5 Strategies for Dealing with Problem Behavior

5 Strategies for Dealing with Problem Behavior

by Ruth Harries, Senior Assistant, INALJ Kansas


RuthHarriesI’ve worked in public services for the past seven years, and my experience has been that the majority of transactions with patrons are emotionally neutral. Truly memorable experiences with patrons – whether good or bad – are rarer, but they do happen. Unfortunately, if you work in public services – even at an academic library – chances are good that at some point, you’ll interact with patrons who make you feel frustrated, threatened, or both. These strategies will help when you face the inevitable.


1. Be aware of your library’s policies. Your library should have a policy that lays out what behavior is unacceptable. (If there isn’t one, now is the time to create it!) Some behaviors, such as eating or talking on cell phones, are permitted at some libraries but not at others, or may only be permitted in designated areas of the library, so pay attention when you read through the policy. It’s important to be aware of the library’s other rules as well; being able to point to specific policies related to fines, borrowing materials, etc., can help a frustrated patron to understand that they aren’t being singled out for unfair treatment.

2. Know when and how to disengage. Patrons don’t have to be rude or violent to cause problems; if a single patron monopolizes staff time, it can impact the service you provide to everyone else. We as librarians are good at finding information and helping patrons with technology questions, but there is a point – when a patron you’ve just met wants you to be her job reference, or someone wants you to give him advice on what to write on his OK Cupid profile, or a stamp collector wants you to look up the value of each of the 30 stamps she’s brought with her – when it is unreasonable or unfeasible to fulfill a request. When this happens, it could be a good teaching moment – you can show the stamp collector how to look up her stamps’ values by herself, for example. Be polite but firm. Tell the patron that you need to get back to the service desk, that you have come to the end of your knowledge on the subject, that there is another agency better suited to helping with their situation (be prepared to offer the agency’s contact information), or whatever else seems appropriate.

3. Remember that it’s not (always) personal. Patrons who are upset are often angry at a library policy or procedure, not at you personally. When this is the case, empathy and active listening can go a long way toward defusing the situation. If it does get personal – if a patron exhibits threatening or lewd behavior, curses at you, uses slurs, or makes sexually suggestive remarks – it’s time to tell the patron to leave or to get backup, depending on the situation and your comfort level.

4. Get backup when you need it. If you’re getting overly frustrated with a library patron (or the patron is overly frustrated with you), or if a patron is taking too much of an interest in your personal life, it may help to excuse yourself and ask a co-worker or supervisor to step in. Getting backup also includes calling the police if you feel that the patron’s behavior is a threat to other patrons or to library staff.

5. Create a paper trail. Your library should have a policy about when a formal incident report should be filed (for example, if the police are called). However, it can also be helpful to document less serious incidents. Documenting problem behavior serves two purposes. First, it lets you communicate the situation clearly to your co-workers and supervisor. If a problem patron normally comes in during the morning, for example, communication about their behavior will alert afternoon and evening staff in case the patron breaks routine. Second, it helps you to determine whether or not a patron is developing a pattern of behavior. If there is a pattern of problematic behavior, this could trigger a ban, depending on the frequency and severity of the behavior and your library’s policies.

Dealing with problem behavior is never fun, but following these strategies can help to prevent even more problems in the future. Good luck!

Further Reading

Ruth Harries is the Evening Circulation Supervisor at the Wichita State University Libraries. She holds a BA in art history from Wichita State University and an MLS from Emporia State University. In her spare time, she plays Euro-style board games and reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy. She tweets occasionally.