Interview with Rhea Joyce Rubin, author of Defusing the Angry Patron: A How-To-Do-It Manual, 2nd Edition Wednesday, Feb 15 2012
Library staff are on the front line. Rhea Joyce Rubin talks with us about her career in libraries and her latest book Defusing the Angry Patron: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians, Second Edition, of which Library Journal said in a starred review ”Library staff who have public service duties will find this book invaluable in learning to deal with patron anger” (June 2011). Rhea, as an independent library consultant, has trained more than 10,000 librarians across the country.
• Why did you decide there was a need for a book like this in the first place?
I never thought of writing a book on this subject at all! I think it was Pat Schuman who approached me when she heard that I was training nearly all the public service staff of the Chicago Public Library on this topic. That would have been 1998 or 1999. I never even thought of training others on anger, but about 25 years before that, public libraries asked me to help their staffs learn techniques for coping with so-called “problem patrons.” They assumed that I knew about it since I’d worked as a library aide in a mental hospital while in college, and then – in my first professional library position – I was a jail librarian. My angry patrons at that time were inmates and correctional officers; both were highly frustrated and quick to anger. By the time I was training staff of the Chicago Public Library, I’d had angry patrons in every library where I’d worked, and I’d been speaking and teaching on the topic for a long time.
Let me say that, though I may have started writing based on my own experiences, the revised edition of Defusing the Angry Patron reflects the comments and experiences of thousands of public and college librarians and paraprofessionals who have attended my workshops, as well as dozens of reference librarians, circulation staff, and other public and academic library workers who responded to a short, informal survey I conducted in 2009. All of those library workers reconfirmed the need for such a book.
• What new ideas and information will readers discover in the revision of Defusing the Angry Patron, Second Edition: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians?
When Charles Harmon asked me to write the revised edition, I initially thought that nothing much had changed since the original book (2000): angry patrons still present serious dilemmas for library staff, and the way libraries are run (among other things) still angers users. They are incensed by antiquated library policies, by their inability to get the materials and computer time they want, and by staff whom they perceive as rude or condescending. Also, they still see the library as a safe place to let off steam. Unfortunately, anger is still contagious – a customer’s angry steam can still cause staff to feel mad, frustrated, victimized, and/or helpless.
I soon realized that at least three things had indeed changed. First, the quantity of difficult encounters in libraries – including the number of incidents with angry patrons – has grown significantly (according to anecdotal evidence; firm statistics are difficult to find). I assume this is the result of a dramatic increase in patrons’ expectations. Options have proliferated in terms of formats and media, as well as expedited delivery methods. Self-service and 24/7 services via websites were novel – and not offered by most libraries — ten years ago. Now those advances are commonplace, and users have developed even higher expectations, especially in terms of speed of access. After all, now customers shun email and phone calls for instant messaging and texting, and e-book readers can download entire books in under a minute. We know that unrealistic expectations yield frustrated users.
Second, we are living in a new digital landscape. In addition to traditional face to face reference, most libraries now offer virtual reference by email, instant message, texting, or chat. The anonymous, faceless nature of VRS presents unique challenges. Meanwhile, Web 2.0 and social media — both recent phenomena — allow easy, instant interactions between users and libraries as well as among library users. Many libraries are harnessing the power of social media to promote their services, and to make the library accessible to more and different users. The downside is that complaints, angry comments, and misinformation spread quickly: one unsatisfied user can broadcast complaints to millions of people world-wide with a few clicks on a computer keyboard. Libraries are still figuring out how to respond to this new breed of “difficult situation.”
The third change is in how libraries respond to angry patrons now. Three examples are:
1. In the past ten years, many more libraries have created procedures to enforce behavior policies. Libraries, for example, are codifying what a staff person should do – step by step – about a user who has broken the rule against excessive noise as compared to a patron who has ignored the policy on limited renewals.
2. Libraries are invoking stiffer penalties with people whose anger blows out of control. These penalties are, of course, directly related to both policies and procedures. And fortunately, libraries are being more proactive in educating the public about their policies.
3. Many more public libraries, as well as academic and special libraries, employ private security guards, though (again) it is difficult to find any statistics on how many libraries do – and on whether having them alleviates angry incidents. But just this week I read that the Boulder (CO) Public Library has reported a “sharp decline in security problems” since it began hiring private security guards three years ago, and has numbers to back up their claim.
• Who should read your book?
It was written primarily for frontline staff – anyone who works directly with customers – and their supervisors and managers. (Already that covers most library staff.) I was addressing all staff members who are sick and tired of being yelled at by patrons; angry themselves because they feel dumped on by the public; unsure what to do when someone looks upset; frightened by the unexpected high emotion some customers show over a simple library transaction; and, frustrated by their own behavior under pressure. But in the end, the book is for everyone, since the techniques I offer in the book work with any human beings (including colleagues and family members).
• What one thing do you most want them to know?
How about two things? First, I want everyone to realize that they do not need to feel powerless in the face of anger, even if the person’s natural first reaction is paralysis. Second, it’s essential that you avoid fighting fire with fire, even if your natural first reaction is to retaliate. Usually, the patron isn’t the whole problem (which is why I don’t use the term “problem patron”). Rather, the problem is in the interaction among the library as an institution with its rules and procedures, the user’s expectations of the library and personal style of communication, and the staff member’s expectations of customers and personal style of communication. If we change something about any of those things, usually we can “fix” the problem. And often the easiest thing to change is our own way of responding to the customer.
• Please tell us a little bit about your consulting business – why you started it and the kinds of training you do.
I became an independent library consultant in 1980 because I didn’t want to continue as a library director. To be frank, I disliked the human resources aspects of the job, and I also wanted to give up the 60 hour work week so I could have time for a baby. I was fortunate to have had a number of small consulting jobs and staff workshop offers already, so I felt I might be able to make the leap into consulting.
From the beginning, my consultancy has specialized in extending public library services to people who do not use them in traditional ways or places. In other words, I have worked with people most public librarians never see. So my focus has been on the people aspects of librarianship as compared to technology or collections or buildings. I’ve pretty much split my time between consulting and training. On the consulting side, I’ve concentrated on planning, assessment, and the establishment of new library services. For example, helping libraries plan for and provide services for people with disabilities has been a major focus. Another has been assisting libraries who want to measure the impact of services on users.
On the training side, I’ve done everything from lunchtime lectures to multi-day workshops and college courses, usually in the same areas on which I consult. My most popular workshops are on customer service, outcome measurement, serving people with disabilities, and defusing anger. I have had the wonderful opportunity to work in over 40 states, training more than 10,000 professionals and paraprofessionals.
• In addition to consulting and training, you‘ve written 13 books and numerous reports and articles. How does your writing relate to your work?
The two are intertwined. The books allow me to extend what I know to many more people than I’ll ever actually meet; they also serve as the only PR for my consulting and training. Everything I learn while preparing to write, I also use in my work; and anything I learn from my consulting and training, I use in my writing.
• This is your 4th book for Neal-Schuman. Any comments?
Actually, it’s my 6th book for Pat Schuman. My first book, Using Bibliotherapy: A Guide to Theory and Practice, was written at the request of ALA Publishing (now called ALA Editions). But when I submitted the manuscript, it was rejected because the editor thought my ideas were too radical (i.e. they didn’t conform to an earlier book ALA had published on the topic) and my style too academic. A mutual friend, Kathleen Weibel, urged me to take the manuscript to Pat who had a “Neal-Schuman Professional Books” imprint under Oryx Press. Pat liked the book, and devoted a good deal of time (an unusually large amount, I now know) to editing it. She taught me that readers trust authors and don’t question the source of every comment and the provenance of every idea. (Basically, we cut out most of the many footnotes.)
Using Bibliotherapy and The Bibliotherapy Sourcebook, a companion volume Pat requested, went on to win ALA’s Shaw Award for Library Literature in 1980. The award says, in part, “Her work points us in new, useful directions.” Pat and I were both jubilant – I was a first-time author who couldn’t believe her book was so well received, and she was a smart and hard-working editor who saw the irony (and enjoyed sharing it with her publishing colleagues): the American Library Association’s awards committee recognized my ideas as new and useful, while ALA Publishing had found them “radical,” unacceptable, and unpublishable.
Since then, I’ve written books for 6 other publishers, but have returned to Neal-Schuman the most often — whenever possible. I have enjoyed working with the Neal-Schuman team, and am sorry that Pat and Jack’s retirement means that Neal-Schuman will soon become an imprint of (you know it’s coming…) ALA Editions. Still, I’ll always be grateful to Kathleen and to Pat for making me an author.
Learn more about Defusing the Angry Patron: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians, Second Edition on the book’s Web page.