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

The Patron Whisperer (+ contest)

   August 12th, 2010

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “The Patron Whisperer (+ contest)”

  1. Chelsea Says:

    It could be a version of distancing language… a humorous example of which can be found here: http://www.zefrank.com/theshow/archives/2006/05/051106.html

    A little different, but the idea is the same – someone is to blame, but it certainly isn’t me!

    And of course, drama and improv is all about the “yes, and” approach – if you say no or but, the scene is shut down. I think that goes for our daily conversations as well!

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Swiss Army Librarian » The Patron Whisperer (+ contest) :: Brian Herzog [swissarmylibrarian.net] on Topsy.com Says:

    […] Swiss Army Librarian » The Patron Whisperer (+ contest) :: Brian Herzog swissarmylibrarian.net/2010/08/12/the-patron-whisperer-contest – view page – cached Swiss Army Librarian is a blog by Brian Herzog mostly about library and technology issues relating to public libraries Tweets about this link […]

  3. Friday Link Round Up « ellie <3 libraries Says:

    […] The Patron Whisperer (+ contest) […]

  4. Michael Says:

    I generally prefer the Response B style.

    However, regarding your third example: Our county public library system has 20 branches and several thousand public PCs, most of which are over 6 years old…most of which chronically freeze up and need rebooting.

    Since I must have this apologetic conversation multiple times each day, I have decided that library advocacy calls for me BOTH to offer Response B AND to offer an apology which educates the customer about budget issues.

    I’m polite as possible, yet I know that our public has ill-informed notions about library budgets and city revenue…and they keep voting for more tax cuts.


  5. Diana Says:

    Just happened across this post and it occurs to me that in some cases Response A can work to build a shared experience (“you and me vs the world” mentality). I’m not saying I advocate this in all situations, though, but in situations where a little less formality is acceptable it could work to create a little bonding humour.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    I think you guys are right – there will never be a single right answer, because it will always depend on the situation. I guess the important thing is for staff just to be aware of what how they’re coming across, and to keep in mind that whatever they’re doing, they are the face of the library.

  7. Liz Says:

    I want to say, thinking back lo those many years to my Psych and Marketing classes, that what you illustrated above is a form of positive framing, or phrasing a statement in such a way as to avoid blame or cast any person/thing in a bad light.

    That’s probably way more general than what you’re looking for, but it’s the best I could do with a fried back-to-school brain. Good luck!