Challenging patrons

March 26, 2007

Since I work in a science and technology branch library at a university, I rarely have so-called challenging patrons. With faculty and students constituting the majority of patrons, few from beyond the university community visit the library. Occasionally, we do have to stand firm with students who want to re-borrow a reserve item or a laptop immediately after returning them. This is to give other students have a chance to use them. However, students may borrow a different laptop if we happen to have one available.

Although my branch has few problems, the main library has had more incidents than usual of late. I don’t know the exact nature or number of them, but a campus police officer has offered to speak with library staff about handling situations that could require police intervention. I do know that in years past, the main library had a “regular” non-affiliated user who ended up banned from campus, as well as a group that visited a computer pod far away from the reference desk.

I normally do not talk about my place of employment, nor do I mention interactions with patrons. However, I recently discovered a blog that makes me think of how lucky I am to deal with relatively minor problems (so far, anyway). “Woeful,” who works in a large city public library, recounts incidents involving a motley assortment of patrons. His accounts bring back memories of my pre-library school days, when I lived with my parents and worked at a public library in a rural community of 8,000 people. We did have an interesting variety of patrons who visited the library, but nothing nearly as malevolent as the characters Woeful describes.

The first memorable patron I remember was a young man who had a fascination with serial killers and horror movies. Sometime during my first few days on the job, he asked me to photocopy pictures of John Wayne Gacy from a book. As I got to know him, he did not seem quite as spooky, and he was even kind enough to bring in his pet baby alligator, whom he named Elvis. (Some of the staff did make some macabre jokes connecting his interests and his pet, however.) We also had a regular with an interest in the power of pyramids, as well as an elderly couple who would go to separate parts of the library. She would go to the magazine section, while he would sign up to use a computer, then kibitz at the desk afterwards until his wife emerged from the magazine section; some staff had reason to believe that he looked at porn, but I never knew for sure if he did.

Fortunately, none of the aforementioned people got belligerent. We did have a few who would just shoot their vitriol, then disappear into relative obscurity. Perhaps the most regular belligerent patron was the daughter of a retired county official, who could turn a $1.00 fine into a Wagnerian epic. We also had the usual bratty adolescents; in reality, only a few somehow managed to make them all look bad. During an evening when I worked, someone even reported that a patron had urinated in the fiction section. (I prefer to remain ignorant of what might have happened in the nearby public restrooms.)

From the three years I worked at that library, one patron remains the most memorable. “GM” was around average height and a little rotund around the belly, with curly blond hair, a beard, and tinted glasses. As much as I hate to say it, he also had that infamous “spoiled milk” odor. I heard that he was involved in an automobile accident and sustained brain damage, which may have accounted for his socially awkward behavior and mannerisms.

I actually had my first encounter with him a few years before starting work at the library. When I worked at McDonald’s during summers home from college, GM would stop by in the morning for his daily caffeine fix. “Small coffee. Two cream, two sugars,” he would say. Whoever happened to help him would add the condiments for him. As I handed him his cup of coffee during one transaction, he said to me, “I’ll break you in yet,” before perambulating to a table. A little creepy-sounding, but I assumed that he referred to memorizing his coffee preferences.

My next dealings with him occurred when I started at the library. GM would usually come by to read newspapers or magazines. I don’t remember any incidents from the earlier portion of my time there, but his odor posed the only real challenge to us. He also gave the staff pet names. I was “Doc,” probably because I bore some archetypal resemblance to a doctor, with my glasses and propensity towards wearing sport coats and ties. (Another patron would call me “Preacher” for that very reason.) At least two women who worked at the library received the moniker “Blondie,” for obvious reasons.

That all changed when we finally got Internet access.

With only four computers providing access to the Internet, we had a system where people needed to sign up to use them. We also had a strict policy about looking at “objectionable materials.” Five strikes, and they were out. Or, in non-baseball vernacular, they had four warnings with increasing levels of banishment from using the Internet at the library. After being caught for the fifth time, the library would banish them permanently from using the computers. (We actually had OPACs on separate computers, which ran on Dynix.)

Although GM would search for relatively innocuous fare like “blonde jokes” (an endeavor for which he would occasionally seek assistance), he managed to work himself up to level five within a little over a year. At each level, he would try to argue his way out of the relevant sanction. Sometimes, he would come back later to discuss the issue with someone in charge. If I was at the desk, he would holler at me from the stairwell, “Heyyyyyy, Doc? Where’s [name of manager]?” We would usually get the circulation manager, or the reference desk manager, or the head of the library, whoever happened to be available at the time. They would get in a back-and-forth debate about library policy and freedom of speech, which would go nowhere because GM would always come back… maybe not the next day, but maybe within a week or a month. Eventually, these confrontations took on the aura of a kind of Kabuki play. The dialogue would change somewhat, but GM would always manage to ask his stock question, “Why that obscene?” During one such discussion, the circulation manager responded, “GM! She had her legs spread in the air!”

A few weeks before starting library school, I left my job at the library. This meant a fresh opportunity to work towards a career in librarianship, as well as a chance to live on my own. It also meant that I would not work with GM anymore. I don’t know what happened to him, but I do remember him occasionally (as Woeful’s own stories prompted me to do). It seems worth mentioning as a way to demonstrate that challenging patrons appear in libraries and communities of various sizes and types, and to give those of us in the biblioblogosphere a chance to commiserate after needing to maintain a professional demeanor during such encounters.


One Response to “Challenging patrons”

  1. Jason Says:

    Re-reading this, I anticipate some really interesting false drops, like those mentioned by the Annoyed Librarian a while back.

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