Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Reference Observations Regarding the “Problem Patron”

Every librarian you talk to will have a story about a “problem patron” or two, or seven. These are the patrons who, for whatever reason, want to argue with you, act inappropriately or generally cause trouble. They are present in every library, and every librarian will have a different strategy for dealing with them. Just as we employ different tactics for answering the reference questions of children, “problem patrons” often require special treatment as well.

To clarify, when we refer to a “problem patron”, we do not generally mean someone who is physically threatening to other patrons or staff. Those types (and they are out there, believe me), are actually fairly easy to deal with. As Georgia Ann Clark tells us in her piece in the Law Library Journal “There is only one way to cope with a violent, dangerous, psychotic person: call the police” (52).

She goes on to explain that: “More difficult to handle is the demanding, overbearing, unreasonable user who can wreak havoc among staff with his only weapon - a sharp, vicious tongue and extremely troublesome manner” (52). This is what we generally mean when we talk about “problem patrons”. Now the next question is what to do with them? As I said, every library will have their own strategy, and during my 8 hours of observation at my chosen library, I saw quite a few in action.

While “problem patrons” are in issue in every department of a library, my focus was on the reference desk, and the particular challenges that they face. Over my hours of observation, I saw several different “problem patrons” approach the reference desk with a large variety of questions and complaints. One specific issue that arises when dealing with a “problem patron” is that you don’t know that they’re a “problem patron” right away. The best strategy for this is simply to treat every patron who approaches the desk with respect and courtesy.

A librarian might not know at first that someone is going to be a “problem patron”, but when treating a person with respect and courtesy only draws anger from them, you might have a difficult case on your hands. One of the most common interactions I observed at the reference desk (with regard to “problem patrons”) was a librarian having to deal with a patron wanting to complain about something.

Now, we all complain about things in our lives, but the people that we refer to as “problem patrons” tend to have irrational, illogical or just plain absurd complains. A few that I witnessed at the reference desk include: “the guy next to me is typing too loudly”, “I don’t like something that this website is telling me”, and “I can’t remember my e-mail password, why don’t you know it?” Clearly, these are not issues that the reference librarian can actually do anything about, but the patron still needs to be dealt with in a polite and respectful manner.

So how do we deal with these patrons? In The Customer is Always Right, author Rebecca Jackson tells us that “Sometimes a thank-you is enough. Sometimes just having a listening ear helps dissipate the frustration” (213). Her piece uses the world of business to provide valuable insights into customer service for librarians. I found that many of the librarians I observed used these techniques, sometimes to great effect. A patron who came in upset that his home computer didn’t work found a sympathetic librarian to talk to, and even though she was unable to help him with his problem, just having someone to talk to calmed him down.

There are always grey areas when we talk about “problem patrons”. There are patrons who are not necessarily rude or demanding, but simply take up a disproportionate amount of the staff’s time. While I was at the library, I observed one particular patron coming up to the desk time and time again to have conversations with the staff on a wide variety of topics. He seemed like a nice gentleman, and was always polite, but never actually had any reference-related questions. Instead, he wanted to tell jokes and stories about anything and everything.

This type of patron can be difficult to deal with, as we don’t want to be rude, but might actually need that down-time between reference questions to get other work done. Our job is to be there for our patrons, but a 20 minute conversation about Buddhism and Godzilla (a conversation I actually overheard) might be stretching that ideal a bit. Most of the time, the librarians just humored this patron, and went along with his rambling conversations. Once in a while though, the librarian on duty would politely explain that he/she actually needed to work on a project and he/she would be happy to chat with the patron next time.

I thought this was a great strategy for dealing with this particular type of patron. He was polite and courteous, and responded well to honesty. Many librarians will have to deal with a patron like this gentleman at one point or another. The best strategy here? I think David Issacson puts it best in his article No Problem with Problem Patrons, “The reference librarians were simply treating a lonely man with dignity” (68). Respect is always the best approach, even if you think that, as Issacson also puts it “some very weird people are found in libraries” (68).

Another type of “problem patron” that many public librarians have a lot of experience with is the young adult “problem patron”. In her paper The “Problem Patron” Libraries Created, Mary K. Chelton argues that libraries contribute to this problem by insisting on treating young adults like children (25). She argues that many reference librarians assume that all questions young adults ask are homework related (28), and thus do not always take the same time with the young adults that they would with their adult patrons. I did not witness this at the library I was observing, but I have witnessed it many times throughout my life, and especially my own adolescence.

When teenagers (and other young adults) are treated with respect by adults, they are more likely to respect adults in turn. The library I sat-in at is across the street from a middle-school, so young adults make up a significant number of their afternoon patrons. The reference librarians under my observation took the young adults seriously, and treated their questions with the same respect and courtesy that they showed toward the adults.

As a result, I did not see many young adult “problem patrons” while I was observing. This shows us that one of the best reference strategies in this case is to be preemptive, and help prevent a problem before it starts, just by treating a 13 year old the same way you would treat a 30 year old. Chelton concludes that “viewing teenagers as problems does not need to continue (30-31)” and I agree with her completely. We adults tend to treat young adults and teenagers very dismissively, and then wonder why they treat us with so little respect in return.

There’s one other type of “problem patron” that I observed at the reference desk, and those are the patrons who could be called ‘chronically unhappy’. Nothing you can do will please these patrons, and not only that, but they delight in making you unhappy as well. There really isn’t a simple way to deal with this type of person, as almost anything you say or do will be wrong.

The strategy I have seen employed most often in this situation is for the librarian to simply give the patron whatever they want to make them happy and calm them down.This might be tempting in the short-run, but won’t solve any problems and is in fact setting a bad precedent. For example, let’s say a patron wants to argue about fines on their account. This type of patron will argue with you endlessly over a very small fine, and eventually, most staff members will simply waive the fine. The problem with this is that then the patron learns that the easiest way to get what they want is yell and scream at the staff until they give into the patron’s demands.

In her essay Who Says There’s a Problem? A New Way to Approach the Issue of “Problem Patrons” Shelley Ferrell suggests that “staff might effectively de-escalate the situation through the use of skills such as listening, awareness of nonverbal cues, seeing the issue from the patron's perspective, displaying empathy, and focusing on the library-specific issues” (149) and certainly, this is the best possible approach in this situation. Realistically though, there are some patrons who are never going to be satisfied, no matter how empathetically we listen to their problems.

The last type of “problem patron” is the rare patron who verbally or physically threatens and abuses others. In this situation, there is actually nothing for the librarian to do except to call in local law enforcement, and let them handle it. This (luckily) did not happen during my observation period, but I did hear about an incident from more than one librarian on staff. A few months ago the police were called to escort a patron from the premises. He had verbally threatened and then physically assaulted another patron. His mental condition, and the fact that he didn’t actually hurt the other patron were taken into account in this case, and he would be allowed to come back to the library, after meeting with the director. He had however, not chosen to return at this time.

It is important for us as librarians (and people) to remember that public libraries are open to the public. As Calmer Chattoo suggests in his piece The Problem Patron we might see patrons who “talk to themselves, gesture non-threateningly at other patrons or staff, hum, wear bizarre clothes or speak in tongues” (16). Anyone who has worked with the public in any capacity will recognize a lot of these “types” of patrons, as most of them aren’t specific to libraries. But how they are dealt with can be.

Librarians occupy a unique position as both customer service agents, and keepers of the library’s resources and knowledge. When a patron chooses not to use our library because of something that we have said or done, everyone loses. It is our job to make sure that this does not happen, while balancing our own safety and sanity. I watched the staff at this library interact with a wide variety of patrons, in a wide variety of situations, and I think I’ve learned a few good tricks and strategies to handle (almost) any situation.

First, remain calm, courteous and respectful. You do not know if someone is going to be a “problem patron” and we can often prevent issue before they happen just by being polite. Treat everyone with respect, even if they are “speaking in tongues”, or happen to be younger than you. All of our patrons deserve respect, and if you show it to them, they will show you respect in return. And finally, know when to step away from the situation and get help. You are not going to help anyone by getting involved with a violent patron. Just as you wouldn’t expect the police to answer reference questions, so too they do not want you doing their job. Know when the situation is out of your hands, and act accordingly.

There are always going to be “problem patrons”, and they will always be a part of our lives as librarians. There is nothing we can ultimately do except learn to except these people the way they are, and try our best to accommodate them. It is our job, after all, to provide services to all those who seek them, without judgment and with respect.


Calmer D. Chattoo (2002) The Problem Patron, The Reference Librarian, 36:75-76, 11-22.

Chelton, Mary K. (2002) The “Problem Patron” Public Libraries Created, The Reference Librarian, 36:75-76, 23-32.

Clark, Georgia (1979). The Problem Patron. Law Library Journal, 72, 52-52.

Ferrell, S. (2010). Who says there's a problem? A new way to approach the issue of "problem patrons". Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(2), 141-151.

Isaacson, D. (2006). No problem with problem patrons. Library Journal, 131(1), 68.

Jackson, Rebecca (2002) The Customer Is Always Right, The Reference Librarian, 36:75-76, 205-216.