Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's My Library and I'll Cry if I Want To: Dealing with Conflict

I confess that this post is not strictly related to youth services--it's more about the general skills of librarianship. But it's something that I wanted to write about because I think it's an important moment in my professional growth (or whatever you want to call it).

I should explain first that I am a crier. Some people get mad or loud or really, really quiet when exposed to conflict. I cry. I am the sort of person who cries at the end of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is not a particularly sad movie in the slightest. I have always been this way and it's not something that I'm particularly embarrassed about or frustrated with on a general level--it's just part of who I am.

Despite the fact that I have grown to accept my weepy tendencies, the fact is that it's not always convenient. In fact, I would venture to say that it is rarely, if ever, convenient. This is especially true for professional settings.

The reality of public librarianship is that you have to work with the public. Most of the time, this is a wonderful and excellent privilege because it allows you to work with all kinds of wonderful and excellent people. But even wonderful and excellent people have flaws and bad days, and sometimes, you end up with a Very Angry Person at your desk.

I do not like being yelled at. I certainly do not like being yelled at for things that are not my fault or are beyond my control as an individual library employee (you would be amazed by the number of people who seem to think I personally have something to do with the most inconvenient aspects of Illinois state law). But the great and challenging thing about my job and this profession is that it has very little to do with me and everything to do with the person who comes to the desk looking for help. My job is to help them, whether they want to find a book or angrily soliloquize about their overdue fines.

It's easier said than done, but it can be done--actually, the more I've dealt with these situations, the better I feel about them. Ninety percent is knowing what to say: the policies to cite, how to explain them, what alternatives to offer, when to turn the situation over to the director or a coworker. Every situation like this is an opportunity to learn and practice.

The reason that I wanted to write about this today was because of a situation that I handled recently. This person was angry and frustrated for a variety of reasons that I won't go into here. Had this situation taken place a few years ago when I was a new library employee, I would have cried in the staffroom after it was over.

But I didn't. I explained the library's policy and corresponding laws clearly. I offered what alternatives I could. I told her that I understood her frustration and explained why I could not offer the option that she wanted. I was polite, but firm. And after she left, I was a little frustrated, but I didn't feel like crying.

It may sound silly, but I'm so proud of myself for that small victory.


  1. Not a small victory - an enormous one! Didn't it feel great?

  2. That's great, Martha! I definitely know what you mean. It can be so difficult to deal with patrons who think you are personally to blame for the library's policies. I have worked at a library position where I have dealt with patrons who are angry/frustrated/rude. I agree with you that every situation is another learning opportunity to practice good customer service skills. The more I had to work on the desk, the better I felt about dealing with these kinds of conflicts. It's great to have victories like this!

  3. Been there! I'm not typically weepy, but there are often situations with teens that do get me worked up and it sometimes is difficult to control the frustration or even anger that may well up because of an ugly situation in the library. I work in a high school library and we see quite a lot of different things happen. Maintaining professionalism is truly tantamount in these situations. Often, a student who gave you hell one day, may need you to help them the next. Since we're dealing with kids, you have to look beyond certain things (like immaturity) to focus on the goal at hand which is to help students achieve their academic goals. If a student's offense is very egregious, you have to have consequences too that fit into the school's discipline code and involve administrators. Keeping a cool head helps a lot in these situations. When you have this, the "victory" hopefully involves some kind of positive learning experience.

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