Sunday Reflections: We Need to Talk About the Way We Talk About Library Patrons
Earlier this week, a prominent library figure tweeted a poll asking how long you worked with the public before you wanted to kill someone. That poll has been haunting me for days. In a world in which my teens – and my own flesh and blood children – are being asked multiple times a year to learn what to do in the event of an active shooter and teens are organizing and marching for their lives, I no longer am comfortable with casual threats of physical harm to others, even in jest, to express my frustration with my fellow human beings.
Make no mistake, working with the public is often just as frustrating, challenging, terrifying, and stressful as it is rewarding. I have advocated long and hard to have a couple of patrons permanently banned from the library in the 26 years I have worked in libraries, always for the safety of staff and patrons.
And yes, I have ranted and raved and even made those sarcastic, snide comments about patrons. I’m not going to lie, I’ve done it in the past where I know patrons could hear. And I have done it on social media, more so in the past then I do in current days. Because over time, I have come to understand the impact of my words on patrons that overhear, on my fellow library workers, and on my profession overall. Every word we speak causes a ripple, and no one is left untouched by those currents.
You could go through my Twitter timeline and find numerous examples of me being a snide, sarcastic, frustrated librarian, mother, politically concerned American and even a human being. I hope that you won’t find is me discussing – even in jest – the desire to kill a library patron. I was and continue to be so very disturbed by this language.
As I have mentioned, I have been doing this for 26 years now. Like every library employee, I loathe and detest the months of January through April where patrons will ask me 1 billion times to give them a tax form and help them with their taxes. I get frustrated and dismayed by people trying to game the system, being hostile to patrons, being sexist and misogynistic to staff, etc. Anyone who deals with the public in any capacity has to put up with a lot of genuine crap. I have felt threatened on multiple occasions. I have filed a police report or harassment. I have been sexually harassed, by both patrons and my fellow staff. I have had to call the police and report incidents of child pornography, child abuse, domestic violence and drug deals. It is by no means all sunshine and roses in the library.
I am, in short, 100% familiar with and sympathetic to the very real frustrations, challenges, emotional burden and very real fears that come with working with the public.
But maybe publicly discussing wanting to kill library patrons isn’t the answer.
Talking negatively about our patrons publicly, either online or in our libraries, is not the answer.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t vent. There are plenty of times where even rage is necessary. But maybe we shouldn’t do it in public.
So what do we do to deal with the very real feelings we develop while working with the public?
1. Make sure that a staff member can tag out and have a moment if they need to while working in the public. This is harder in smaller libraries or during certain hours, but we need to make sure our systems are set up to protect the emotional health of our staff as much as possible.
2. Do not complain publicly about patrons in public areas of the library. Seriously, please don’t. It benefits no one. You are breaking trust with every patron who overhears you speaking ill of other patrons in public. They will wonder what you say about them, they will be frustrated by the negative environment you are creating, and they may seek out the same services in other locations.
3. Cultivate private channels to discuss your feelings, concerns, and rant and rage. If you use Twitter, for example, you can create a DM group. I have been known to group text my fellow TLTers and let off a good rant about a variety of topics. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to your feelings or to express them, I’m just asking us all to consider the impact to the profession to do so publicly.
Like I said, I have not been and I am still not perfect at this. I, like everyone else, am a work in progress. I’m learning how to better deal with my emotions, how to handle them in healthy ways, and how to protect my library, my patrons, my profession and myself when dealing with them. I hope you will join me on this journey and really consider how we talk about our library patrons.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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