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to set boundaries for student behaviour in order to keep the library an appropriate place for learning without looking out of date?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.Ā  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 šŸ˜¦

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


“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 insideĀ  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!