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!

7 thoughts on “The Hardest Part of Being a Librarian”

  1. Thanks for this reminder Olivia. Even though I don’t work on the reference desk as much as I used to my office serves as the library’s official complaint desk – and thanks to our great frontline staff I don’t get much traffic. But your suggestions are good ones for any of us at any level. I just wanted to remind readers that they may also find some good ideas for dealing with challenging situations with our past post on “Incivility in the Library” at
    One of the things I thought was most valuable – think in advance about how you will handle a difficult situation.

  2. We’re none of us paid to take abuse. We do get the very rare user who steps way over the line and I’ve used a firm “I cannot help you” and take them to the Head of Public Services. Ours is a very small community and most know me from the classroom. I’m thankful we are not so anonymous here that students feel free to heap abuse on us. And to be quite honest, our most difficult users are those who have no affiliation with our university but want to treat us like an adjunct to the public library.

  3. All excellent points. I tend to remind myself what it was like when I was an undergraduate and I would wait until the last second to write a paper or I had a frustrating professor/assignment. When I remember what lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and stress did to me and my personality, it’s easier to sympathize with students at the desk. I once told a teaching faculty friend that we see the other side of their assignments. We get the stressed out and freaked out students. Sometimes I feel more like a research therapist: I have told many students to slow down, take a deep breath, calm down, and focus. I’ve had to talk them through a tough assignment and the end of semester stress.

    I wouldn’t change a thing, though. I have a strong sense of public service–it’s almost impossible to be a librarian without that.

    I have also had those who stepped over the line. I’ve found that using a strong voice and telling the patron I wasn’t going to take that kind of abuse/tone of voice/attitude usually did the trick.

  4. I do agree that this is when we start seeing a lot of stressed out students. I really like your suggestions to “Be sympathetic, but do not join the student in badmouthing an assignment or instructor. Lead them in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves.” The free-love-dippy side of me will add this quote I hear a lot, which the Internet claims is from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

    However, I also like Ellen’s reminder that we are not required to take abuse. I do sometimes have success with, either through my actions or verbally, letting students know that their behavior is rude. (“Excuse me, but please let me know when you’re done with your cell phone call. I can help you then.”)

    The hardest thing for me is finding that balance on the thin line of “doing my job and helping a stressed out student or faculty member even if they’re a wee bit rude” versus “expecting, as all members of the university commmunity should, respect”.

  5. Thank you! I hope non-frontline managers are reading this! Too often when complaints do reach their desks, I think they forget that some people are unreasonable and staff may have responded courteously and even taken abuse in the transaction. We really don’t need reminders to be helpful. We are! But it might help to know that management is supportive of us in our work dealing with a stressed, and sometimes belligerent, population.

  6. I find it also helps me calm down to remember that the majority of my patrons are processing social input from a more primitive part of the brain. That doesn’t always work in the heat of the “what do you mean you have nothing on [fill in dissertation level topic] in this small college library?” moment, but it does sometimes.

  7. This is great advice. We often find students blowing fuses as it gets close to the end of the semester and we have to remind ourselves of the pressure they are under. I would like to add one more tip though: Pass the Buck. In Circulation we probably deal with difficult patrons more frequently than Reference but I think the way you deal with them is pretty much the same. I find that sometimes we just rub certain people the wrong way. No big deal, just pass it on to someone else. I understand that may be difficult if you are the subject librarian for that patron’s particular assignment area but for more general questions it is more than alright to say “let me find someone who can help you better than I can”. This usually works. Of course, there are always exceptions.

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