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!

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“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…

“Why isn’t it online Miss?”

Happy New Year everyone! Sorry I’ve been quiet for so long, but that’s because I spent most of early December raising invoices for students who hadn’t returned their books, then most of late December arguing with those students about not returning their books. It was a great month.

But I’m back and as I’m #latenightlibrarian* tonight, I’m going to treat you to a rant about ebooks. Stupid, sodding ebooks.

So late last year I dealt with a student who was unhappily returning his book because someone else had reserved it. I was putting a reservation on it for him in return when he complained “why isn’t it online Miss?” I suppressed the eye roll and attempted to explain that a. not everything is online and b. even if it is, sometimes we can’t afford it or make an informed choice not to buy it. To which he responded “yeah, but my brother right, he’s at another university and all of his textbooks are online Miss, all of them. And if they’re not he just asks and they’re put online. So why aren’t ours?” Again, I tried to explain to him the intricacies of ebooks that I, being a qualified librarian, should reasonably be expected to know more about than his brother, but sadly the student stropped off, probably thinking that we were the meanest library in the world. I then checked with his subject librarian. The book? NOT AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK!

This week is the first week of term, although exams don’t start until next week so the Library is mostly full of very dedicated students getting on with their revision, punctuated with the odd visit from panicking students who haven’t visited the Library all year. The book they are most concerned about is an Operations Management book that was written by one of their lecturers and which is the basis of an exam they have next week. And which, of course, they were told to buy. We have 19 copies of this and a further 2 copies in short loan. There are currently *checks* 18 reservations on this book which – if everyone were to respect the due date of their loans – would mean that all those students would get a copy in just over a week, but that’s obviously ridiculous. One, for example, was due back on December 5th. They can book the short loan copies, but no ones returning those on time either. So naturally, every other student coming to the desk is asking about this book and every other one of them is whinging about it not being available online. Being a good customer services librarian, I toddled off and checked to see if it was available as an ebook. It is. FOR £735.00!

Okay, my rant is not really about ebooks but about student’s perceptions of them and the annoyingly widespread idea that everything is available online. Librarians spend a large amount of their lives trying to fight this misconception although we don’t appear to be close to winning yet** One of my favourite projects is the That’s Not Online! tumblr, which aims to draw attention to the vast amount of information that is not available in electronic format. Is it fair to expect 18 year olds to be aware of this great issue of contention? Probably not, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that they listen to librarians when we explain that not everything is online and try to remember that in the future.

The real kicker, anyway, is one that @deadlylibrarian pointed out when I was ranting about this on twitter; even when we do have the ebook and you point this out triumphantly to the desperate student at the Helpdesk, they usually just frown and say “but I don’t want to use the ebook…” So I take it back, ebooks are clearly the problem because they are EVIL and never there when they’re needed and always there when they’re not wanted.

I have 150 minutes left before I go home and if one more person asks me about that Operations Management book I might explode. Wish me luck.


*You are all on twitter, right? I’m reasonably sure that the only people who read this are the people who follow me on twitter, but on the off-chance I’ve caught someone else with my witty and erudite prose, come and join us on twitter and learn the beauty of the hashtag.

**If you’re interested in fighting a losing battle, head to the Guardian and look for any articles about ebooks, publishing, libraries, the future of the book etc then go to the comments and try arguing with everyone who posts something along the lines of “I don’t need books, I’ve got a kindle and everythings online anyway lol.” You’ll give up after two articles for the sake of your own mental health. Bonus points if you can argue with anyone who starts talking about Google Books and / or JSTOR making books / journals obsolete without wanting to claw your own eyes out.

Please Miss…

“Miss, where are the books?”

“Miss, why have I got a fine?”

“Yo Miss, why do I need to swipe in?”*

I have no problem answering any of the above questions, I understand that University and Library rules and procedures often seem quite complex** before you get the hang of them (and sometimes even after you get the hang of them) so it’s really not the questions that I have a problem with. It’s the Miss. Or, to be more accurate, the Miiiiiiiiiiiiiss. It’s that long, whining I in the middle, Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiss. The only thing more likely to get my back up from the start of an enquiry is the thankfully rare “darling.”

What is the problem with Miss? I often get asked this by Americans, which suggests the irritation with the word is a UK thing (because I know from many, many conversations that I’m not the only librarian who feels like this!) In this country, the vast majority of children go to schools where, from the age of 4 to 16, they refer to their female teachers as Miss and their male teachers as Sir. There is nothing quite like hearing that whining Miiiiiiiiiis to send you straight back to the playground. And therein lies the problem; this is a University, not a school, and I am not their teacher. These are 18 year olds and this is supposed to be an adult environment. I understand that I’m here to help them, but calling me Miss puts me in a position that I am not comfortable with. It assumes that I have some sort of authority over them and their behaviour, and I don’t want that. If I did, I would have become a teacher!

Some people (see previously referred to Americans) argue that it’s a sign of respect, but I disagree. All of the questions at the start of this post would be perfectly polite and reasonable questions without the Miss in them. It’s not necessary! I wouldn’t go to the bank and ask “Miss, can I pay in this cheque?” Nor would I ring the Council and say “Miss, I already paid my council tax this month.” Nor, for the record, would I say Sir. Both assume a level of subservience; they are in charge and I am asking for help, when in fact, I am an adult speaking to other adults. I do not need to use a formal address, I merely need to be polite. Excuse me… Could I ask… Perhaps you can help… Maybe this is just a symptom of what the Daily Mail would call the Death of Good Old Fashioned British Manners, but I think that’s going too far. I just don’t think we’re going a particularly good job of teaching young people how to become adults. I’m doing my best to help, by encouraging them not to call me Miss!

There are other reasons that I dislike the word, one of which is that being called Miss is enough to make any young, fun loving librarian feel like they’re about 82 (because you never feel like you’re actually old enough to be a teacher.) The other is the assumption of knowing my marital status which does annoy the strident feminist in me, although I’m sensible enough to know that that is not the student’s intention and it’s just the patriarchy rearing its ugly head.***

Am I alone in this, lady librarians? Does being called Miss get your hackles up, or do you like it? Or do you not care either way? Have you been called Darling? Did the offender survive? And male librarians, do you get called Sir? And how do you feel about it? Let me know in the comments!

*Actual question that I just got asked. Innit.
**Kafkaesque, according to a student at the weekend, although he was caught in a loop where he couldn’t re-enrol because he didn’t have an IT account, but he couldn’t have an IT account until he re-enrolled, so that’s probably fair criticism.
** sorry, did I not mention that I’m a strident feminist? :p