Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Revisiting Difficult Patrons


I've discussed difficult patrons in the past, but in that post I was talking about people who are awkward or emotionally overwrought or out-of-sorts. My context then, as it is now, was an academic library. The advice I'm about to give might not apply in other kinds of libraries. Heck, it might be expressly against the rules, so check with your boss(es) before you do anything I've suggested.

Before I get into my advice, though, I want to tell you a couple of stories about difficult patrons I've had in the past, over the course of my career. Also, and this may go without saying but I'd rather be upfront about it, I've changed and/or left out personally identifiable details where possible.

Up first, the sportsball team. I've actually had similar interactions with football, basketball, and soccer teams, so saying "sportsball" is as much about protecting identities as it is about an umbrella term to capture the experience. If you've worked on an academic campus with a popular sports team, you can probably predict what I'm going to say. The athletes came into the library on a regular basis. Study hours are frequently a required thing for student athletes - after all, student is the first and more important part of that phrase - and the library and/or tutoring center is a good place for this to happen. Only problem with this is that they didn't always have work to do even though they always had to do the hours. With nothing else to do, they talked. They got loud. They collected people the way an electromagnet collects spare paperclips.

This led to:
  • Discussions and reminders that if they wanted to talk, there are other parts of the library available where that wouldn't disturb others. Verdict: completely unsuccessful. Had to do this repeatedly throughout the same evening or afternoon.
  • Sending a staff member who read as male to have the same conversations. Verdict: more successful than when I did it, but still not a true solution.
  • Jokes about, "don't make me call your coach." Verdict: this would usually quiet them for the rest of the time period - afternoon, evening, etc. - but it wasn't a permanent thing.
  • After a particularly difficult day, when even sending a male staff member only quieted them for 5 minutes, actually contacting their coach. Verdict: this was a permanent solution. Getting to this point was kind of a nuclear option, but we'd gotten repeated complaints from other students and hadn't found anything else that worked.

Up next, the angry teaching assistant. I'll tell you up front that it turned out to be a miscommunication between the professor and their teaching assistant - a minor one, at that. The TA came to the front desk of the library, and I'm not sure how the conversation started, but I was walking by and overheard this individual getting aggressive, so I inserted myself.

This led to:
  • "Is there something I can help with?" This is how I insert myself when I sense a tense situation anywhere in my library. Verdict: successful in that it brought the TA's attention off of the (if memory serves) student worker and onto the full-time staff member.
  • A lot of back and forth with the TA where I tried to pin down exactly what it was they wanted, to inform them it was not something the library did, and to suggest another department at that school that would be able to fulfill that need. Verdict: very unsuccessful. Even though I remained calm, used open body language, and stayed on topic, the TA got increasingly agitated and even started cursing at me about things.
  • "I won't talk with you unless you can be civil. And if you can't be civil, I'll also have to ask you to leave the library." The TA walked off in a huff. I would have called security, but I didn't need to go that far. Verdict: Very successful. The TA came back later to apologize and explain the miscommunication. Please note I might not have been this direct if I hadn't already known the TA.

Finally, the community member. I've worked at multiple libraries that allowed computers to be used by people who aren't attached to the school in any way other than they live in the same municipality. In this case, the difficulty was not as overt as either of the two cases above. This person was having difficulties with a particular thing on our network, and they weren't satisfied with the speed at which our IT department was addressing the issue so they asked to speak directly to me, the director.

This led to:
  • Vague threats about appealing to someone above me. I responded by making my own vague threats about changing the policy that gave this patron access to our space and resources. Verdict: partially successful. I needed to let this person know that I cannot be bullied, and this was the first step.
  • Walking away as soon as the initial conversation was over. I gave this person's concern attention, but not a single drop more than was warranted. Verdict: partially successful. Sometimes these kinds of things end up being attention seeking behaviors, and I didn't want to feed into that.
  • Communicating with appropriate staff both in and out of the library. Of special importance was that I spoke with my boss, since she was one of the people the patron had threatened to contact. Also of importance was that I brought security into the loop. Verdict: very successful. I took these steps mostly to help my own piece of mind. 
  • Documenting everything. If this person escalates, I need to have a paper trail to support the need to have this person banned from campus. Verdict: very successful.

In each of these interactions, I took responsibility for what was happening. As the director, it's my job to deal with the angriest of the patrons, but you won't always have someone higher up around to help. Common themes from each of these incidents:
  • I did my best to diffuse without backing down.
  • I had and was willing to fall back on contingency plans. 
  • I never took it personally, even though in each instance there was definitely a moment of the difficult patron making some sort of personal insult/attack.

Sure, each situation is different, but you have to have a way to approach difficult patrons. How about you? Have you had any difficult patrons? Had to anyone banned from your library?

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