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TL v62n4: Christy Groves
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Viewpoint: Staff Development

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Loving Our Patrons

 

Christy Groves

The other day, I told someone that if you looked back at my childhood, you could hardly have predicted I would ever work in customer service.  I was shy, hated to tell folks anything they didn’t want to hear and I despised conflict or confrontation.  While not reclusive, I was uncomfortable in any customer service role.  My sense of comfort happened literally in an instant (and quite late), when I was giving a presentation in my MLS Reference class on how to use the print version of Chemical Abstracts (talk about trial by fire).  It was like a switch was flipped and from then on, I felt no distress about being outgoing, helpful, and friendly – it came naturally.

Good thing because I’d have been miserable all these years in my chosen career path.   As anyone who works with patrons knows, there are few challenges more difficult in life than “people challenges.”  As a new librarian back in the late 90s, not only did I have to be comfortable in being outgoing, friendly, and helpful, but I had to rapidly develop a thick skin for working with unhappy or difficult folks.  (I talked about tips and techniques for remaining calm in periods of high stress in last issue’s column).   In fact, some patron interactions earlier in my career served as foundations for my understanding of and ability to work smoothly with users.  I shared in my first column that I like to reminisce, so when brainstorming for this issue’s column, I got a chuckle out of looking back at some very intriguing patrons.  Some were funny, some were disturbing, but all are memorable.  Encounters with these patrons spawned swift review of library customer service policies and procedures – an appropriate response to occurrences out of the ordinary.

I never knew who these folks actually were, so anonymity is guaranteed.  However, a few were assigned a “name” to help identify them:

  1.  “Mr. Cheese Puffs.”  This fellow was a regular library attender in the mid 2000s.  At the time, I worked at an academic library in the Midwest that had just relaxed its food and drink policy.   Mr. Cheese Puffs was not a student, actually.  He came in when we opened in the morning and left late in the evening.  He brought a bag of cheese puffs every day, which he typically ate while sitting in one of our oversized chairs.  Sometimes he could be found dropping cheese puff dust and goo onto our public computer terminals.  It was clear from the trail he left that he was not concerned about the cleanliness of his eating habits nor his hands.  We spent a good bit of time cleaning up after him and money on sanitizing cleansers.  We also revised our food policies.
  2. “Fuzzy.”  Fuzzy, named after his coat, was another community user we encountered while I was working at the same library in the Midwest.  This fellow was a habitual offender of our closing policies.  He typically spent a good portion of his library time feeding dimes to the public copy machines while researching untold topics.  Every night, he seemed to lose track of time and became oblivious to our closing announcements.  The night personnel (who reported to me) devised multiple strategies to politely hustle him through his “just one more chapter” copying routine a few minutes after close.  The library modified its closing procedures in attempt to prevent his never ending photocopying hobby.  He finally got wise to them and wrapped up his copying by closing time.  However, he then began the ritual of copying until closing announcements and then ending his library time (after we were closed of course) in the restroom.  The night personnel then had to regroup for bathroom exit strategies. 
  3. “Hand Sanitizer Man.”  This fellow demonstrated a disturbing lapse of judgment concerning use of hand sanitizer.  During our walk throughs, we found him in an unconscious state in one of our public areas.   He was examined by medical personnel and then escorted from the building by the police.  We were later informed that he had ingested a large bottle of Purell.  There wasn’t really any policy change in response to this one.  It is just a troublesome example of patron oddity.
  4. “The Quiet Saxophone Player.”  B.B. King’s traveling Holiday Ensemble made a stop at my institution in the Midwest one year.  Apparently, some members of his band were working to record various tracks on a holiday record.  I received a complaint from a patron that sax music could be heard prominently on our quiet study floor.  Upon investigation, I discovered that one of the B.B. King band members had chosen a group study room for recording his track.  He told me he felt it would be the best place for him for record since the Library was quiet.   The library modified its quiet study policy regarding where music could be played (or, uh, recorded).
  5. “Bullet Boy.”  After the Virginia Tech tragedy, all college campuses shifted immediately to high alert for potentially violent situations.  Vigilance was dramatically increased in libraries, as well, of course.  One day, a female patron approached one of our service desks white as a sheet and visibly shaking.  She reported having observed another patron handling bullets while seated at a secluded study carrel.  It turns out that the patron simply worked as a night closing manager of a nearby convenience store and had forgotten to remove the bullets from his pocket before leaving work.  He was talked to by the police, but ultimately was not found to be a true threat, fortunately.  The library revised its personnel procedures for handling such potentially frightening situations.

As you can see, the libraries I have worked in invested a great amount of staff resources to update and revise policies for handling these users or in attempt to anticipate other users displaying similar behaviors.  Unfortunately, our patrons are eclectic and although we love them, often we must respond to circumstances we’d never dreamed could occur.  It is important administratively that we continue to closely observe our users, regularly encourage feedback from our front line staff, and craft our usage policies to provide an open and welcoming environment for everyone.  Definitely not an easy task!  It is hard not to simply react to a patron situation, especially if it was troublesome or disruptive when it occurred.

I don’t want to leave the impression that most of my user encounters have been negative.   However, my nature is to remember the less than positive things with a “whew, thank goodness that is over” attitude.  But if I honestly reflect back on my experiences, most library users have been appreciative of the help they have received.   And many times they haven’t been afraid to say so!  Libraries are wise to encourage positive feedback as well as solicit information on how to improve.  Every once in a while the positive feedback is surprisingly over the top.  Lastly, I’d like to share with you:

  1. “Henna Hackles Husband.”  This encounter earned me a marriage proposal.  A man had a bet with a friend over a certain line in a poem.  Neither could remember the poem and weren’t sure of the poet, but somehow after digging around (back before the days of robust online research tools), I found the line he was looking for.  He wanted to know the adjective describing “hackles.”  It was “henna.”  When I gave him the answer, he asked me to marry him because he’d won the bet. 

I guess you can call me “Lady Luck.” 


I would like to dedicate this issue’s Staff Development Column to a cherished friend and former colleague, the late R. Neil Scott, Professor and User Services Librarian at MTSU.  Mr. Scott embodied all of the characteristics of a true librarian.  He thrived through learning, was outgoing and patient, loved to help others, and possessed an innate and compassionate understanding of even the most challenging people.  Mr. Scott dedicated his entire career to communicating the importance of libraries and the research process to patrons of all types.  During the four years we worked together, he shared stories of many similar patron experiences.   Neil, I miss you.


 

Christy Groves is the User Services Coordinator at the Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University. She can be reached at christy.groves@mtsu.edu.
 
 
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