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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