what they're doing wrong)

  1. Approach people with a confident frame of mind. Know your policy, the patron is in the wrong, and you're doing your job by enforcing the policy
  2. Start off nice with patrons, and then get tougher - you can't do this in the other direction. A good way to open the conversation is, "I know you didn't see the sign, but..." You're not there to assign blame, just correct a behavior, and this gives them an out. Also, don't apologize for yourself or for policies - the rule is there for a reason, and apologizing makes it sound like you don't believe in the policy and opens the issue up for debate
  3. Exercise a prudent caution when you approach people - you cannot judge people by their appearance or the situation. It is smart to keep an obstacle (desk, chair, something) between you and an upset patron. Always maintain personal space (your arm's length is the rule), and you never need to touch someone unless you are defending yourself or a child. Never tell someone "no" and then turn your back.
  4. Be ready to be accused of bias, discrimination, or profiling. The patron may have been a victim of bias before, but chances are they are trying to throw you off and get away from the issue at hand. Be confident and follow through, because if you treat everyone the same and follow library policies, you have nothing to fear
  5. Teens are a different case. How to tell a kid "no"
    • Remember most kids are good kids - they just don't know how to act in a library. It is okay to tell them no and give them boundaries (kids get this everywhere else, especially school)
    • Appearances mean nothing with kids - they follow fad fashions
    • What kids can do depends on the physical teen space in the library
    • Many problems are caused by staff's dislike of kids
    • It is good to know the kids' names, but it's hard (perhaps the school can supply a yearbook to put faces to names)
    • Don't give the kids free reign - at least acknowledge them like you would any other patron
    • If necessary, ask them to leave like anyone else

How to approach a sleeping patron:

  • Keep the table between you and them
  • Speak in a soft tone a voice
  • Approach them as if there is a health concern (you don't know if they're in a diabetic coma, passed out, etc.)
  • Do not touch them, but lightly knocking on the table is okay
  • Inform them that sleeping is not allowed, or that their snoring is disruptive (or follow your library policy)
  • If you cannot wake the person, call 911

5 Questions to ask yourself (and to think about while interviewing people)

  1. Am I passive or aggressive by nature?
  2. Am I emotional or a thinker by nature?
  3. Am I introverted or extroverted?
  4. Do I like people? (if your answer is no, you can still work with the public, but you need to know this)
  5. Do I like my job? (people do get burned out)

Last thoughts:

  • Never go outside with a behavior problem, and don't chase people into the parking lot
  • Try not to get emotional with these problems (know who you are, and your ego - ego can be more dangerous than anger)
  • Before you take action against someone, be sure you have the right person

Question and Answers

What do you do when a patron tries to pick up a staff person or gives them too much attention?
Ask the staff person if they feel comfortable telling the patron they're not interested. If not, the manager must say to the patron, "I know you're not aware you're doing this, but you're making [staff person] uncomfortable, and it's keeping her from doing her job." It is then up to the patron to respond, and it needs to be according to acceptable behavior.

At what point do you call the police?
If a patron refuses to leave, or is acting erratically. It is up to you to decide how comfortable you are handling the situation.

What are some techniques to maintain psychic distance from a patron who is always a problem and just their presence puts staff on edge?
The butterflies you feel when you see people like that is a natural fight-or-flight response. When that kicks in, you can tap into mental reserves that you normally don't use. If you can hone in on that extra mental capacity, you will be able to figure what to do in that situation.

Do teens always test their limits, and how do you treat them the same as everyone else?
Teens acting out are often covering up some feeling of inadequacy, so they do deserve an extra warning or two. But if they turn around and be disruptive or aggressive, they should face the same consequences as anyone else. They can have three warnings, unless they're too disruptive and don't deserve it or you can't afford it.

How do you handle kids who scatter to avoid being talked to?
You have to find each one of them and talk to them. And when kicking some one out, they should get kicked out for one day, 30 days, six months. Having too many levels of banishment confuses people.

What about patrons who deny they've done the behavior?
If you know that they've done it, that's good enough for the library. Denial is their tactic to derail you.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,