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Volume II, Issue 2, May 7, 2003
May Book Reviews | 1 - 2
Willis, M.R. (1999). Dealing with difficult people in the library. Chicago: American Library Association. 195 p. $28.00. [ISBN: 0838907601]
This helpful handbook is aimed at public libraries, but can also be a guide for academic libraries since they are not immune to the types of problems they encounter. The focus of the book is on communication and its approach is humanitarian, emphasizing empathy in dealing with most problem patrons. It is also practical in suggesting guidelines for dealing with specific situations.
Dealing with difficult people in the library is divided into three sections. The first describes the types of patrons who create problems in libraries, e.g., complainers, loud talkers, angry patrons, stranded children, the mentally ill, the homeless, and Internet abusers. The second section discusses the art and skill of communication with an emphasis on listening. The third addresses the importance of creating sound, enforceable libraries policies, and the training of staff to implement them.
In the first section, Willis discusses the importance of knowing the difference between a “patron with a problem” and a “problem patron”. He describes the visual and verbal cues that signal whether or not a patron has self-control. Self-control is also important for library staff to maintain, as pacifying an unhappy person is not always possible.
Willis describes the impact empathy has on communication in the second section of the book. Acknowledging that everyone, including ourselves, can be dissatisfied or unhappy at times is a valuable insight into empathy. Willis states, “recognizing that other people want to be heard and understood as much as we do is a good start. Committing to helping others be understood is a decision that can change our lives.” Acknowledging a patron’s right to complain is another point made. He suggests that patrons who feel they are not listened to will try to gain control of situations by acting out such as becoming loud, aggressive, or filing a complaint.
The author also discusses how communication can easily fail. Because we are human, complexes such as perceptions, language ability and emotional state can interfere with our attempts at communicating. Willis suggests that the listener, not the speaker, determines what is communicated. To help the reader understand this, he describes five myths about listening and some barriers such as internal and external distracters. He also provides a few listening exercises that can help sharpen listener skills.
The third section addresses prevention through policies, where Willis suggests that difficult patrons are only part of the problem. Further problems can be prevented if policies are consistently enforced once they are made. Creating good policies and training staff in their implementation is important. Rules and policies can be effectively enforced if staff members are aware of them and the reasoning behind them. If policies are not enforced, they lose effectiveness. However, Willis also suggests that staffpersons should know the flexibility in rules and use empathy in problem situations.
Dealing with difficult people concludes with appendices. One describes several types of mental illness, such as clinical depression and schizophrenia, and ways to handle patrons who may have them. The idea behind this section is a staffperson can effectively respond to a patron if she is aware of his mental illness. Another appendix provides examples of effective patron policies used in public libraries, many of which may be revised for academic libraries. Such policies include disruptive or unattended children, Internet/computer use, and rules of conduct. The appendix, “Customer Service Manual”, suggests language that library staff can use in uncomfortable situations with patrons. Another interesting appendix is “Procedure Manual,” which outlines dealing with specific problems. For example, California libraries deal with sleeping patrons by enforcing a legal code that can charge them with loitering.
Mark Willis has taken years of his experience in public libraries to create a focused, thought-provoking guide that can be used by any type of library serving the public.
Reviewed by Diane Sybeldon, Instruction/Media Librarian, David Adamany Undergraduate Library, Wayne State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.