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

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.

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Library in Action

   December 8th, 2009 Brian Herzog

This photo from the Manchester (NH) City Library is almost a year old, but I love it:
Help at Reference Desk

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Serve the Community or Serve the Individual

   October 27th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Can't see the forest for the treesI know that as a library, we are here to serve the community. But on a day-to-day basis, I don't work with the community, I work with individual people.

Are the two mutually-exclusive? This is all just rhetorical thinking on my part, but two interactions this month brought this dichotomy to light and got me thinking about it.

Situation 1
In my library, patrons are allowed to use a computer for one hour (or longer if no one is waiting). A patron came in to complain to the Director that our computers are full all the time, which makes it hard for him to use one. His complaint is that often, he sees kids playing games or checking Facebook for hours at a time, and he is frustrated because he wants to spend half the day looking for a job.

Situation 2
A patron who does a lot of historical research asked if we could digitize our collection of Town Annual Reports - and not just scan them, but OCR them so the text is searchable. That is, of course, a huge project, and we are in the process of indexing all historical town records, but due to limited resources, we're not going to get to the annual reports any time soon. She got agitated when I explained this, and told me "the Library is here to serve the residents of Chelmsford, and I AM CHELMSFORD."

So, what is a librarian to do? In the first situation, the bottom line was that the patron wanted us to stop other patrons from using computers for hours at a time so that he could use a computer for hours at a time. In the second, the patron wanted us to scrap our project timeline for improving access to all Town records for all patrons so we could focus on the records she wanted.

The problem seems to stem from point of view. The library's point of view is to serve all patrons equally, as faceless members of the community. The patrons' point of view is that they want whatever subset of our service they're interested in right now, without consideration to how that impacts other patrons.

Situation 1 - Fail/Win?
On the surface, perhaps looking for a job is more important than playing games or chatting with friends - but should it be up to the library to make that call? If someone "checks out" a library resource, be it by taking home a book or by using one of our computers, they are pretty much entitled to use it for whatever they want, so long as they don't damage it.

This means that if someone checks out a book and uses it for the three-week loan period to prop up a broken table leg, they are entitled to do that. Similarly, if someone spends their hour on the computer playing games, that is their business. Libraries make information and resources available, not police how patrons put them to use. But to the first patron, us not kicking someone off a computer so he could (ironically) do the same thing they were doing is not providing good service.

Situation 2 - Fail/Win?
When the second patron said that "She is Chelmsford," my first response (which I managed to keep to myself) was, "yes, and so are 32,000 other people." We have to make decisions that best serve the community, and with a project like this, we're thinking long-term. We just don't have the resources to do what she wants.

But instead of doing nothing, we're doing what we can, and eventually we'll be able to digitize the records she wants. This project will not only improve access to our collection overall, but will also help to preserve it for future generations. Put like that, we're serving the community - but from her point of view, we're totally failing to serve her needs.

I know it's always a balancing act, but it's tough to tell a patron they are no more important than every other patron - that seems like the opposite of good customer service.

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Top 10 Patron Pet Peeves

   June 2nd, 2009 Brian Herzog

unshelved comicUsually I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and I really do enjoy my job. But I thought I'd share a list of the top 10 things that patrons do that can really irk me.*

Not that I expect every patron interaction to be perfect and wonderful, of course; these are just a few things that make bad days worse. I tried to limit this list to things unique to libraries, and this list (which ended up being longer than I expected) is in no particular order:

  1. Patrons who don't wait in lines When I'm helping someone at the reference desk, common sense tells me that if another person walks up, they'd stand behind the person I'm helping to wait their turn. However in practice, instead of lines, people tend to form huddles. They will stand almost next to the person I'm helping, and if a third person walks up, they stand next to the first person on the other side. This bothers me because it eliminates all privacy for the first patron. I've also noticed that the longer people have to wait, the more they inch closer to the desk - to the point where they tap their keys on the desk, or volunteer answers to the first patron's question. I always try to make eye contact with people and tell them I'll be right with them, but they often take that as an invitation to ask their question - even if I'm on the phone.
  2. Patrons who don't end phone calls with "goodbye" I suppose this isn't necessarily limited to libraries, but I've never experienced it anywhere but while at work. I'll answer a patron's question, there will be a little awkward silence, and then I'll start saying something like, "is there anything else I can do..." and halfway through I just hear <click>
  3. Patrons who won't stop asking their question long enough for me to answer Maybe this one is due to patrons thinking their question is very complex, when in reality it's not. After the first sentence or two I'll have an answer or resource for them, but they keep elaborating and explaining and I can't get a word in edgewise. I don't like interrupting people, but sometimes there is no other option.
  4. Patrons who stand in front of the printer This only bothers me when someone comes to the desk and says the printer is broken. Fair enough, it happens. So they ask if I can fix it, and lead me over to the printer. But then they proceed to walk right up to the printer and stand in front of it, blocking me from getting to it. I can't fix it until I can touch it, and more often than not, I actually have to ask the patron to move. You'd think, you'd think, this would be common sense.
  5. Patrons with no cell phone etiquette Cell phones aren't banned from my library - we just ask people use them politely. Here's one cell phone conversation that I overhear repeatedly:

    [Patron is sitting at a computer, when suddenly some horrible digital song starts playing Very Loudly from their bag. After a minute of struggling, they finally get their cell phone out and answer it:]
    I can't talk right now, I'm in the library.
    No, I can't talk...
    ...I'm in the library.
    I don't know, later.
    No, I can't talk...
    I can't talk...
    I don't know, maybe Bob.
    I'm in the library, I can't talk.
    I'll call you back.
    Around 3, and Bob and Mary.
    How about Taco Bell?
    Look, I'm in the library, I'll call you back.
    I can't talk, I'm in the library.
    The library.
    I can't talk.
    I'll call you back.
    Okay, bye.
    I'll call you back.
    Okay, bye.

    So here's my question: if you can't talk because you're in the library, why do you even answer the phone? And of course, they never turn the ringer down, so a few minutes later their bag is blaring again. Sigh.

  6. Patrons who try to hide that they're using a cell phone Again, my library allows cell phone use. But some patrons come in and try to hide that they're on their cell phone by holding their whole hand open over the phone. Maybe we're just supposed to think they enjoy touching their cheek and ear simultaneously, and looking at desk staff out of their corner of their eye. The good thing is that these people are always speaking quietly, but it annoys me that they think they can get away with something by hiding it.
  7. Patrons with bad closing time etiquette I'm sure any public place that closes at a certain hour has people that come in a minute before closing time. We certainly do, and we also have patrons who stay on the computers right up to closing time. That's fine, I can deal with those patrons. But the patrons that really bug me are the people who get up off their computers a few minutes before closing time, and then while I'm trying to do all my closing time tasks, stand at the desk and talk to me about the other patrons who are still on the computers, and how they make it harder for us to close the library because they just refuse to leave. I guess they just miss the irony of the situation.
  8. Patrons who are passive-aggressive I work in a medium-size library, and while we have a good collection, we certainly don't have a book on everything. For instance, a patron will ask for a book on the megalodon shark. We won't have a book just about that, but after searching through indexes, I can find information about that shark in a more general dinosaur book. It's exactly what the patron needs, but their response is something like, "well, I guess it'll work, but too bad you don't have a book just about megalodon sharks." I also get the feeling sometimes that people blame me personally for not having written a book on their topic - the history of their house, how supportive families are when a child is born in Peru, etc.
  9. Patrons who have a book's call number or title written on a piece of paper, and ask if I can help them find it, but hold the paper so they can read it but I can't Eventually patrons graduate from this habit to setting the paper down on the desk. But invariably, they set the paper down facing them - which actually is fine, because I've gotten quite good at reading upside-down. But what I can't do is read in-motion, and this is a drawback because as soon as the patron realizes the paper is facing them, they start spinning it and moving it so that it faces me. While nice and considerate, it'd actually be quicker if they didn't.
  10. Patrons who say I should have been a teacher I usually hear this after I finish showing a patron how to do something on a computer. I know they mean this as a compliment, but it sort of implies that being a librarian is unfortunate somehow. I'm a librarian because I want to be a librarian; if I weren't, then I wouldn't have been here to show them all the stuff I just showed them.

Petty and nit-picky, I know, but there you go. I'm sure I missed a couple, so please feel free to vent your annoyances in the comments.


*Be sure to read David Lee King's post about being nice to patrons online. I completely agree with his point, but have a feeling he would not approve of this post.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/08

   December 6th, 2008 Brian Herzog

toy gunThis week's reference question is a series of interactions over the course of about twenty minutes. To get the full impact, I need to give some basic background on the patron.

This patron is one of our regulars at the library. He is a special needs patron, and often asks for help with spelling and things like that. However, he is a savant when it comes to anything having to do with horror films/actors, superheros and comics. Also, every so often, he lets us know he's looking for someone to hangout with, by which he means a girlfriend.

One day, he comes to the desk and asks,

How do you spell white?

I write it on a slip of paper for him, and he goes back to his computer. A few minutes later, he comes back and asks,

How do you spell girlfriend?

A few minutes after that, it's

How far away is Florida?

I try to describe it to him, and then show him on a map. Basically, the bottom line is that it's too far away to walk to, which disappoints him. He then tells me this:

I met a girl on the internet, and she's nice. She lives in Florida, and she's a sheriff. She said she wants me to get a fake gun and handcuffs and come to her house and pretend to kidnap her, and then she'll go out with me. Isn't that cool?

I was kind of stunned. Professionally of course, I can't tell him what he can and can't do. But I did give him a lecture about being careful about who he meets online and what he tells them. I also told him that showing up anywhere with a toy gun is dangerous, but he kept telling me it would be a fake gun.

Thank goodness Florida is too far to walk. I honestly don't know what I would have done if he told me this and the person was close enough for him to walk to. It feels wrong to call someone, but he could get shot or who knows what doing this.

Librarians can't monitor patrons' lives, but when a special needs person volunteers this kind of information, I do think it is our place to intervene to keep him safe. With this particular patron, I usually just need to remind him that his mom would be angry with him is she found out, and that's a good deterrent. Otherwise, I'm not sure what I could do.

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What is Necessary, What is Possible

   November 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library Hierarchy imageA little while ago, I got the idea to visually represent the official relationships that exist around a public library. Turns out, it was more involved than I thought, and the resulting figure wasn't what I initially conceived.

This came about during a conference I attended. I was thinking about library services, and why some good ideas get implemented while others don't, and why libraries offer some things that seem to be of no use to anyone. This started me down the path of getting to the root of "why" and "how," which I came to refer to as "What is Necessary" and "What is Possible."

The figure shown here is what I came up with (and evidence of my mad graphic design skills). The center triangle are the relationships between the public library (in blue, in the middle), the people we serve (on the top) and the people who serve us (on the bottom). The two big arrows on either side are the flow of needs and reality - somewhere in the middle the public library is trying to reconcile the two.

What is Necessary
Reading from the top down, the needs of our patrons are basically what drives everything that goes on in a library. Be it helping kids with homework, finding recipes, or preserving historical information for future generations, the needs of our patrons are What is Necessary for the library to provide.

To meet these needs, we can fall back on various groups that are in place to support the library (bottom of the triangle):

  • if we need funding, we can request it from the various funding sources (state, local, Friends, etc.)
  • if we need to alter library policy, we go to the Trustees
  • if we need an improvement to the catalog or interlibrary loan service, we bring that up with the library network
  • if we don't know how to deliver a particular service, we should be able to look to the wider library world of the State Library or various library associations for guidance

All of these groups are in place to serve the staff of a public library. Ideally, we tell them what we need in order to meet the requirements of our patrons, and they provide it.

What is Possible
But of course, we're not just handed everything we ask for:

  • the realities of local and state funding place limits on our budget
  • the wisdom of our Trustees keep library services in line with community values
  • being part of a library network means my public library is one voice among many other cooperating libraries
  • State Libraries and library associations can't always help, or aren't up-to-date with the latest software, vendors or services

It is the role of the library to take what we can get, and do the best we can with it to meet the needs of our patrons. Sometimes this means offering limited or abridged services, or services that sort of do what we want, but aren't ideal (i.e., the current state of downloadable audiobooks). But even by working within the constraints placed on us by the groups that support us, we should always strive to provide patrons with services tailored to meet their needs.

And then patrons tell us what their new needs are, and we go back down the chain, and the cycle continues.

The Public Library
In this model, the library is at the center of everything (leave it to a librarian to develop a bibliocentric view of life). I represented the public library on the triangle as both a single entity and also individual parts (I know libraries are more complex than this, but I was going for the basics). I did this because I see the same type of relationship structure within the library as without:

  • the frontline desk staff works with patrons, so they often know best how effective library services are
  • administration and support staff are consulted to change policies or procedures, and can be tasked with finding an appropriate tool to address a need
  • the IT staff are generally the people who enforce reality, in terms of what is technically possible within the limits of the library

Regardless of how a need is first identified, it usually flows around these relationships until it is either implemented or abandoned.

So, What's the Point?
Not that any of this is rocket science, or isn't discernible by anyone else that works in a library. I think I did this as an exercise to illustrate patron-centricness. When it comes to library services, everything we offer should be addressing a need from "up the chain." Offering services just because we can, or because it's something being pushed on us from "below," doesn't justify that service. If a service doesn't address a patron need, then should we really be offering it?

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