Thursday, May 7, 2009

Black belt librarians: dealing with challenging patrons

More pictures are on flickr.

2-3:15 PM, Meeting Room 2, Thursday, 5/7

Warren Graham is a security professional who works with "the reality impaired".

"How to walk up to a perfect stranger and tell them to knock it off while protecting your safety" is the main topic today.

His background is in the library in Charlotte, NC. The old building, which closed in the 90s, had all sorts of security problems, including childhood assault in the bathroom. Private security firms failed so the director hired Warren.

"If you do not deny access to people who are destroying the library you are denying patrons to your regular patrons.... Just because its a public library doesn't give you license to build a fire in the middle of the floor.... Don't let the inmates run the assylum, you have a right to a safe workplace.... You deserve to be treated as the professional you are. Its not right not to feel empowered not to tolerate abuse.... It's way past time in the library world to start making patrons more responsible for their behavior."

Solid and simple is better than over-intellectualized meetings full of pontifications that go nowhere. Thick security manuals that say nothing are useless. They should be lean and simple.

Everyone has to be trained properly.

Rules have to be enforced consistently by everyone.

Everyone has to be treated the same. The same consequences have to apply to everyone.

3 things that make a security program effective:

1. Must have simple, strait forward rules for library use.

Examples of stupid rules "no prostitution", "Causing intentional alarm by indecent exposure".

One rule every library should have: Any behavior that is disruptive to library use it not allowed. This rule can replace TONS of other rules.

Problem patrons are only 1-2% of library patrons but most of these hard line behavior problems only understand a hard line.

Administration has to back up staff. There are always exceptions but that should be rare.

2. Consistency is critical - between staff, branches, everywhere.

3. Always apply rules based upon BEHAVIOR not APPEARANCE.

Be careful with loose talk around the library. People listen and observe all the time. "These street people... these banking yuppies from hell.... these Satan's spawn... that little monkey on acid - one more time and that kid's out" DON'T SAY THESE THINGS!

How to tell someone NO:

1. Approach with a confident frame of mind.

Most people comply if you approach them correctly. Its not about confrontation its about communication. Its not policing, its advising patrons as to what's not allowed in the library. Relax when you go up to a patron. Too tense and you'll over-react. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

2. Start nice and you can get tougher if you have to. You can't come on too strong and then ease off.

Whenever approach someone for the first time, usually for something minor start "I don't you didn't see the sign, but............." or "I know you didn't know, but.....". This gives the patrons an out so they don't feel like an absolute idiot. Make sure they know you're giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Stop saying sorry. Just say "I know you didn't know". Apologizing opens the topic up to conversation and conflict.

Do not be a helicopter librarian. Tell them, thank them, then move on. Check back in a few minutes to make sure things are ok. Don't just stand there and hover.

3. When you approach people, exercise prudent caution.

Blend this together with confidence. Confidently cautious and cautiously confident. Whenever telling someone NO, keep any barrier you can between you and that patron. Don't even give up chairs, floor plants, desks, book carts, any barrier is good.

Don't forget about personal space. A stressed out, upset, or disturbed person is even more sensitive about personal space. Close enough to touch is too close. Never touch anyone except in self-defense.

If someone is sleeping and you need to check on them, go up, stay on the other side of the table ad ask if the patron is ok - express concern for their health. Don't assume they are hearing impaired just because they are asleep. You don't want to startle them and give them cause to explode. If they are still asleep, lightly tap the table - but be gentle, with a head on a table it will be amplified. If you still can't wake someone up, call 911.

WHENEVER you tell someone no, do not immediately turn your back. No matter how nice they have been, you don't want to put yourself in that vulnerable of a position. Appearances mean NOTHING when it comes to trouble. Be slick about walking away - look at your watch as you walk away to keep them in the corner of their eye, turn around and scan the room as if looking towards something else, be discrete and don't come off as obviously watching them, but don't let them out of your sight until you're safely away.

4. It doesn't matter if you're telling someone no or not, whenever you discover drunk or otherwise chemically incapacitated, they need to go. Smelling booze is not the same, its when they are obviously drunk or high that its time to call 911 and for that person to go.

Regardless of outside conditions, other patrons don't want incapacitated patrons around. No one is harmless when under the influence.

5. Everyone has to tell someone NO sooner or later. Someone is going to take exception. The experienced behavior problem knows that if they can upset you they can control you. Don't let them break your mental rhythm.

Tell someone no and only three things can happen:
a. they comply
b. they leave
c. they say no they won't comply and won't leave - and you have a plan for how to deal with this as well.

6. Never argue with a patron.

A lot of people are very good at pointless arguments. Don't engage. If they keep on trying to wear you down they are being disruptive and need to leave.

Sooner or later you will be accused of some sort of bias. Everyone can come in, but everyone has to follow the same rules. The person you're saying no to could be a victim of past bias. Most of the time, they just want to throw you off. Just treat everyone the same and stay on topic. Don't respond to accusations of bias.

Teen areas are GREAT. When you want to be a destination of choice for youth, remember:
most kids are good kids
most problems with kids are caused by STAFF fears, problems, and dislikes
even big kids are still kids with kid fears and insecurities. They don't want to let people know they are afraid and say silly things to hide this.

Actively manage the room - acknowledge teens, make sure they're doing ok. Be casual and relaxed. Some kids need extra warnings but all the same, disruptive behavior is not acceptable from anyone and adults have a right to use the library as well.

7. Never go outside with a behavior problem.

The front door is the limit. Once outside people feel emboldened to do things they wouldn't consider inside. Standing just outside the doorway is ok if you need to get a license plate number for example, but stay in the doorway. Stay cool and stand guard over yourself. Do not chase thieves out of the library.

8. Before you go and correct someone's behavior, make sure you have the right person.

There's an ocean of difference between suspicion and guilt. You have to be aware of something happening. Then just keep communicating with people in house, share suspicions, be PATIENT and sooner rather than later you'll figure out what's going on.

The single most important thing to take from this session:

Awareness is the best security tool. Ultimately your safety is in your own hands.

Practice 30/30/30. For the next 30 days stop every 30 minutes and look around for 30 seconds. This will heighten your intuition and help raise your guard.

No matter how small your community, if there's one village idiot, he WILL come to your library. Be prepared. Have a plan. Your security plan is just as important as your circulation procedures.

Warren's website:


When the alarm goes off on the security system, you must respond every time. Refine your guidelines so you know how to react when you catch someone. Theft of library materials is a serious matter. Treat it as such. Say: "When the alarm goes off I just need to check. Its probably our fault and we didn't deactivate something."

When the kids go outside they all stand in the foyer and block traffic into the library. Just open the front door and go out a few feet. Its best to go with someone or have someone watch you even then.

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