Monday, January 17, 2011

Handling problem situations

It’s not a problem that we have a problem. It’s a problem if we don’t deal with the problem.

Mary Kay Utech

By the end of this module you should be able to:
* Recognize and deal with problem or potential problem situations.

Required readings
Hidy, John. “Tips for Dealing with Problem Patrons.” Video. Indiana Video Information Network. 2 Jan. 2001. 9 Apr. 2001
View this 7:32 minute video if at all possible. 56k connection recommended. Requires Real Player software.

Rubin, R. J. “Defusing the Angry Patron.” Library Mosaics. (May/June 2000)

Society is changing at a rapid pace. Often this change is driven by technology. The changes that are occurring in society show up in libraries as well. What then are some of these changes and their consequences?

Coping with technological change can lead to feelings of frustration and anger. Take a minute to think about how technology has affected your own daily life. Voice mail is common, as are cell phones. We use automated banking machines. We go to the library and look up print materials on automated catalogues. We use computers to access databases and the Internet. We have to remember pass codes for such things as our bank card, or our phone calling card. While we have become accustomed to such changes in a relatively short period of time, I am sure we can all think of instances when we became upset and frustrated because we had to deal with a “machine” and were not quite sure how to use it. Have you ever been in a grocery checkout line and forgotten the code for your debit card when it came time to pay? How did it make you feel?

If you sometimes feel frustrated by the pace of change think how it must be for others. Deinstitutionalization and factors, such as government cutbacks and erosion of social services, have resulted in increased numbers of people suffering from a variety of problems trying to make their way in society as a whole. Family breakdown, economic necessity, etc. has created the phenomenon of latchkey children. In addition, public access to the Internet has brought its own set of problems, ranging from altercations over refusal to vacate terminals when time limits are in effect to inappropriate viewing behavior, to battles over filtering.

We often associate problem situations with public libraries, especially those located in urban areas of the United States. The phenomenon of homelessness, poverty, deinstitutionalization, government cutbacks, etc. is not exclusive to the United States, however. We in Canada are experiencing much of the same (see Mandel, Charles. “Homeless Patrons Pose Challenges for Libraries.”) Neither are problem situations exclusive to public libraries. They can and do occur in all types of libraries. Adding to the problem are the legal issues surrounding actions libraries might take.

Questions of the law as it applies in the United States are quite evident in ALA’s Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures Regarding User Behavior and Library Usage. No comparable document has been developed by the Canadian Library Association. Where Canadian Libraries have developed policies regarding user behavior, reference is often made to conduct in contravention of the Criminal Code.

We must remember, however, that although much attention focuses on the so called “problem patron,” a variety of problem situations may arise in a library. Examples include:
  • fire
  • infrastructure failures, e.g.
    o heat
    o power
    o water
  • injury or sudden illness of a patron or staff member
  • natural disasters, e.g.
    o flood
    o tornado
  • bomb threats
Libraries should have written policies, perhaps in their disaster preparedness or emergency procedures manual, covering such events. Staff should have regularly scheduled training in procedures to follow when they occur.

Problem patrons
Libraries in general and public libraries in particular are open to all. Free access, however, brings with it potential problems. Of most note is the “problem patron”. The Ontario Library Service’s Library Board Orientation Kit defines a “problem patron” as
A user whose behavior disturbs the normal functioning of the library. Problem patrons include those whose actions annoy others, persons who use the library for purposes other than reading and study, and individuals who deface library property or remove library materials from the premises without checking them out.
Bruce A. Shuman in “Down and Out in the Reading Room: The Homeless in the Public Library” (9) presents the following classes of problem patrons.
Class IClass IIClass III
(very serious)
Who Knows?
(serious but...)
(annoying but harmless)
sexually deviant
emotionally disturbed
committing arson
child molesting
rule breaking
belonging to the group
highly emotional
zealous, preaching
"acting weird"
politically incorrect
physically ill
bringing pets
continually pacing
time monopolizing
loud talking, laughing
whispering, humming
amorous (consensual)
As we can see from the above list, there are a wide variety of behaviors and situations, ranging from the annoying to the dangerous. Most often it is staff working in front line positions such as reference, circulation and shelving who must initially deal with problem situations. In order to do so effectively and within a safe and legal framework your library should have written policies and procedures in place with which you are familiar.

The introduction of public access to the Internet generated numerous articles in library journals and the popular press. Some focused on the positive aspects of Internet access, but many others focused on the issue of pornography. Libraries in general were quick to respond to concerns and many developed acceptable Internet usage policies. The Canadian Library Association adopted a policy statement on Internet access, and the issue of filtering became, and still is, a topic of controversy.

Fewer libraries, and particularly Canadian libraries, seem to have widely known written policies on acceptable patron behavior in general, available for viewing over the net. Public libraries that do include such policies are the Regina Public Library and the public library in Barrie, Ontario The Vancouver Island Regional System under section 4.1 of its Board Policy manual also sets forth “rules of conduct” [p.38].

Canadian university libraries with specific codes of conduct for library patrons viewable on the net include Queen’s University, and the University of Toronto

Common to all the public library documents are statements regarding the supervision of children, prohibition of smoking, and of animals (except for service dogs), as well as posting of notices, and soliciting, or selling items without prior approval. The Regina Public Library document is formatted as a bylaw and specifically states:
Patrons shall not exhibit rude or disorderly behavior while on Public Library premises by making undue noise, physical disruption, being intoxicated, being verbally abusive, engaging in sexual misconduct or harassment, stalking, voyeurism, or otherwise interfere with another’s use and enjoyment of the Public Library pursuant to The Criminal Code where applicable.
The University of Toronto document has a list of thirteen prohibited activities which includes:
In academic libraries some of the common problem situations that arise are:
  • Students who have left completion of a library based assignment to the last minute and find needed materials are checked out. This situation may lead to verbal abuse of staff.
  • Faculty who try to intimidate library staff into bending rules because they see themselves and their work as more “important” than rules (e.g. asking you for the name of the person who has an item out on loan that they want). Refusal to do so may lead to verbal abuse and/or threats of going over your head.
In addition, more serious incidents such as stalking or flashing are a possibility.

Public libraries too have their own problem situations such as:
  • Unattended children.
  • Street people who may be smelly, drunk, on drugs, mentally ill, etc.
  • Sexual deviants such as pedophiles, and flashers.
  • Self important people who because of their position or who they claim to know feel that the standard library rules should not apply to them.
  • Lonely people who monopolize staff time.
Knowing what behaviours are unacceptable is only one part of the “problem patron” issue. The other part is how you as a member of the library staff should deal with it. Dalhousie University Library’s Social Sciences & Humanities Services Policy Statement provides three guidelines:
  1. Do not argue with the patron. Remain calm and polite and resist any temptation to exchange words regardless of the provocation. Listen to the grievance. If it cannot be resolved, refer the individual to the Head of Social Sciences & Humanities Reference Services or other appropriate library staff.
  2. Be familiar with, understand, and be able to explain library rules, regulations, policies and practices.
  3. Exercise patience in dealing with a person who feels that rules, regulations, policies or practices do not apply to him/her, explaining the reason for their existence and the importance of consistent adherence to them.
Safety for ourselves, our patrons and our co-workers is a paramount concern when faced with a problem situation. We must be able to distinguish between what is a nuisance behavior and what is threatening. In terms of handling problem situations the following are some general guidelines.
  1. Assess the situation.
    • Listen carefully and determine if action is required. If so, then
  2. Respond quickly.>
    • Ignoring a situation in hopes that it will go away usually doesn’t work. It just allows the problem to become greater.
  3. Take precautions.
    • Have a backup plan in place e.g. alert other staff members their help may be needed; if alone, ensure you have a clear path to the exit.
  4. Remain calm and courteous.
    • Speak slowly and clearly and don’t raise your voice.
    • Do not argue but keep focused on matter at hand.
    • Avoid use of homour, sarcasm, or personal remarks.
  5. Allow a person to vent verbally if possible.
  6. Offer a choice of actions or alternatives if possible.
  7. Respect personal space.
    • Keep your distance physically.
  8. Be aware of your body language.
    • Stand slightly to one side not directly in front of the person (a non confrontational position).
    • Avoid hand gestures that might be interpreted as aggressive.
  9. Do not physically touch a patron.
    • Never try to restrain or detain a person by physical means.
  10. Use common sense.
  11. Document the incident.
A potentially serious incident which resolves itself favourably should not be dismissed and forgotten about. The situation could arise again with a not so favourable outcome. All incidents should be documented preferably on an incident report form. Check the following sites for sample incident report forms:

Health and Safety Homepages. “Sample Incident Report Form.” 21 May 2002.

Cleveland State University Library. “Incident Report.” 21 May 2002.

Waukesha Public Library. “Incident/Accident Report Form.” Problem Behavior Procedures. 1 May 2000. 21 May 2002.


In their book, Communicating Professionally, Ross and Dewdney state: “The communication skills that are most useful in problem situations are listening; nonverbal skills including tone of voice and gestures; confrontation; and giving directions – to both users and staff” (127). They go on to say: “Confrontation is a skill that works well for changing behavior that is unacceptable or disruptive but not dangerous” (127). The method they describe is known as DESC, and is one they see as being highly useful with students who are misbehaving.

The DESC technique was developed by Sharon Anthony Bower as a method for solving interpersonal conflict. The acronym stands for:
DescribeDescribe the other person's behavior objectively.
Use concrete terms.
Describe a specified time, place, and frequency of the action.
Describe the action, not the "motive".
Express your feelings (or Explain why the behavior is not acceptable).
Express your feelings calmly.
State feelings in a positive manner, as relating to a goal to be achieved.
Direct yourself to the specific offending behavior.
SpecifySpecify how you would like the behavior to change.
Consequences State the good consequences as well as the bad consequences or punishment from complying or not complying with your request.
The following scenario is an example of how the DESC technique can be applied to an unacceptable situation.
DescribeYou have an open soft drink next to the computer terminal.
Explain/Express As you can see from the posted signs, the library has a policy of no food or drink anywhere in the library except in the lounge.
SpecifyPlease take the drink to the lounge to finish it.
Consequences Once you have disposed of the drink, you may come back to the terminal. If you do not take it to the lounge I will have to ask you to leave the library.

Sometimes it may be necessary to repeat the scenario if the patron has not complied.
DescribeI see you still have an open soft drink next to the computer terminal.
Explain/Express You are violating the library policy of no food or drink anywhere in the library except for in the lounge.
SpecifyPlease leave the library now.
Consequences If you do not leave I will call security.
Further information
There are numerous documents available on the Web that deal with the issue of problem situations. Some that contain practical advice and tips which you might wish to look at are:

Edwards-Alrich, Barbara. Problem Patrons & Situations Training Module. 25 Sept. 2000. 21 May 2002.
Contains seven problem patron scenarios and responses plus crisis prevention tips. Derived from a staff training session at Southern State Community College.

Indiana State University Library. “Problem Patrons and All That…” General Policies Manual for Student Assistants. 27 Feb. 2001. Contains practical suggestions for dealing with a variety of situations front line public services staff may encounter.

Yale University Library. “Guidelines to Respond to Problem Behavior.” 12 mar. 2001. 21 May 2002.

Works cited
American Library Association. Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures Regarding User Behavior and Library Usage. 2 Dec. 2000. 9 Apr. 2001.

Bower, Sharon Anthony and Gordon H. Bower. Asserting Yourself: A Guide for Positive Change. Updated ed. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Canadian Library Association. CLA Statement on Internet Access. Rev. Feb 2000. 3 Feb. 2010.

Dalhousie University Killam Library. Social Sciences & Humanities Services Policy Statement. 12 Jan. 1998. 21 May 2001.

Mandel, Charles. “Homeless Patrons Pose Challenges for Libraries.” Quill & Quire. 65.5 (May 1999): 12. CBCA. WebSPIRS. Red River College Library. 9 Apr. 2001.

Ontario Library Service. Library Board Orientation Kit – 2004. Toronto: Ontario Library Service, 2004. 5 Apr. 2004.

Regina Public Library. Bylaw #1: A Bylaw Relating Generally to the Safe Use and Conduct of the Affairs of the Regina Public Library. 18 June 1996. 5 Apr. 2004.

Shuman, Bruce A. “Down and Out in the Reading Room: The Homeless in the Public Library.” Patron Behavior in Libraries: A Handbook of Positive Approaches to Negative Situations. Ed. Beth McNeil and Denise J. Johnson. Chicago: American Library Association, 1996.

University of Toronto. Conduct Regulations, University of Toronto Libraries. 21 May 2002.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia Dewdney. Communicating Professionally: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Library Applications. 2nd ed. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1998.

Vancouver Island Regional Library. Board Policy. Updated October 2007. Accessed 3 Feb. 2010.

No comments: