Difficult Patron Behavior: Success Stories from the WebJunction Community
In July 2005 WebJunction members wrote in to tell their stories about dealing with difficult patron behavior. Here are a few highlights:
Consistent, clear, and widely communicated policies are the key element in WJ members' successful management of challenging patron situations. Trish Ridgeway of the Handley Regional Library (Winchester, VA), contributed their Safe Library Policy. And Mary Rutherford of the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library (Williston, VT) shares this overdue item policy.
Debora Longo, Library Director of the Somersworth (NH) Public Library describes her library's "patron behavior policy":
This policy sets up a standard that all the staff may use so that we are consistent in our expectations and how we handle problems. Before the policy was put into action, what one person did might or might not get the same reaction depending who was on duty at the desk. Now every person who is 'behaving badly' gets one chance to modify their behavior with the reminder that the behavior is not appropriate in a public library and if they repeat the behavior they will be asked to leave the building for the rest of the day. The patron knows what to expect, and the staff is consistent in how each patron is treated.
Ruth Straith, Circulation Manager ad the Charleston (IL) Carnegie Public Library tells how it dealt with a "rowdy teenagers" problem:
We had a training session with a social worker that gave us some tips on how to re-assert ourselves as the authority figures and reminded us that we have a right to feel safe in our library. The first step was to set up consequences for bad behaviors and since using the computers was their greatest joy being suspended for seven days for every offence was our decision. It was also suggested that we start taking pictures of the offenders so that if it got to a police stage we could identify them. So,we have a digital camera at the desk and have used it.
We developed an incident report form that we fill out with what happened, the given consequence and attached picture if taken. And for the blocking of the main entrance we purchased a bench for the front where they can sit and gather away from the door and we enforce no standing or sitting on the stairs. We also wrote a ‘Code Of Conduct’ for the library and posted it by the computers.
It seemed like it was touch and go in the beginning--an employee was writing a report daily--but when the teenagers realized we weren’t going to accept the negative behaviors any more they started to comply. I believe the training helped in that all the employees knew what they could do in a situation.
WJ member mmccandless suggests the following principle for managing patron behavior:
Our director chooses the following path because it not only keeps good public relations, it saves the circulation staff from the stress of conflict: The patron is always right. Agree with them. Never confront them. Never hint that they are a liar or dishonest. If they claim they returned the item--that's the end of the story. If it involves multiple long over due items, get reference staff. Always offer them a chance to speak to the director if they are not satisfied. Our director refers to 'claims returned' as the cost of doing business just like having to pave roads to keep them serviceable.
Here's an interesting observation from Robert D. Farwell, Head of Reference at the Otis Library (Norwich, CT):
To date, the most important elements in dealing with problematic situations are a combination of firmness, fairness, and respect.
- Firmness involves clear guidelines for personal behavior, which the library has posted, and a willingness to enforce these regulations….The most important element in successfully concluding the discussion is a clear statement of what the problem is and why it is inappropriate or proscribed by the library's policies. A frank discussion leads to a resolution of the incident without the necessity of banning or remonstrating with the person, or involving the police.
- Fairness entails acknowledge of the humanity of both parties, and a willingness to eschew preconceptions about the "desirability" of some patrons.
- The deciding factor in many of these dialogues--and that is most often what they are--is respect. Emulating William James, staff members are reminded that patrons who are treated as flesh-and-blood entities, rather than abstractions (John or Jane Smith as opposed to a "street person" or "a former addict") will respond more positively than those who are "labeled."
Our goal here is not to drive out patrons, but to encourage patronage and appropriate use of the library regardless of individual circumstances. For some readers this may sound too sanguine. In fact not every conversation is civil, and not every patron responds well. People are banned, the police are sometimes involved, and not every incident has a happy ending. That said, an initial talk based on the elements described above, often leads to a mutually respectful relationship between patron and staff.
Two libraries wrote in to describe their experience using security guards as a key element of their "difficult patrons" strategy. Chantal Benson of Timmins, Ontario, says:
After a long, arduous battle we finally got a brand new building to move into that has three times the square footage--only to discover, in the first week of opening, that our patron problems had tripled as well. One particular age group (10-16) was particularly problematic in finding ways to defeat the software we purchased for time-control. They were also very disruptive to other patrons nearby who were trying to work quietly. Our previous location had allowed for us to have more supervision and control over that age group. At the new location, we found ourselves barely able to keep up to circulation, let alone baby-sitting a bunch of teenagers.
The solution to the problem--granted it's not the cheapest--was to hire a security guard to patrol the area during certain times. Our new facilities are part of a complex and the other tenants agreed to share the cost with us since they had security concerns of their own (due to our patrons mind you). Just having someone there that they know is watching them cut back on the problems by 50%. As soon as disruptive behavior was displayed, the patrons in question would be escorted out of the facilities and told not to come back for a determined period of time. This set the precedent for other patrons considering unacceptable conduct. The security guard is here on a contract period and the need for it will be reassessed at the end of the contract. I assume he will be here for a while yet. Staff do not want to see him go!
Helen Whittaker, Library Manager at the Kingsport (TN) Public Library has a similar story:
We finally were able to obtain regular and off-duty police to be in the library most of the hours we’re open. All we had to do was document for several years each incident. When this document was shown to our local political authorities – they were appalled and immediately gave us money for the City to hire an extra policeman for the library (40 hours per week) and to get off-duty police for an additional 20 hours a week. Police “rotate” every 3-4 months the regular officer on duty so their street skills will remain sharp and they don’t get too bored being here. We also updated our policy about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I have written a “ban” letter that is signed and police can use it if I’m not in the building and they need it. We refer to the policy that they “broke” and state how long the ban is for (usually 1-3 months) and date when they can return – and if they return before then, they will be considered trespassing and could be arrested. It also provides them with a hearing process, should they so desire it (our attorney insisted on this).
Stories from the Front Lines
Susan Parrish, Public Information Coordinator for the Cumberland County (NC) Public Library & Information Center, writes:
Those three little words made a world of difference when I worked at the Circulation Desk. Instead of saying, 'You have a fine of $2.50,' say, 'Did you know you have a fine of $2.50?' Somehow it works like magic. It helps to smile when you say it, of course!
And WebJunction member krnewman says:
Wherever possible I turn enemies into allies. I had a patron who was a 15-year-old girl with a pierced tongue. She never read books but hung out every day to use the Gates machines for chat rooms. She had the reputation in town as being from a "bad" family, bad student, troublemaker, JD, etc etc.
But there were two facts I noticed: when she was on her own, her behaviour was perfect. She only swore or fought when other kids were in the library. Also, she a fairly high level of computer skills. So I made her my 'computer helper person.' Whenever a patron needed help and I knew she could handle it, I would have her give the help. And she was good at things like: how to copy a jpg from IE into Word to enlarge it for printing, how to mark a small bit of text on a web site and print just what you want and not the whole page, how to use print preview, sign up with Hotmail or Yahoo, all the stuff that's really useful but takes time to explain. She was fantastic, and took pride in doing a good job. Needless to say, she was never again a behaviour problem.
Need to let off a little steam after an especially challenging patron conversation? The library comic strip Unshelved offers a witty and insightful look at library life--though it's not always clear whether it's the patrons or the library staff who exhibit the "difficult behavior"! And a WJ member and (anonymous) blogger offers a sometimes hilarious, sometimes rather world-weary take on life at the reference desk, in LovetheLiberry.
Why We're in the Biz (aka Chicken Soup for the Librarian's Soul)
Sharon Bandhold, Librarian & Youth Services Coordinator at the Plattsburgh (NY) Public Library, shares this wonderful story:
On a Saturday about six weeks ago, I was on the Reference Desk. A woman about 40 years old came in and signed up for the Internet. She searched for a while by herself and, as it got less busy, it was apparent that she was extremely distraught. She was looking for information on how a colonoscopy was done since she was scheduled to have one the following Monday and was sure that she had colon cancer. (She was having bad physical symptoms and had put off going to the doctor for a re-check for some time.)
I have been a Librarian for 24 years and have never had a patron who was so upset. I helped her find info on colonoscopy in some paper sources and also on the Jay Monahan Ctr of Cornell Medical. However, it was clear that she was not getting good family support and not getting the kind of support she needed from her boyfriend. Our county's crisis center had closed due to lack of funds about four months ago and no other counseling agencies in our city were open until Monday. I called all of the places I knew of to get her emotional help and was able to get her a crisis phone number of an agency in the county south of here.
I asked her to please come back and let me know how she was doing. The following Tuesday she came in, apologized to me profusely for having gotten so upset, and thanked me for my help. She may not have colon cancer after all. It's not often that one gets that kind of reward for doing one's job the way it should be done.
Although helping her to the extent I felt appropriate was time consuming, I ultimately found her what she needed at a time that was quite horrible for her. I also found that, at age 49, I had inner resources I didn't know I had: to keep my cool and give her some reassurance in a difficult situation.
And krnewman offers this bit of inspiration:
When I first started I had a patron, whom I never did meet, who would call in with long lists of books she wanted checked out. She was very elderly and hard of hearing and very demanding, and became confused or cantankerous when I had to explain why she couldn't have a particular book if it was already out or whatever. And she would call at my busiest times. Later, a guy who looked like a deranged biker, who never ever said a word, would pick up the large stacks she had ordered and deliver the returns.
One day she called when the place was not busy and I took the time to chat with her. I discovered that she had no television or even radio and was bed-ridden, that in fact reading was her only pleasurable activity in life. Even getting to her phone and gathering her information together to place an order with me was the result of tremendous effort on her part and in many ways the high point of her week. And she was dying.
Getting to know her, I was able to appreciate more of what she needed, what our relationship meant to her, and how much far she had to come and how hard she had to work to meet me half-way. The first thing we did was schedule regular times when it was not busy, so I could give her calls the attention she needed. I also was able to learn her specific tastes so that I could do so reader's advisory that she appreciated. There were many aspects of her experience of dying that came into it: for example she wanted to re-read books she enjoyed as a girl, and she was particularly keen to read any parts of series that she had missed. And she had very specific needs for health-related books that it had never occurred to her to ask for. I learned a great deal about--I don't know what it's called--'hospice librarianship?' I also learned that behind every 'problem' there is a story, one that probably has the answer.
When she died, it was very sad, but it was also for me the closing chapter of one of the most meaningful experiences I've had working in a library.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License