Library Life or Questions Your Professor didn't Prepare You For

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Dealing with Difficult Patrons

As a reference librarian working in a public library, I get to work with an extremely diverse group of people, and 99% of the time, I couldn’t enjoy it more.  However, every now and again, there is a patron who can’t find something and is frustrated, a group of rowdy teens in a meeting room (which is a bit of a problem the week before finals), or someone asking for your input into their personal matters like the time I was asked by a patron if she should get married, and these can be difficult to handle, especially for librarians new to the field.

Unshelved strip for 2/25/2010Dealing with these patrons can be difficult, but there are some thing I’ve learned that really help.  The first, and most important thing, is to review your library’s customer service policies beforehand.  This should have provide you with guidelines for various situations.  However, dealing with an upset patron is very different from dealing with a group of teens making too much noise or a customer whose question really doesn’t have an answer you can give.  Here is a breakdown of some of the best ways I’ve learned to deal with each situation:

  • Upset patrons – in almost all instances, it’s best to remember that often, the patron is not mad at you personally, but at the situation. Smile and say that you “understand how [the situation] can be frustrating” and that you’ll do your best to help them.  By sympathizing with them, you help to deescalate the situation and can then move on to help them.  That unusually works with upset patrons.  If this doesn’t work, you have two options.  If they are simply upset, offer to have your supervisor meet with them to discuss the problem.  If they are actually being disruptive though, tell them in a firm but polite manner warn them that if they continue with the behavior, you will be unable to help them.  This approach usually works about 99% of the time.
  • Teens – Oh to be working at the second floor desk during finals week! Usually the students who use the rooms are actually studying, but sometimes they can get a bit too noisy or disturb other students.  Your best bet here is to assert your authority and tell them in a firm manner that they need to settle down.  This usually works for a bit, but if they continue, inform them that if they continue, they run the risk of losing the room.
  • Unanswerable Questions – When you’re working with the public, you can get a few of these. In my case, the best example was when I was answering a chat and the patron who asked me is she should get married.  I replied that the question was not really something I could answer and then asked if she had any library or reference related questions (I actually suggested to my supervisor that we add a line to our chat script to this effect and was able to use it not even a week later).  This enables them to either say yes or no, or to ask for something, be it a book, DVD, or piece of information, that you can actually get them.

Besides what I’ve learned over the past year, here are some links to some articles that I’ve found that are quite useful:


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This entry was posted on February 5, 2015 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , .
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