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TL v60n4: Ann Clapp
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 60 Number 4  



It's My Opinion!

Staff Development

by  Ann Clapp


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But I’m special…

‘Tis the season for excuses and special exceptions: “I really need to renew this DVD that has just over five thousand holds on it . . . I shouldn’t have to pay my overdue fine because my son is at Harvard . . . But the paper is due tomorrow . . . Why can’t I sell Chia Pets in the library? . . . Yes, I dropped the book in the toilet, but I’ve donated all my collector copies of National Geographic to the library, so we should be even . . . Do you have any idea who I am???”

Anyone who has to deal with patrons or students or faculty knows that we all love (and sometimes expect) exceptions to the rules.  Exceptions are sometimes appropriate, such as a patron grieving a loved one who could not get back to return his DVDs on time, or in the case where we have made an error (as rare as that may be).  Front-line staff members need to feel empowered to make these common-sense exceptions so that we don’t look heartless or not too bright. 
In other cases, though, staff members must toe the line and insist that everyone follow the same rules.  As library employees, we tend to be very good at rule-following, perhaps even zealous.  This zeal, however, does not translate into great customer service.  Cries of “It’s our policy” rarely persuade anyone, especially if we are feeling irritated at the time.  Many times, we take demands or requests for exceptions too emotionally.  Yes, it may be that we are creating an entire society of entitled people that signals the fall of civilization as we know it.  Probably not, though.  The patron has a perceived problem and wants us to help solve it.
If we feel an emotional response along the lines of wanting to beat the patron with the policy manual, the best approach is to give ourselves time to cool down.  “I really need time to consider how this exception would impact others; may I call you back with an answer?”  Alternatively, “I need to talk to my supervisor/co-worker about the best way to handle this question.  I will be right back.”  I have even used this phrase, placed the patron on hold while I ate chocolate (since there was no co-worker), and then returned to the line a much nicer person.
First, no matter what the answer, apologize for the trouble.  Apologizing does not mean accepting any blame; it just shows that we care.  “I am sorry that the renewal policy is not working for you in this instance.”  “I am sorry that you are having a hard time finishing your paper.  I know that’s stressful.”  “I’m sorry you have the frustration of a child who loses things.  My child once lost a cello.”

Then, explain the full reasoning and ramifications as appropriate.  “Because we have so many patrons who have been waiting their turn for this DVD . . .”  “Since Tennessee law is very specific about minors and the internet . . .” “We try to be fair to all of our 35,000 patrons and therefore cannot make a special exception for patrons we especially like (which has the added benefit of flattery)”

Finally, offer at least two potential solutions to the problem (if at all possible).  “I can put your name back on the holds list so that you get it soon.”  “Of course I would never tell anyone this, but the overdue fine is only ten cents per day.”  “We have wonderful databases to help you complete that paper.”   “If you want to add your email address, we can notify you before an item comes due.”  “I can renew the item one more time to give you a few more weeks to look for it, if you would like.”

The apology, explanation, and alternative solution helps a patron to feel heard.  Will every patron be ecstatic?  No, but they will certainly be happier than if we shove the policy manual at them.    

Ann Clapp is Head of Reference at The Brentwood Library, Brentwood, Tennessee and is the co-chair (with Dinah Harris) of TLA’s Public Relations Committee.  Before coming to libraries, she served as a district manager for a retail bookstore chain.  Interested in free library training materials?  Please visit the Library Skillbuilders website at


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