Whether you are in a school or public library, you have probably had to work with a patron that was required to visit the library. Sometimes they come in groups or sometimes they come alone. Sometimes they are happy to be there but often the fact that their presence in the library is a requirement makes them reluctant or resentful patrons. ‘ Here are some steps that I take to avoid making a tough situation worse and help make the patron feel at home in the library. ‘ I came to all of theses conclusions by trail and error–lots of errors.

  1. Be Prepared‘ In a perfect world the teacher who has required students to visit the library has told you that they are coming but my how to steps are designed for the real world. Teens often come to the library for ‘ a specific project or for generic library instruction. Have a brief (no more than 5-8min) introduction to the library and how to use the library in ready in your head. ‘ It helps to have pamphlets on hand to for these unexpected visits. ‘ The handouts will most likely end up in the trash (recycling bin if you are lucky) but it will help keep you on point. ‘ I have found that the best handout is generic enough that it helps with basic search tips’ and highlights your awesome gaming collection.
  2. Understand their Position I have had to sign sheets that confirm that a student has received library instruction and assistance on projects. ‘ If I feel like a parole officer, I can only imagine how they feel in this situation. ‘ One teen reported that this made her feel like a “child.” It is important than to remember to treat them as intelligent young adults. Show them that the library is a place that respects them.
  3. Lose the Librarian Talk and Be Natural‘ Nothing makes a resentful patron more resentful than strange vocabulary and being talked down too. ‘ This is so difficult to remember. My library is working on a list of words that we are trying not too use around patrons. We are thinking of making a donation jar–drop quarter when you say a bad librarian word! ‘ Along the same line, we are trying to be aware of how we speak to teens. When we started evaluating each other, we were shocked to find that we often asked questions like “Do you know what an abstract is?” Out of context, we were able to hear how condescending we sound. ‘ By evaluating each other, we have been able to help reduce how often we say these annoying phrases.
  4. Handle the Attitude and Sell the Library‘ This is especially tough when you are working with a group of teens who are required to listen to you. They don’t want to be there–they think libraries are outdated, unfriendly and that you are a total nerd (and not in a good way!). I find the best way to handle this is to start off by asking them what their impressions and feeling are about libraries. ‘ Encourage honesty and be prepared to hear horror stories. As they tell you how librarians are unfriendly, acknowledge their past experiences and ask them to give us another chance. ‘ Show them how technically advanced your library is and be prepared to show them the coolest aspect of your collection or something unique about your library. The teens may not want to be there but don’t lose the opportunity to win them over.
  5. Have Candy‘ I know this comes up all the time… but it works! Having candy can really help with that awkward moment when you have to scramble to get ready for the unexpected group .


5 Thoughts on “30 Days of How-To #26: Welcome the Reluctant Patron

  1. This is an interesting post that raises some good questions. We *do* need to challenge perceptions of what the library can be to students in both their academic and leisure lives. We should always be ready to sell what we have. And you’re absolutely correct in saying we’ve got to understand their position. It really all begins there.

    But you know what’s REALLY condescending? Acting like patrons who might be reluctant to be in our library can’t understand what the goals of the library are. Acting like those patrons can’t be told technical terms for the research they do because it will “scare them off.” Acting like we have some kind of ~special knowledge that we need to dumb down for our patrons so they won’t run in the other direction. That’s an insult to those patrons and to our field. What, exactly, is a “bad librarian word”? Should we not say “catalog” and instead say “Super cool computer machine with resources thing-a-ma-jiggies!!!!” Aren’t we supposed to be preparing our patrons to be information-literate? How are we doing that by dropping the “librarian talk”? What even IS “librarian talk”? How is asking if patrons know what an abstract is condescending? Isn’t it gauging what information they have and how we can help them? Isn’t that treating them like an adult, like someone who is here to learn and be helped?

    And now that we’ve covered the “welcome the reluctant patron” I’m interested in a post on “welcoming the non reluctant patron”, because I think that deserves our attention too.

  2. I think the point about losing the librarian talk is an important one and gets to the heart of the need to provide high quality customer service to teens. Teens are our customers, and while as librarians we might want them to know what an abstract or a database or a ful-text article is, we’ll never help them to learn those terms and concepts if we make them feel stupid. I know plenty of adults who still, as adults, don’t ask librarians for help because of how they were made to feel as teens. Often when teens these adults were made to feel that if they didn’t know how the Dewey Decimal System works, or how to use a catalog, then they were not really supposed to be using the library. And guess what, now they don’t use the library.

    Instead of asking teens to tell us what they don’t know, and making it a requirement that they basically do know in order to use the library successfully, we can have conversations with teens that start with information about what they do know and conversations that make them feel comfortable in the environment and comfortable with the librarians. We can then embed in those conversations information that teens can use to know new vocabulary, (if necessary), new concepts, new ways for finding information, and new ways of using the library.

  3. Mairead Duffy on September 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm said:

    Yes, Linda! Thanks for clarifying my point. At my library we still want to teach our patrons about abstracts, etc but we found that the use of foreign vocabulary that alienated teens. We talk about how an abstract can help you before actually saying the word abstract. For example, we say, “there are these really helpful summaries of the articles, you can read them before downloading the whole article. They are called abstracts– so on and so forth” We found that if you start the conversation with library terms you make the teen feel uncomfortable. We want them to feel welcome. I think it is important to be aware of these terms because we use them so often with each other that we forget that our patrons may not understand what we are talking about.

  4. Librarians can get so used to our alphabet soup of acronyms that we don’t even see our teens’ eyes glazing over while we talk. Wanting to make sure teens know what we’re talking about doesn’t mean we think they’re stupid, and if teens don’t want to adopt our terminology that doesn’t mean we just need to explain it harder–it might mean the language simply isn’t useful to them.

    I get frustrated with librarians who resist the idea of genre shelving or bookstore models for shelving and display because “that’s not how college libraries do it.” What if college libraries don’t have it right? What if young adults want to navigate resources in a different way? I really don’t think Because This Is The Way Libraries Are is a good enough answer.

  5. mk, You are spot on with “What if college libraries don’t have it right? What if young adults want to navigate resources in a different way?”. My director just sent out Library Journal’s article on 10 Steps to a Better Interior ( http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/home/891646-264/10_steps_to_a_better.html.csp ) and the first step is ‘See with your customer’s eyes”. We need to get out of our own way and try to imagine how the patrons see and hear us. And perhaps we should ask them what they would change (which is exactly my mission with my newly-formed TAB).

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