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to set boundaries for student behaviour in order to keep the library an appropriate place for learning without looking out of date?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!!!