Difficult Patrons in Your Library
|Artwork by John LeMasney, lemasney.com|
This post is part of the Show Me the Awesome project coordinated by Kelly Jensen, Liz Burns, and Sophie Brookover.
When I was in library school, I was fascinated by articles and stories about difficult patrons in public libraries. Amazingly, it was the first time it occurred to me that people would act anything less than circumspect in a library. I remember thinking “I hope I never have to deal with these issues!”
Fast forward to today. I am working in a large suburban branch library, and our patrons are generally happy to be here, and the most common “problem patron” I might have is someone who’s having a bad day and doesn’t want to wait ten minutes to use the computer.
However, on a busy but fairly quiet Saturday afternoon in March, I was helping a patron locate an item when the sound of someone screaming and cursing at the front of the library reached my ears. Her voice was loud enough that people on the far corners of the building could hear her.
As one of the librarians in charge of the building that day, it was my job to go to the source of the disturbance. “Excuse me,” I said to the patron I was helping, “I have to go see what the screaming is about.” As I turned the corner around a shelf to head to the lobby, I saw that our children’s librarian was also headed in the same direction.
By the time we reached the lobby, the woman was in a screaming match with two other patrons. My co-worker placed herself in the middle of all of them, just in case a fight was about to break out. I walked calmly towards the young woman who was the center of all the commotion. She was using every curse word in the dictionary and her voice was so loud it was echoing around the building.
I approached her slowly. I reached my hand towards her, (although I was very careful not to touch her at all) and whispered “Let’s go outside.” She immediately dropped her volume, but was still trying to get some digs in at the other patrons. I repeated “Let’s go outside.” and she turned and walked out the front door with me. I remember feeling shocked that she listened to me and followed my lead.
Once outside, she calmed down immediately and I was able to get some understanding about what had happened. She had walked into the library while talking on her cell phone, and one of the front desk employees asked her to finish her call outside. This set her off and she started cursing at him and anyone within a ten-foot radius. The two patrons she was yelling with were trying to get her to leave the building, too, but screaming back at her only made her more angry.
“I know it’s wrong to act that way in the library. I shouldn’t have done that. I just get so mad when people tell me what to do.” she said. We talked about how everyone has to follow the same rules in the library and that my coworker had asked her to comply with a reasonable request. I told her she couldn’t come back inside the library that day, but she could visit any other day so long as she could control her temper. She thanked me and said “Maybe I’ll bring my little boy back one day.”
You never know if interactions with patrons are going to be positive or negative, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can only control yourself. People may scream at you, berate you, or become upset about what you’re telling them, but your reaction to it is within your control. When I feel an interaction turning sour, I set an intention to remain calm and to maintain the dignity of both the patron and myself. It doesn't always work out as well as I'd like, but the main thing is that I keep trying to provide a positive experience for people who enter our doors.