“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…

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8 thoughts on ““But we weren’t doing nothing Miss!”

  1. I am SO BAD for apologising before I tell people to be quiet or stop eating or whatever: I must try to remember that ‘excuse me’ trick instead.

    I find that the tricks you mentioned in the last post about Extreme Politeness help me as well. I also used to work with a librarian who swore that wearing a red jacket would fix all these sorts of problems, but it’s a bit power-dressy for me 😉

  2. I need to take this advice if I ever manage to get a job again: I’m dreadful for adding “sorry” into sentences in which there is no place for it.

    Oh, and I see your kettle/pizza, and raise you a kebab and a *sleeping bag*. I should note that our library, even in exam term, shut at 2 a.m., and no student lived more than about a quarter of a mile away…

    • I think the “sorry” thing is a very English problem, we basically use it as punctuation.

      No sleeping bags yet, but students were caught hiding toiletries behind the ceiling panels of the gents loos of our main campus library last year; this is the problem of 24 hour opening. I genuinely think that if we were 24/7 (as opposed to 24 hours Sunday – Thursday) we would get a tiny amount of students who would try to manage without getting accommodation and just using a combination of the Library and friend’s sofas.

  3. Another really useful blog post, thanks a lot for sharing all this excellent advice.

    Reading through it I am reminded of the time when a pimp and a prostitute had a fight in the reference section of the public library where I worked and a guy also tried to punch me in the face once.

    Unfortunately when events like these suddenly happen it’s almost impossible to remain 100% calm, but I think that if you practice the good habits described above then it will help you in those sudden extreme scenarios too.

    • Thank you Richard 🙂 I’ve heard similar stories from other librarians and you’re right; there’s no easy way of handling those situations and just getting through them in one piece is the best that can be expected. Hopefully learning to manage with less scary situations will be of some benefit and I hope that some of what I have posted will be useful to others in that respect.

  4. I really enjoyed reading these tips. You are absolutely spot on. Having a bigger age gap helps, being empathic, being a parent… Also ‘owning’ the situation… sounds a bit crass but it’s true… enables confidence. Having spent my working life dealing with rude/arrogant/disruptive/angry/aggressive adults; students?…a walk in the park! You’re doing great.

    • Thank you Fran, it’s lovely to get such praise from someone who deals with more difficult situations than I (hopefully) ever will. I really feel that age and experience is the most important factor in dealing with these situations, which can be difficult for young professionals to accept, but we’ll get there one day!

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