As the spring semester heads to a close, the amount of traffic at the library reference desk is picking up significantly. Students are needing last-minute help with papers and projects, trying to remember what their professors expect, and figuring out how they are going to complete everything by the due dates. Usually, students are lovely people to work with. Usually I really enjoy helping them, and usually I think they find my assistance very valuable.
Occasionally, though, I am reminded what the hardest part of being a librarian is for me. It’s not working with technology, it’s not having to constantly think on my feet, and it’s not the myriad other job duties: it’s working with difficult patrons. By “difficult,” I mean people who come to the library with chips on their shoulders, who are stressed because they are failing a class or have not gotten enough sleep, or who simply enjoy being in a power position and abusing whoever is sitting at the service desk. It is easy to blame superficial reasons for why people behave this way â€“- it’s the Millennials, the google mentality, etc. etc. — but I am sure there are studies linking stress and aggression and rudeness. The trick for the librarian is not to take it personally and not to redirect it at others.
I would not have become a librarian if I did not enjoy public services, but it is easy to forget how challenging it can be on the front lines every day. Librarians tend to be an introspective bunch, and the ability to remain calm and patient in every single situation is HARD, particularly if someone is deliberately trying to offend or antagonize you.
My point in writing this is not to complain about patrons but to give myself and all of us out there staffing service desks a little pep talk as the spring deluge hits the library. These are things I find helpful to remember:
1) No matter how rude or disrespectful a patron gets, there are always alternatives to losing your cool. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a step back, take a deep breath, and disengage yourself from the situation. Then figure out how to respond professionally.
2) Diffuse. Assist. Try and ignore tone. Focus on the problem that relates to the library, and do not feel responsible for the patron’s other problems. Be sympathetic, but do not join the student in badmouthing an assignment or instructor. Lead them in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves.
3) Go for a walk whenever you get a break. Listen to the birds. Listen to some music. Stare at something pretty. Whatever works.
4) If all else fails, call security. The presence of security personnel usually sobers people up. More importantly, keep in mind that you are not just one individual in a given situation — there are other people to back you up and support you.
Good luck, everybody!