About funktious

Academic librarian in London.

Unsolicited Advice! Get your unsolicited advice here!

It’s that time of year when Graduate Trainees start to appear in Libraries up and down the country*. I loved my trainee year, it was oodles of fun, partly because there were four of us and partly because I’d just moved down to the big smoke, but also because librarians are, on the whole, a lovely lot. I learned a lot that year and over the following years and there is some advice that I always like to share with aspiring librarians, whether they like it or not, because giving unsolicited advice is fun. So I present to you….

My Top Ten Tips for Trainees!

Number one: Do not believe a student who says to you that the printer is a. jammed, b. out of toner or c. out of paper. Because 9 times out of 10, by the time you have hauled a load of paper or toner over there, or found the keys and a colleague to show you how to unjam it, you will discover that the printer is actually fine and what they really mean is “I don’t know how to print.”

Number two**: See above, re photocopying.

Number three: Do not show up on your first day in a suit, there’s really no point. You will be in jeans by the end of the week.***

Number four: Librarianship, particularly in London, is a very incestuous profession. Never bitch about someone you work with to someone from another library as they may well be married to each other, or will at least have gone to Library school together / worked together before / know each other from Twitter. Ask me how I know!!!!

Number five: If you are in a hurry and the book you are looking for is just out of reach, do not be tempted to climb the shelves to get it instead of finding a kick stool, you will end up dropping six books on your head and that’s just embarrassing to explain to the first aider.

Number six: Libraries exist in an environment separate from that of the rest of the world which means they are unable to maintain a normal temperature and will always be hotter than the sun or colder than the arctic. Layer!

Number seven: Learn the value of ‘the pile.’ If something is a problem, poses a difficulty or quite frankly is just something you don’t want to do, add it to ‘the pile.’ Every month or so, go through ‘the pile’ and marvel at things that are no longer problems! Some things need longer in ‘the pile’ than others, which is why you will inevitably find a shelf full of stuff somewhere in the office that no one knows anything about; this is ‘the pile’ of someone long gone.**** You will probably inherit someone else’s pile, but don’t worry, because you will be able to bequeath your own to someone else eventually as well. (Please note; you can achieve the same effect with your inbox by letting emails sit in it so long that they are automatically archived.)

Number eight: When shelving, always aim for either the thickest books (heavier to carry but easier to shelve) or those with the shortest classmark. Also try grabbing the books that are in the section furthest from the trolley, as it will take you longer to walk there and back, which is time you’re not having to shelve (every little helps!) Everyone else will do this too, so just try not to let everyone else get ahead of you so you get stuck with the books with 10 numbers after the decimal point.

Number nine: Always, always, always go to the pub when invited, for that is where you will get all the good gossip.

Number ten: There are very, very few mistakes you can make that are completely unfixable and you will probably be forgiven for making one of those too.

So those are mine, now it’s crowd sourcing time; what advice would you give to a graduate trainee? I’m sure there’s some gems out there!

Update 17/08/2012

Here are some of my favourites from below the line:

Jenny: I would actually amend number one and two to cover anything a student/tutor claims is broken/not working.

Helen: I would expand number one to include any student who says “It’s not on the shelf”. At least 7 out of 10 times, it *is* on the shelf.

Sarah: All of the above, plus when you ask a student, when they complain the very important pictures of N’s party haven’t printed, “have you checked you have enough print credits?” and they say “yes”; don’t believe them, they lie!

Abby: Don’t leave your favourite cardigan on the shelving trolley, students WILL steal your clothing.

Samantha: Bring liberal amounts of cake and biscuits to work, especially if you’re going to be one of our trainees.

Nobodyjones: Tipping over a trolley full of books and making the biggest racket ever is only a matter of time!

Tina: Do not wear a skirt or heels if you work in a library where you need to climb much.

Ruth: You will get asked the same thing a bazillion times, but remember that even though you’ve heard that question all day, it’s probably the first time they’re asking it.

Samantha: This is for later: if you have a library school interview, and you are asked anything about your local public library, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES reply “Oh, I buy all my books from Amazon.”


* that’s if there’s any left, anyway, as the number of Graduate Trainee schemes sadly seems to be going down :(

** stop giggling!

*** unless of course you’re working in a private library, in which case the same is true of the temperature but you’re sadly stuck in the suit. Sorry!

**** I firmly believe that some libraries, like the one I did my traineeship in, are actually  physically held up by piles. That or the floor will one day give way from the sheer weight of them.

“Loans Review” or “Why can’t everything just be simple?”

Around this time last year, we went live with our shiny new Library Management System. If you were following me on Twitter at the time you might remember that I was Slightly Stressed for the first few months, as we tried to get Aleph to behave the way we wanted it to, whilst also trying to train staff in how to use it and, you know, deliver a library service!* We had to make a lot of decisions on the spur of the moment (“okay, so shall we fine a penny a minute on desk loans? Half hour grace period? Right, let’s do that.”) and when some things we wanted to do didn’t work the way we expected them to, we just had to leave them as they were and agree to see what happened.** It was decided very early on that we would have a review after one year to see how everything was working, so a couple of weeks ago we held a Loans Review at the main campus. Two days of workshops, discussions and presentations when as many staff as possible got together to talk about the big questions; why do we do things the way we do? Do they work? Are they fair? Should we change things? What would be the effect of changing them? We had presentations from the Student Union about what students expected, staff from UEL and Kings came to talk about their circulation systems and we had lots of small workshops on key aspects of the system (i.e. reservations, loan periods, blocks) and the needs of particular groups of students (postgraduates, part time students, placement students) We got through a lot of flip charts and a lot of coffee!

It was a really enjoyable couple of days and it was nice to spend some time getting right back to the basics of circulation. What really surprised me was how many of us came to the same conclusions throughout the day of what we’d like to do in an ideal world. I had rather expected there to be lots of disagreement! Some of the main points most staff were agreed on were:

  • Ideally we’d prefer not to charge fines on overdue items that aren’t reserved.

A lot of us felt that with such high fees and so many students working alongside studying, it really didn’t seem fair anymore to fine people who has simply forgotten to renew an item which wasn’t actually needed by someone else.

  • Which means that we might as well have automated renewals.

There’s very little point in having a due date if there’s no penalty for going over that due date, so why bother? Why not just let students keep items as long as they need them if no one else wants them? But would this lead to more lost and invoiced items? Will we know unless we try?

  • We’d like to ramp up fines on overdue reserved books.

Currently the fine is the same whether a book is reserved or not, and fines are capped at £10 per item. There is a certain type of student that therefore sees this as an opportunity to keep the item as long as they like and still pay less when they return it than it would have cost to buy it. Ramping up fines and removing the cap would hopefully resolve this.

  • We wanted to explore other ways of encouraging students to return reserved or invoiced items.

We discussed the possibility of blocking their e-resources access or even blocking them from accessing the Library itself! The latter is probably too heavy handed (although it would be so much fun) but we were quite interested in the former.

I think the main thing that came out of the Review was how bloody complicated circulation is; everything impacts on something else, whether within the system itself or with our procedures in general. Everyone came away from the day with a healthy respect for the systems team! But the other realisation that I think we all had was that a lot of the rules we have are ones that we’ve had for a long time, but we put them in place in the beginning and there’s actually nothing stopping us from changing them if we want to! It’s our circulation system after all and it’s not carved in stone. It made me wonder what I would do if I were starting a library from scratch today, with today’s students, courses and methods of study and today’s system of Higher Ed. What rules would I come up with?

So what would you do if you were starting your library from scratch; if there anything you’d change or add? Would you charge fines? Would you keep the same loan periods? Would you get rid of rules all together or would you chain all the books to the shelves and not let anyone borrow anything? Would you run screaming in the opposite direction? Let me know in the comments!

*Yes, this doesn’t seem ideal and we’re well aware of that, but with the delays that seem to be inevitable in a massive procurement exercise like this, this was the reality we ended up with. We made it work and I didn’t go completely grey; I call that a Win.

*Holds. Bloody Holds. I spent the entire month of September trying to get to grips with Holds and then trying to explain the fundamental differences between Holds in Aleph and Holds in our previous system to everyone else. No one enjoyed September.

Wanted: Library Womble

I promised you in my last post that I was due a rant about this so here goes! First I have prepared for you a slideshow of evidence.* Feast your eyes on this:

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WHEN DID THIS BECOME OKAY?!?! When did people start to think this was acceptable behaviour?! It’s RUBBISH, it goes in a BIN!

Generally I quite like our students, they’re fairly pleasant if annoyingly loud on occasion. But this behaviour drives me absolutely batty. It’s just so incredibly ignorant. The photos are the tip of the iceberg really, I’ve had much worse. Half eaten paninis stuffed behind computers or left on radiators. 20 half empty cans of Red Bull. Orange peel all over the floor. And on one memorable occasion I found half a pint of milk and a half empty bag of grated cheese in a seminar room, in which the occupants had had the wall mounted heater on full blast…

It’s the sheer ignorance of it that gets to me, the complete rudeness. The oblivious assumption that someone else is going to pick it all up. They are at most 10 metres away from a bin, wherever they are sat, but it might as well be 100 metres for all they use them. In fact, we could probably have an individual bin at each desk and they still wouldn’t bother.

Now ok, we’re not making things easy on ourselves by allowing them to bring food into the LRC but in general, the issue of food in libraries does not bother me, certainly not in our library. We don’t have a research collection, our books are easily replaceable and most are loanable, so are going to be used while students are eating at home anyway. So I don’t really care if they bring food in, I just really, really wish they’d throw their rubbish away after them!

We’ve tried; if we see people walking away from rubbish laden tables we ask them to clear it up. We have some fearsome cleaners who identify frequent offenders and embarrass them into better behaviour. But it doesn’t make a huge difference as we usually only find it after they’ve left.

I’ve suggested having a week where we don’t clear tables, just to show them what sort of pig sty they make for themselves, but of course we can’t do that because of the “student experience.” Most people seem resigned to the problem, maybe I’ll end up that way too, but for the moment it still sends me into a blinding rage whenever I walk around the LRC. And because it’s Friday, I thought I would share the rage with you, dear Reader. I hope you feel my pain.

Any suggestions for teaching ADULTS to use BINS gratefully received in comments. If you don’t have a suggestion, at least tell me I’m not alone in my anger?


*taking photos of rubbish; that didn’t make me look weird AT ALL!

In which I rant about 24 Hour Opening…

Yesterday morning I had to deal with a student who was very unhappy that his 1 litre carton of fruit juice had been thrown away by one of the cleaners. He was upset because it was expensive and untouched and he’d “only left it for a minute” while he went to clean his teeth in the toilets.  Now, the cleaner was not in the wrong here because she had no idea how long the juice had been there when she found it and our library is routinely awash with litter in the mornings during exam season*, so she did the right thing. The reason this incident stuck with me is a. the teeth cleaning part and b. the fact that the reason he was so annoyed was obviously that he was knackered. Welcome to exam season and 24 hour opening, the silly season starts here!

Although, to be fair, our 24 hour opening runs from October to June and breaks only at Christmas and Easter but it’s still generally quite quiet outside of exam periods. We’re open 24 hours from Sunday to Thursday, so we’re not open Friday and Saturday nights, thank goodness. And if I had my way we wouldn’t do it at all, because I really don’t think it encourages a healthy lifestyle, good revision, or sensible studying.

Take my guy yesterday morning, I know him quite well and it’s entirely likely that he hasn’t really left the Library since Sunday, unless he’s had to take an exam. He’s got his toothbrush in his bag, for goodness sake, this is a man who is not planning on going home anytime soon. And there’s lots more like him. Last year at our other library that has 24 hour opening, caretakers found toiletries bags hidden behind the ceiling panels in the toilets. I firmly believe that if we were to open over Friday and Saturday nights, as students pressure us to do every year, we would have a small minority of students who would try to get by without renting student accommodation and would simply split their time between the Library and their friends sofas. It sounds ridiculous, but these were among the concerns that SOAS had when they abandoned 24 hour opening after trialling it for a few years (with the full support of their Student Union, I might add). I’ve also heard rumours of such shenanigans in one of the UEL libraries.

It isn’t healthy for students to spend half of their week living in the library, but that is the unavoidable consequence of providing 24 hour opening. Today’s students are under a vast amount of pressure, most have to work while they study, all of them want to get a good degree and most are well aware that they’re going to be flung into the midst of a recession once they graduate. I can completely understand why students are therefore demanding that library facilities be available 24/7 as they have to find ways of making study fit into their lives. We’re under a great deal of pressure to provide students with what they want, especially in this era of rising fees and the sodding NSS. But we can’t be all things to all people and there are serious practicalities involved here. We can’t provide showers, I doubt there are many libraries that can. We can’t provide comfortable places to sleep and in fact, our regulations state that students can’t sleep in the Library and staff will wake up any students they find sleeping in case they have fallen ill**. I know this isn’t true of all libraries and I’ve even heard of some that will give out blankets to students studying overnight (Exeter, anyone?) but still, having a two-hour kip with your head resting on your keyboard is not exactly good exam preparation, is it? We can’t provide a decent breakfast, unless your idea of a decent breakfast is a day old sandwich from the vending machine (and even then, we’re in the minority of libraries that allow students to bring food in or buy it in the library, there’s plenty of libraries that don’t) and there’s no guarantee that there’s anywhere else on campus that can either, or that students can afford it.***

I remember when I was doing my A levels that there was a lot of emphasis placed on sensible preparation for exams; not cramming, taking breaks, having a good night’s sleep the night before. We don’t seem to talk about this anymore once students reach University level, but I would argue that they need it just as much if not more as many are now away from the support of their families. Surely we should be saying somehow, somewhere that spending the 48 hours prior to your exam cramming in the Library, leaving only briefly to have a smoke, is not necessarily going to do you any good in the actual exam?

That’s if they’re even cramming at all anyway; reports from the Night Team suggest that these some of these students spend quite a lot of time streaming films on the PCs or hanging out in the café with their mates. It’s as if they’re under the impression that merely being in the Library will help them absorb knowledge, presumably by some sort of osmosis. Allowing them to remain in the Library for days at a time lets this type of student develop a false sense of study; it’s alright for them to catch up with Eastenders now because they’re already in the Library and they’ll do some revision afterwards, right? Then; it’s alright for them to spend an hour chatting to their mates because they’re in the Library and they’ll do their group presentation afterwards, yeah? Before they know it, 24 hours as gone by and they’ve not managed to do much at all. These are also the students that we see descending on the Library the night before their coursework deadline en masse; they’ve put everything off till the last-minute but it’s alright, the Library’s open and they can just spend the entire night hammering out 2500 words before morning. Oddly enough, they always seem surprised when the rest of their classmates have the same idea and the printers crash under the strain…

So what would I prefer? I don’t really know, I haven’t been in the sector long enough to really know the best way to proceed. It seems to me that having opening hours of 8am to midnight (and running a staffed service, not using Security, during those opening hours it at all possible) would provide a service that catered to as many students as possible, but would also encourage them to plan their work and revision better. I know that closing at midnight wouldn’t necessarily make students go home and go to bed before their exams, but at least it wouldn’t feel quite so much like our responsibility if they didn’t.

If anyone knows of a University that’s doing something different or interesting with their opening hours, please let me know in the comments. Also feel free to have a rant about how annoying exam season is at your institution; I’ll be sure to commiserate with you!


*rant to come, believe me!


** This has led to some “entertaining” incidents of students barricading themselves in rooms to have a nap, bless.


***don’t get me started on the ridiculous prices charged for food on university campuses.

Libraries are for learning?

A fortnight ago I attended a CPD25* event called Libraries are for learning? – Managing Student Behaviour in the 21st Century which was marketed with the following question:

It’s not like it was in our day…while students are twittering and drinking coffee and chatting to friends in the Library or on the phone they are learning and multi-tasking and studying at the same time. Or are they? Do Libraries still need to set boundaries for student behaviour in order to keep the library an appropriate place for learning without looking out of date?

These are exactly the sort of conversations I enjoy having, so I had to go along! The full day event was hosted by the very lovely LSE Library and there were about 20 delegates mostly from Greater London, but some from further afield. In the morning we shared horror stories, found common ground and talked about how we could better understand our students and accept the pressures they are under. We then explored techniques and approaches to deal with disruptive students and difficult situations. In the afternoon, we heard some Case Studies of good practice from the University of East London and the LSE and rounded the day off with a tour of the LSE Library.

The morning session was really interesting and very enjoyable. It was led by Ash Charlton from Acenterprise who was an excellent trainer; he kept us all laughing while also sharing some really good ideas. My favourite part was when he split us into groups and gave us each a scenario of student bad behaviour (e.g. trying to leave the Library without borrowing books) then asked us to come up with the worst possible sentence to use in that situation, the thing you’ve always wanted to say but never dared**. We then used those sentences to look at the sort of language we should use in these situations, which was a good exercise but I think we all enjoyed the first part best…

A lot of what we discussed reinforced the ideas that I talked about in my earlier posts on dealing with difficult people and reassured me that I’m already doing the right thing, but I did come across a couple of new strategies that I will share with you as I thought they were interesting.

The first was an approach that Ash called “gears” and is based on the fact that as Librarians in our own Library, we are actually the ones in control and the ones with the ability to use the “final sanction” whether that is taking a students ID number and reporting them to their Faculty, or calling Security to have them removed. This fact alone was a good reminder for us all as I think Librarians tend to forget it, but the idea was not to dive straight in with all guns blazing and go straight for our biggest weapon without first giving the student chance to modify their behaviour on their own. Hence gears; with our ‘final sanction’ being our 4th and highest gear and lower gears leading up to it:

  • Explain to the student what the situation is (1st gear) “Excuse me, this is a silent area.”
  • Explain what you are asking them to do (2nd gear) “As I said before, this is a silent area and I am asking you to stop talking”
  • Explain what you will do if they don’t do what you ask (3rd gear) “If you don’t stop talking then I will ask you to leave.”
  • Explain that as they have ignored your previous warnings, you will now act upon your warning (4th gear) “As you’re still talking, I’m asking you to leave. If you won’t I will call security.

I liked this approach as it lays out an easy to remember strategy for dealing with difficult students. It reminds us that we have the power, but also empowers the student and makes them responsible for their own behaviour and choices and for the ultimate outcome of the encounter.

The other discussion that I found very useful was about dealing with groups. We all talked about how we found approaching groups of disruptive students the most difficult aspect of managing our Libraries, but Ash responded that dealing with groups is easy because they are weak; while one person on their own can decide what sort of approach they’re going to take to a situation, a group can’t reach a consensus and is therefore easy to split. He gave us the following advice:

  • Address the whole group, with your language and your gestures. Don’t focus on one person as the group will come to that individual’s defence.
  • If one person responds aggressively, continue addressing the whole group
  • Ask “is that what you all think?” to divide the group; one person will usually cave and the rest will follow.

I’ll be sure to give this a try the next time I have to deal with a group of noisy students on the second floor; exam period is coming up so it’s bound to happen sooner rather than later!

LSE Library staircase The afternoon was interesting as well; staff from UEL and LSE shared some really good ideas about managing the Library environment and I look forward to seeing if we can implement any here. I also enjoyed the tour of LSE Library which I’ve never visited before despite knowing lots of people who work there. That staircase is pretty impressive, but I would be too terrified of falling down it in front of everyone to use it… It’s also a much larger library than the one I work in and while I envy the amount of space they have for students to use, I am still grateful for having a much easier building to manage.

All in all it was a really good day; a great chance to share ideas and learn some new skills.  One of the best aspects of attending external training sessions is the chance to meet colleagues from other institutions and share horror stories and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have a really good whinge!***

*CPD25 runs brilliant training sessions, I highly recommend attending one.

**We had the “not borrowing books” scenario and our response was something along the lines of “Oi, you thieving toerag! Get back here right now! If those books aren’t issued to you then your arse is mine…” We won but lost points due to lack of swearing :(

***Don’t pretend that you don’t do the same!!!

“Thank You Jesus!”

It’s semester two and deadlines are looming. The building is full of stressed students and things are going wrong, things which it is my job to fix. Printers jamming or print queues freezing, confusing binding machines, corrupted USB sticks and lost essays. It’s not so long ago that I was trying to hand in coursework or prepare for exams, so I have lots of empathy for our student body and always go out of my way to help. I have sat with my head inside a printer for 15 minutes, pulling out paper jams* until the blasted things starts printing again. I have stood by the binding machine and helped student after student bind their work**. I have printed off work on my own PC when a usb stick won’t open on a student PC. I have sat with countless mature students and helped them re-organise their slides in Powerpoint, or taught them how to insert page numbers in Word.

And I don’t mind doing any of this; I enjoy helping, it’s what I’m here to do. But I do get annoyed when after running around like a maniac and solving a problem for someone, I am met with nothing but a “THANK YOU JESUS!” Erm, excuse me, it wasn’t Jesus that unjammed that printer, it was me! It wasn’t Jesus that rescued your presentation from the recycle bin, it was me! And it certainly wasn’t Jesus who has sat with you for 15 minutes trying to work out why your printing wasn’t showing up at the print release station, only to then discover that you’d just sat down at an already logged on but abandoned PC and were merrily using someone else’s account, because I sincerely doubt he’d have the patience! I am standing in front of you having saved your arse and what do I get? “THANK YOU JESUS!” And in my experience, that exclamation is rarely followed up by a personal thank you to me as well. I don’t really mind when it’s the Library that’s messed up, or when it’s Library equipment that has gone wrong, but when I’ve gone out of my way to help solve a problem that was the student’s fault in the first place and Jesus is thanked instead of me, then I do get a bit hacked off, to be honest.

Plus, it may have been a while since I’ve been to church but I was raised methodist and I rather understood that the whole point of being a Christian was that you lived a good and moral life on earth in order to ensure that you went to heaven. I’m not sure that any part of the deal was that Jesus would personally intervene in every Christians life any time they were having a bad day and would happily use his power to unjam printers and rescue corrupted files. I’m reasonably sure there would have been some mention of that in the Bible at some point.***

I’d like to conclude this post with some sort of constructive point or suggestion, but I don’t actually have one. So I shall file this in the ‘Rant’ category and leave you with the knowledge that should you ever see me tweeting in ALL CAPS with too many exclamation points in April or May, it is likely to be for this reason and you should probably send me cake.

*And usually burning my fingers on the fuser as well, because it’s quicker for me to burn myself than it is to remove the whole fuser unit and carry it over to IT and ask them for their tweezers; SEE HOW I CARE?!?!?!
**It can be difficult to maintain the distinction between ‘showing them’ and ‘doing it for them’, if you get distracted you can find yourself with a pile of dissertations and no students…

***”And lo, the clouds parted and a light shone down and a voice was heard to say “Look, have you tried turning it off and on again?””

In Honour of Cleaners

Retirement Do

Librarians; always seeking an excuse to extend our lunch hour

Today’s post is in honour of Rachel, one of our cleaning staff who retired today after twenty-one years working at the University (and sixteen of those in the Library) Rachel is a tiny but fiery Italian lady, and once told me a story about when she first started working in the Library. She’d been warned by the other cleaners that the Library staff were very unfriendly and it wasn’t a nice place to work and once she started, she agreed. So one day she door stepped the then-Library Manager (who’s still here, in another role) and asked her “do you have a degree?” to which the Manager replied “well, umm, yes.” Rachel then said “well if you are so smart, so educated, then why do you not say Hello to me in the mornings, hmm? Why do none of you speak to me, hmm?” And after that, every member of Library staff always said hello to her and her fellow cleaners. Since that day, sixteen years ago, a great friendship has built up between staff and cleaners and today we threw a retirement celebration for Rachel at lunchtime complete with flowers, gifts and cake* because we’re all going to miss her very much.

I tell this story to illustrate a point that I think is very important in libraries (and indeed, in all places of work!) – always be nice to the cleaners, caretakers, postal workers, security and anyone else who works in your building. Don’t ignore them when they walk by. Find out their names and say hello. Ask how things are going for them. These are the people do the really hard work and if they didn’t do it, our library users would notice it straight off. Who do you call when someone has done something awful in the toilets? The cleaners. Who comes to help when the ceiling over the music collection starts leaking? The caretakers. Who hunts down that box of missing books? The postman. And who comes to help when you’re cornered by an angry user? Security. I can’t count the number of times that our cleaners and caretakers have helped me out when the building has been full and something has gone wrong and although I don’t doubt they would have done it anyway because they’re all good people, it was certainly made easier and happened much quicker as a result of having a good relationship with them.

Obviously you should be nice to everyone unless they’re actively trying to cause you harm, and I’m sure most of us are because Librarians do tend to be a pleasant lot, on the whole. But if you need more persuading, remember that being nice to cleaners and caretakers and postmen and security and anyone else who works in your building can actively save your bad day from getting even worse. It’s basic karma, really; if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you in return and don’t we all want to work in an environment like that?

*and wine, there may have been a few tipsy librarians trying to hide at their desks this afternoon…

“But we weren’t doing nothing Miss!”

This is the second of two blog posts on dealing with difficult Library users. I posted the first, about dealing with angry people, last week and was overwhelmed by the response it received; thank you so much to everyone who retweeted it or said kind things. This post is about dealing with disruptive people.

I actually find it harder to deal with disruptive people in the Library than with angry people. I think this is because angry people just appear and have to be dealt with, whereas you are often alerted to the existence of disruptive people by other Library users. There’s an expectation that you’re going to do something about it. There’s also the feeling that you’re wading into a group of people who aren’t aware that they’re doing anything wrong; they may resent you, they may get angry you, they may (worst of all) laugh at you! And then there’s the fact that I’m five foot four and despite being closer to 30 then I’d like, still routinely get ID’d in Waitrose buying little bottles of rubbish wine for cooking with. So I get a bit intimated by confronting large groups of tall people as I’m worried they’re going to ignore everything I say.

But I have learned a few coping mechanisms in the past two years and that’s what I’m going to share with you in this post. First of all though, let me share some recent experience I have had of students making my life difficult:

  1. A student walking up to another student in the quiet area in the middle of exam season and punching him in the face*
  2. Many groups of students coming to the Library after an exam, all relieved and happy and LOUD
  3. A group of girls swearing very loudly in a busy area
  4. Boys sneaking 5 massive pizzas upstairs at lunchtime
  5. A mature student settling themselves into the Library to work for the whole day, spreading their stuff over two (or three) workspaces, hogging three plugs for their laptop, their phone and their mp3 player and loudly and aggressively shushing anyone who so much as breathes.**
  6. And a constant problem; students who cannot understand that whispering is not silence.

So generally, I’m referring to situations where one person, or one group of people are starting to make it difficult for other people to use the Library and someone has to set them straight. Enter Library Staff! These sorts of situations are always different, depending on the mood of the people involved and the atmosphere in the building and as such it’s difficult to give a clear step by step process for dealing with them. Nevertheless, here are some assorted tricks that I find helpful, I hope some of them might be useful to you too:

  • Be prepared - You probably already know when your busiest times are. Ours are obvious; lunchtimes and any breaks between lectures. There’s also times of year when there’s always going to be more people in the Library and more people under stress, which is pretty much anytime there’s a deadline and during exam periods. Knowing in advance when you’re likely to be dealing with these situations can help you prepare mentally for them; we have a list of coursework deadline dates on the wall of the supervisor’s office, for example, so that we know when the build up to them is likely to start.
  • Why are they making your life difficult? – Try and understand their motivations. I’ve found it a lot easier to deal with troublesome students ever since a very wise person (whose name and role I have forgotten; sorry!) said in a training session that students act out in places where they feel safe and at home. They play up because they’re in a familiar environment, they don’t necessarily mean to offend and they just need reminding of their boundaries. If you can do that nicely then everyone will walk away happy.
  • Take the lift! - this sounds completely daft, but bear with me; if you have to go upstairs to confront a group of rowdy 20 year olds, the last thing you want is to be red-faced and out of breath from climbing the stairs! I normally avoid the lift***, but if I know I’m going up to confront people, I always take it. This won’t apply if you’re actually fit, obviously, but for those of us who aren’t it’s a shortcut worth taking!
  • Don’t say sorry! – this one is surprisingly difficult; saying “I’m sorry but…” seems to be a terribly addictive phrase. But you’re not sorry; they’re breaking the rules! So replace every “sorry” in your head with “excuse me,” it performs the same function but doesn’t make them think that you regret telling them off.
  • Be friendly but firm - there’s no need to storm in with all guns blazing, that will just put their backs up. A simple “come on everyone, this is a quiet study area and you are neither being quiet or studying!” will often do the trick
  • Explain the rule – they’re usually more understanding when you explain that the reason they can’t eat six cartons of Chinese in the study areas is because the smell might disturb other people, especially if they’re starving. Similarly, even though they might be able to absorb the finer details of the Human Rights Act while N-Dubz**** blasts through their crappy headphones, the incessant tinny beat might just be bothering the person next to them. If you can’t explain to them why they can’t do it, they’ll just carry on.
  • Don’t get drawn into a conversation – there’s a certain type of student that loves to try to banter with you in front of their mates and the temptation to look cool can be strong. Some librarians can handle this sort of thing and come out of it well; if you’re one of them then I applaud you, but I am not! So I prefer to extricate myself as soon as possible by reiterating my point then leaving. Theres no point in drawing the encounter out; you’ve probably got better things to do. (And I hate to break it to you, but they’ll never really think you’re cool…)
  • And don’t get drawn into a fight - whether physical or not, a lot of fights break out in a building full of undergraduates; over group work, seminar rooms, hidden books… I’ve listened to plenty of “he said, she said” in the past few years and both parties always pressure you to take their side. Resist, even if one of them is clearly in the wrong. Explain that it is not your place to decide who is right and that you can’t take one persons word over someone else’s; you are there to find the best solution for everyone.
  • Always go back… – I have a route that I usually follow through the building, but if there’s a problem in a certain area I always make sure that I go back to it, by a different door if possible. So I might do a sweep of the silent floor and tell everyone to shut up, then go upstairs, come back down a different staircase and go back through the silent floor in the opposite direction. That way you can spot everyone who ignored you and have another word, which is often more effective than the first time.
  • …Or hang around – a similar trick; once you’ve spoken to the people causing problems, hang around for a bit; tidy the chairs up, throw away some rubbish, check that broken PC. Once they see you’re not going away they’ll often roll their eyes and either move or knuckle down. I have even gone to the lengths of going and leaning against the wall, surveying the room through narrowed eyes like some sort of exam invigilator; heavy-handed, but effective when necessary, even if it does make you feel like you’re betraying your inner youth.
  • Encourage them to move, rather than leave – Effective zoning can be very helpful in this type of situation; it’s much easier to ask someone to move to a more appropriate area than it is to ask them to leave the Library altogether.
  • If someone starts answering back, get them away from their friends – This is very effective if you can tell that there is one person at the heart of the group causing the problem. “Excuse me, can I just have a quick word with you over here?” The mouthiest of teenagers will often become the meekest of mice once you get them away from their mates.
  • Take someone with you! - if you’re having problems, there is no shame in asking a colleague to go with you! It’s much easier to deal with a large group of students when there’s two of you; you can back each other up and present a united front of Librarianness. If at all possible, try to pick a colleague with teenage children, as they’ll usually sort everyone right out.
  • And finally, be in your forties- in my experience, the Librarians who are best at dealing with this sort of thing are older and wiser than me. You obviously can’t age yourself at will in order to be better at it, but the experience will come with time and one day you’ll find that nothing phases you. Try and take comfort in that, if you can; you can’t be good at everything from the beginning!

Thus ends my two parter on dealing with difficult people; I’ll be happy if it even helps one librarian cope with a sticky situation. If you’ve got any good tips that I’ve missed, or experiences to share then please post them in the comments of either post for everyone to learn from. In the meantime, colleagues, strap on your helmet and shield and get back out there, hopefully with some new weapons in your arsenal!

*this ended up being very amusing, as a rushed and poorly worded call to Security ended up with about 3 police cars piling on to campus as the Security Guard was under the impression that everyone in the Library was kicking off.

**in a previous job, we came across someone who had bought a kettle in with them and couldn’t understand why she was not allowed to use it!

***not least because ours has a dreadful tendency to get stuck, and it’s difficult to supervise the Library from inside  a stuck lift. Also as our Library is only three floors so there’s really very little need for it; so I usually have very little sympathy for anyone who gets stuck in it!

****See, I’m down with the yoof! I didn’t have to google the correct spelling, honest…

Angry person is angry!

When I first started this job, one of the things I was most anxious about was dealing with difficult people, as I’m actually quite a shy and unassertive person*. However, over the past two and a bit years I have learned some useful coping strategies and practical steps that I’m going to share with you, as I imagine that being shy and unassertive are relatively common traits amongst young librarians! I’ve split this into two posts; today’s is about dealing with angry people and next week I’ll post about dealing with disruptive people; it’s a small distinction but an important one, the main difference being that the angry people will come and find you, while you have to go and find the disruptive people!

In my two and a bit years in this job, I’ve dealt with my fair share of angry users. The top 3 would probably have to be:

  1. The guy who shouted at me for 10 minutes about how rubbish our computers were and how it was my fault that he’d been here for an hour and got nothing done.**
  2. The chap who had been given the wrong information over the phone and therefore exploded at the Helpdesk and whinged at me about how we’d wasted half an hour of his time that he’d never get back.***
  3. The lady who, in my second week in the job, said that the Library didn’t care about the safety of women on campus and she hoped I got raped.****

The following tips are ones that I have learned by dealing with those people, and others like them. I’m not going to lie; I didn’t enjoy any of these experiences, not all of them went well and I could definitely have dealt with some of them better. But you live and you learn, and here is what I have learned about dealing with angry people:

  • Know your enemy – Nearly every angry person I have ever dealt with has been a mature student. The small amount who haven’t have been undergraduates with a lot going on in their lives. The thing to understand with these people is that the Library and all of its rules is the last thing they care about, the tiniest part of their life and one they expect to run smoothly. They have jobs, family and homes to look after. So some of them, the ones who have a tendency to get angry anyway, are absolutely infuriated when something so unimportant to them becomes an issue. They’re especially annoyed, as you can see from the above examples, when it takes up their time. So watch out when you see a mature student in the queue looking determined; he’s about to be a problem.
  • Get them away from the desk – Anger thrives with an audience, don’t let them have one. Take them somewhere private. Also, get them to sit down; it’s difficult to rant and rave from a chair. (edit: make sure someone knows where you are though! Don’t put yourself into a dangerous situation.*****)
  • Don’t put up with being shouted at – I doubt any of us are paid enough for this; don’t put up with it. Say something like: “Could you please lower your voice, I feel like I’m being shouted at and that won’t help us resolve the situation.” If they continue shouting, walk away. “I’m going to walk away until you’re able to discuss this with me calmly.” Don’t feel bad about calling Security if it really goes wrong, that’s what they’re there for.
  • Let them rant / cry it out – as long as they’re not shouting, just let them get their initial rant out, or let them get over their tears. They’re not going to listen to you at this point anyway so save your breath and just calmly make notes about what they’re saying.
  • Meaningless platitudes – that’s not to say that you can’t use meaningless platitudes while you investigate further; I’m a big fan of these as it makes them think that you care without you actually admitting fault. My most used ones are “that must have been very frustrating / difficult / upsetting for you” and “I can see why you would feel that way.”
  • If the Library has made a mistake; apologise – even if it wasn’t your mistake, just apologise, it’s what they want to hear and you are the Library personified to them. “I’m very sorry that this has happened and I will do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” It won’t always help; some people will just say “well how’s an apology supposed to help me now?” but it’s worth doing anyway. At least you can always say afterwards that you did apologise.
  • Be prepared to cut a deal… – this obviously depends on the rules of your workplace, but I am always prepared to make a deal with an angry person if it will get them out of the Library quicker. Yes, they may have broken the rules and no, you may not want to make them think that they can get what they want by ranting, but really; the risk to your blood pressure and mental equilibrium is not worth it! If it will get the whole thing over with, use whatever powers are within your means to do so. I’ve waived a proportion of people’s fines if they pay the rest immediately, or offered to hold books for them for a day while they resolve the problem, that sort of thing.
  • ...but make sure they know if they were in the wrong – this is important, don’t let them go away thinking that they can do this again. Before you offer them a deal, explain exactly how they ended up in this situation. Make sure they understand. I have sat with students and made them log into their accounts and renew their books to prove they know how to do it before I have waived a single penny from their record. Also make sure they know this is a one-off. “On this occasion I am prepared to offer X, but I’m going to make a note on your record of the conversation we’ve had today and you won’t be let off next time”
  • Refer them up the ladder – if you are not able or prepared to cut a deal, then refer them to your manager or whoever is the next step up from you in the workplace; don’t feel bad about doing this, that’s why there’s a ladder! Managers, Heads of Circulation etc reading this: sorry to lay it all on you, but that’s why you get the big bucks and it’s not like you really needed this advice anyway, is it?
  • Some people are just [censored!] - there will always be people who will not respond to any of this, people who will go out of their way to be difficult and will not give an inch. These are the people who refuse sincere apologies and who ask “but what about my wasted time, what are you going to do about that?” Nothing you can say will please these people, so retreat into icy politeness until they leave.
  • Try not to get angry or defensive – This is difficult, especially if what they’re saying is really ridiculous. Try pausing before you say anything, or taking a deep breath first; this has often stopped me from snapping at them.
  • Don’t take it personally – As I said earlier, to these people you are the embodiment of the Library, but that’s all; they don’t know who you are, they don’t know what you’re like and they are not angry at you personally, they are angry at the Library, at the system they perceive to be punishing them. The angry people who I have dealt with have normally been at the end of their tether and this is the last in a long line of things that have happened to them that day, which is why they have exploded. Bear that in mind and try not to take it on board or let it stress you out. It’s really not worth it. If you find that you can’t let it go and that these situations really affect you; speak to your line manager or to Occupational Health about it.
  • Vent; vent long and loud – this is a key step in not taking it on board; get your own stress and anger at the situation out as soon as possible by venting to your colleagues. Go to the staffroom and find whoever’s having a cup of tea and bend their ear. Then tell someone else. Then rant on twitter about it. Each time you vent your stress level will get lower. (It may get higher in the people who you vent to, but that’s their problem!)
  • And finally, look on the bright side; none of the people who have ever been screamingly angry at me have ever called me Miss!

I hope that one or a few of these tips may help someone out at a difficult point in their day. What I really hope is that none of us ever have to deal with anyone like this ever, but that’s not very likely in our line of work! So chin up, and hide some emergency chocolate in your bottom drawer, you’re going to need it one day.

*Shut up, I am! Or I was anyway, my Mum says that living in London has made me a lot bolshier!

**He was right about the computers but not about it being my fault. I infuriated him even further by agreeing with him and trying to get him to fill out a complaint form so we could use his experiences to talk to IT which is not what he cared about, he cared about his wasted time. He never did send in a complaint form, git.

***See how time is becoming a common theme?

****This was ridiculous, the woman was clearly at the very end of her tether and was standing outside getting some fresh air. Some boys were out there too and one spat on the ground; she interpreted this as threatening and went into a screaming meltdown. Fun!

*****Thanks to @CareersInfo on Twitter for reminding me of this important point!

#LibDay8 – Reflections

I really enjoyed participating in this round of Library Day in the Life. I’ve tried to take part previously just using Twitter, but have usually found that around midday I simply ran out of time to tweet! Blogging about it instead has allowed me to share much more detail about my daily activities and has also made me think a lot about what I actually do.

What I really noticed is how much time I spend dealing with Things That Are Happening RIGHT NOW. That takes up about 50-60% of my working week. The remaining 40% is spent trying to pre-emptively resolve issues so that they don’t become Things That Are Happening RIGHT NOW. And do you know what? I’m fine with that. I really enjoy my job and I really enjoy supervising. I’ve found over the two years that I’ve been in this position that I’m actually at my best when I’m dealing with Things That Are Happening RIGHT NOW. I don’t have time to worry about them, I just have to manage. My brief experiences of being a subject librarian have taught me that I don’t deal well with teaching; I absolutely detest standing up in front of people and would spend the two weeks prior to a teaching session feeling sick with nerves. But if the fire alarm goes off, I don’t have time to get nervy, I just have to deal with it!

Dealing with the Things That Are Happening RIGHT NOW is also very useful when it comes to sorting out back office procedures, which is the other main aspect of my job. Knowing the problems that are likely to come up on the front line means that you know how they can be prevented and makes you better able to create and manage a procedure designed to prevent them. And while I may have cursed the way that the introduction of Aleph has made us rewrite all of our previous procedures, it has given us the opportunity to re-think them and hopefully make them work a bit better.

To save this from being an exercise in navel gazing, allow me to share a piece of advice that might make your library a happier place. This occured to me at some point in the middle of my supervising session on Thursday. Your library probably has an equivalent of my role, it probably belongs to the person running around looking harried right about now. Lets call them Harried Person. My advice is this; if you come up with a brilliant idea for a simple change that will really make things easier for your Harried Person and save them some time, do not share it with this person while they are dealing with all the Things That Are Happening RIGHT NOW. They will not appreciate it and they will not have the time to explain that “yes, I’ve thought of that and here are 5 reasons why it won’t work.” They may also take it as criticism, even if that’s not what you intended. If you think that your idea is really worth sharing then do everyone a favour and email it to them later, when they’re not looking quite so harried. That way they’ll actually be able to give it due consideration and can compose a reply that doesn’t involve any expletives, threats or tears.

Trust me on this one, it’ll make everyone happier!