Category Archives: Public Services

Is There A “Rescue Plan” At Your Library

There are two kinds of academic librarians. The ones who immediately knew what this post is about, and those who have no clue. Until a short while ago, I’d have put myself in the latter group. That was before I attended this conference session on the topic of staff development. The speakers demonstrated a method for getting staff engaged in discussions about non-technical matters in the library – what you might call the soft skills needed to succeed with community members and colleagues while being able to skillfully defuse difficult situations.

So the conversation turned to an experience nearly everyone who has worked in public services – or at a public service desk – has had: the difficult patron [Personal Note: I’m not a big fan of the phrase “difficult patron” but that’s the terminology used by the session presenters; many of us prefer not to use it but on the other hand it offers a convenient and perhaps less derogatory way to refer to this particular individual]. It could be the person who always has a problem, the person that wants to get into an argument with you, the person who never stops talking to you and doesn’t pay attention to your need to get work done, or perhaps it’s all of the above. There are any number of strategies for dealing with these situations. But up until then I had not heard of the “Rescue Plan”.

I don’t think you’ll see the Rescue Plan mentioned much in the library literature. The goal of the Rescue Plan is to extricate yourself from a situation involving a difficult patron by pre-arranging a diversionary or escape tactic with your colleagues. It might work something like this:

The patron who just wants to talk to someone: “Say, did you happen to hear about [insert news or sports topic]. Isn’t that something else. I remember about twenty years ago…”

Librarian trapped by Difficult Patron: Sees colleague walking by and gives the secret signal for a “rescue” [eye wink, hand gesture, raises a designated book, etc.]. A variation might be having a speed dial on the phone that calls the back room.

The patron who just wants to talk to someone: “That was when the police officer asked me why I had left my house keys with Uncle Joe in the first place…”

Librarian trapped by Difficult Patron: “Oh look, my co-worker needs to talk to me” – or some variation on that where the person making the rescue comes out to the desk and says something along the lines of “The boss needs to talk to you” or “You have a student asking for you on the phone in the back room” or anything that creates an interruption that forces the difficult patron to stop their assault.

What surprised me is the number of librarians who claimed to use the Rescue Plan or a variation on it at their library. What further surprised me is how many of them thought this practice was a great idea for dealing with the difficult patron. I’ve been in these situations myself. I know it can be stressful, frustrating and difficult all at the same time. I can understand the circumstances that would motivate a library worker to want to flee the difficult patron, but as I listened I couldn’t help but feel something wrong about this disingenuous tactic. I have to believe we can deal with these situations in a more positive and productive way.

A more honest and forthright way to tackle this particular patron would be to have a designated person, perhaps the director or department head, take the patron aside for a private conversation. This presents an opportunity to calmly explain that public service workers have jobs to attend to, and even if no one is asking them for help at the moment they may have a project to work on – and that it’s inappropriate behavior to socialize with them for an extended length of time (be specific – e.g., no more than a minute or two is acceptable). Explain that others who need help may avoid the service area if they see someone else there talking to the library staff member.

You may disagree with my suggested strategy for any number of reasons, one of them being that trying to have a rational conversation with some difficult patrons just isn’t an option. No matter how patient and understanding you try to be it just fails to get them to change their behavior. That’s when more stringent measures are needed, such as referring the patron to the library user’s code of conduct and indicating that failure to comply could result in being banned from the library. Another challenge might be that the library organization lacks strong leaders who are willing to tackle these challenges in a transparent and open way, and who are content to let the Rescue Plan do their job for them. Despite some of the challenges it presents I think my approach, in the long run, is more likely to solve the problem by meeting it head on.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve primarily worked on the front line, and I know how challenging it can be to work with the public, especially when in difficult budget situations we may have fewer staff, more hours on the service desk and a greater amount of stress. Used sparingly, I can understand the attractiveness of the Rescue Plan. Used excessively I can see potentially troubling cascading consequences. But as I listened to the conversation about the Rescue Plan I couldn’t help but feel that deceptive measures are best avoided. They may work a few times, but will likely fail to resolve the original problem in the long run.

What do you think? Is the Rescue Plan a legitimate strategy for dealing with difficult situations, or are we better off to confront the difficult individual (or group) directly? Can you share an entirely different strategy that has worked for you and your colleagues in these situations?

Reflections on Service

By now I’m sure everyone’s seen Thomas Benton’s article in praise of academic librarians in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s getting a lot of link love in the blogosphere, and was in the top five most viewed and emailed articles on the Chron’s website early this week. I love being a librarian and reading positive things about librarianship, and I enjoyed reading Benton’s piece. The whole article’s worth a read but a few sentences near the beginning sum it up nicely:

[M]ore than any other class of professionals in higher education, librarians possess a comprehensive understanding of the scholarly ecosystem. They know what’s going on across the disciplines, among professors and administrators as well as students. No less important, they are often the most informed people when it comes to technological change–its limits as well as its advantages.

The article’s comments were mostly positive, too, but scanning through them there was one in particular that caught my eye. The commenter suggests that faculty and administrators value librarians because of the work we do for them which, in this commenter’s mind, equates librarians with “glorified research assistants.”

One of the reasons this comment struck me is that it speaks to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Librarianship is a service-oriented profession — service to our patrons, whether faculty, students, or staff, is a core value for many academic librarians. We want faculty and students to ask us questions about library and research resources.

However, sometimes it can be a fine line to walk between facilitating access to and use of library resources, and slipping into an assistant role as mentioned by the Chron commenter. Does our goal to assist with research in our institutions ever cross the line to acting as a research assistant? What does “service” really mean in an academic library?

Going Through The Motions

Have you ever attended a presentation, sat through a class or lecture or possibly watched a music performance and afterwards felt that the speaker, instructor or performer simply sleepwalked through the whole thing? I’m sure all of us have at one time or another. It can be a real challenge to constantly motivate yourself to get excited to the level of delivering your best – whatever it is you are doing. It could be answering a question at your reference desk, teaching an instruction session or leading your colleagues through a meeting. Are you giving it your best and trying to make it as engaging as possible for the other person or are you simply going through the motions in order to get it done? Are you reminding yourself that even though you’ve done this a thousand times it may be the first time for the other person?

Earlier this fall I traveled to Georgia to give a keynote talk and a breakout session at a library conference. The breakout session was scheduled for 9:00 am the morning after the talk. After picking up the computer projector and speakers I needed (this was a set-it-up-yourself situtation) I proceeded to my designated room. With about 30 minutes to go before my talk I figured I’d relax in the back of the room, and then have 10 minutes at the end of the current session to get set up for my breakout. What I found there was unlike any presentation I’d come across at a library conference.

It was like stepping into the children’s department at my local library. Mr. Science had transformed a convention center room into his personal discovery center. Who was Mr. Science? Imagine a man dressed up in a lab coat with a crazy fright wig and some clown accoutrements; sort of like a kid’s mad scientist. With an elaborate backdrop, loads of props and books galore, I simply asked myself, “How on earth will I get set up for my session if he ends at 8:50 and I start at 9:00?” It looked like it had taken the better part of an hour for him to get his gear together and I guessed it might take half as long to break it down. But I decided not to fret about it and just relaxed and tried to pass the time. But an odd thing happened. I found myself really engaged with Mr. Science.

Now it could it be that I have the attention span of a child, and thus was perfectly suited to short skits with bad puns with eye-catching, magic-like tricks and illusions. Each one ended with a plug for a book which is a nice touch. But I think what grabbed my attention is that Mr. Science was putting everything he had into every moment of his program. I don’t doubt he’d done these corny tricks and told those bad jokes a thousand times before, but I could easily imagine a K-6 child seeing and hearing this all for the first time and being completely engaged and wowed by the experience. Even the big finale – yes – the old pull a rabbit out of a box trick – (anyone but a child could easily see where the rabbit really came from) – was performed with incredible enthusiasm. Then it was all over. Despite my satisfaction with Mr. Science I told him, no, he could not leave his stuff there while I ran my breakout session.

So what can we learn from Mr. Science? I can only imagine how tough it must be to deliver a presentation to an audience of children. Sure, we academic librarians must contend with some students who are distracted by their texting and web surfing, but what if they just got up and left or started acting out if you failed to keep them engaged. Most college students will just stay politely bored with you. Since we can’t pull rabbits out of hats we need to get the students engaged in their own learning. But beyond that each librarian educator must make a commitment to avoid simply going through the motions. If Mr. Science is a good example then bringing all of your enthusiasm to each meeting with students and faculty opens up the opportunity to create passionate users. Is this an easy thing to do? Not at all. It’s hard work. So how do you bring your A-game to every instruction session and presentation? That sounds like a future post, but if you have some tips to share please leave a comment.

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

The Hardest Part of Being a Librarian

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 –- 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!