KLA/MLA Day 2 – Dealing with problem patrons

Presentation Bringing Sanity Back to Difficult Interactions with Patrons – Resources KLA/MLA Conference 2015 | Ruth Harries

What is a problem patron?  Stinky people, tired people, someone upset about policy, annoyed by another patron, needs extra help (lots of it), and someone whose behavior endangers others, etc., etc.

Strategies for Sticky Situations:

  • Build relationships – listen to your regulars and think about what people complain about the most (reduce fines or fine free days if fines are a squeaky wheel)
  • Listen actively – use body language that says “I’m listening” and empathize with the patron – “I’m sorry you’re going through that” or “I know this is frustration” or “That sounds really frustrating”
  • React appropriately – don’t over or under-react and enforce policy consistently, knowing there will be exceptions.  Think about how enforcement of a policy is going to impact the patron

If it all goes wrong…

  • Stay calm
  • It’s not about you personally (there  bad day is not your fault)
  • If necessary: get backup, disengage, contact the police (threats, abusive behavior, intoxicated)
  • Document, document, document – Incident Report Forms are your friend and let staff know what’s going on – to identify patterns of behavior.  Use careful language – describe how they appear, that they have bags with them, that they smell (don’t say they’re homeless…’cause you don’t know that!)

SupervisorManger Responsibilities

  • Create Patron Policies – code of conduct includes behavior policy and make sure staff members know what’s in it.  Post in a public place, on web site, as handouts that you can give a patron to read, etc.  Sample policies to come – with your Board
  • Craft an effective policy – tail to your library and clientele, lay out behaviors that will result in a ban for X amount of time (and how many instances of problem behavior) and cover behavior that interferes with others’ use of the library and anything that endangers others.
  • Back up your staff!! – provide training on all policies, on basic reference questions (Michael C. Hall Basic reference interview – look this up and Colorado State Library has virtual training for staff and how to be more approachable), and on how to handle abusive behavior.  Provide reinforcement when necessary and model behavior for staff. Practice in staff meetings, provide scripts, etc.
  • Use bans judiciously – follow your policy and make sure you’ve created a paper trail (Incident Report Form again) – when, why, how often, what was done, etc., etc.  CYA again and for succession reasons.
  • Include right of appeal – and you can’t ban for life – just for a year and give them an alternative means to access the information which is a first amendment right according to the courts.


  • Computer use scenario – kick off one of these teens so I can complete my job application!
    Ask the teens if they’re willing to get off the computer, explain that the teens have a right to use the computer, bring out a laptop for him to use, rely on time management software (person on the longest – so you can say when a computer will be available), provide other places for patron to go for computer access, try to find an alternative, ask for volunteers to give up a computer (who is leaving soon?), call to reserve a computer – HAVE A POLICY – Cool idea: job application/school work ONLY computers at Hutch public library.  “Empathize and use active listening skills.”
  • Muttering pacer scenario – other patron is disturbed and worried about his/her mental health
    Engage with the muttering patron and ask if they need help to assess his needs, don’t assume (it could be the complainer who has the problem), address needs of both and offer a quieter place to go for the student, involve two staff person (one to engage and one to observe), are they in a quiet area? – address the policy.  Librarian411.org – Mo State Dept of Mental Health! Address the behavior with compassion and empathy.  Be familiar with resources in your community and involve an outside agency if necessary.




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