by Michele Frasier-Robinson, Head Editor, INALJ Oklahoma
Before I was a librarian, I naively believed that academic libraries did not face the same problem patron issues that are so common to public libraries. I was wrong. We have had our share of incidents—a few of them quite alarming. I have witnessed unassuming patrons morph into demanding, irrational, and threatening patrons if they did not feel that their complaints or requests were being handled properly or in a timely manner.
What defines a problem patron?
It depends on who you ask and what your library policies are. Every library and every situation is different. Problem patrons can range from the harmless guy who loiters at the circulation desk, to the loud, aggressive woman who threatens to attack a fellow student for interrupting her studies. Likewise, the literature seems to support various definitions as well. But not every problem patron is a genuine problem. I recently read an article in which the author refers to some patrons as “sub-problem patrons.” According to Robertson (2013), a “sub-problem patron” is one “who causes problems whose solutions are usually not worth the effort.” You know who they are: the student with chronic body odor (the one you get so many complaints about), or the eccentric professor with the booming voice who stops to speak to almost every student and member of the staff as he wanders through the library. I agree that this type of patron is not a real problem. Posting a library code of conduct usually takes care of most minor issues, but working as a public services librarian means you will frequently encounter the “sub-problem patron.” Consider it part of the job. It ensures that there is never a dull moment.
But what do you do about the problem patron who is excessively rude, disruptive or even violent?
It is essential to have guidelines or policies in place for dealing with the real problem patron (and “sub-problem patron” on occasion). The most important thing to remember is to remain calm. Be professional at all times. Do not raise your voice and never talk down to the patron. Do your best not to react when they question your authority or insult you. Never touch the patron and do not try to stop them if they are attempting to leave the library. Contact campus security or dial 911 if necessary. It is also a good idea to let co-workers know when you are going to deal with a real problem patron. Most importantly, if you feel that someone is dangerous, do not approach them alone—get a co-worker, security personnel, or a police officer to accompany you. If the offending behavior is particularly frightening, make sure all staff members are aware of the situation and have a description of the patron in case he/she returns to the library.
Properly informed library staff is often the key to preventing minor situations from escalating into serious incidents. With guidelines and policies in place, and all library staff on the same page, dealing with problem patrons can be less of a headache. Almost every library employee I know has his or her problem patron story. What is your story and how did you handle the situation?
Robertson, G. (2013). Into Every Professional Life, a Little Moon Will Shine: Dealing with Sub-Problem Patrons. Feliciter, 59(1), 27.