Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#51, April 14, 2000.

BOOK REVIEWS: Defusing the Angry Patron, and
The Social Life of Information

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Guru Interviews

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  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
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Rhea Joyce Rubin. Defusing the Angry Patron: a How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians and Paraprofessionals. Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2000.

This is a remarkably useful book, I think, since few of us are good at dealing with other people's anger; it's very easy for us to feel like it's an attack on us personally, and respond with defensiveness or even with our own anger.

But a patron's anger can be a useful warning sign that something in our systems and policies may be antagonizing not just this patron but many others -- the book points to research showing that "only 4% of unhappy customers ever complains," and that out of every 100 people who never return to a particular business, 68% say that the reason was rude or indifferent staff behavior. The patron who complains offers an insight into how our customers perceive us, and gives us an opportunity to improve everyone's satisfaction with our service.

This means that one of the first ways of dealing with patron anger is preventing it in the first place. Offer your patrons a welcoming, personal environment, Rubin says, smiling at them, greeting them, even asking them how you can help them. When you see people fidgeting while waiting in line, smile and let them know you see them there. When a patron is upset, Rubin suggests a range of strategies, including greeting them respectfully, listening attentively, maintaining eye contact, acknowledging their feelings, restating your understanding of the cause of their anger, and apologizing (not necessarily for the library's actions or policies but for the fact that it angered them). Always focus, she says, not on the anger but on the problem that aroused it.

She warns us about phrases we often use that are red flags to patrons -- "I can't...", "You don't understand...", "I don't know...", "We don't do..." -- and offers positive alternatives; instead of "I don't know," try "I'll find out"; instead of telling them what you CAN'T do, tell them what you CAN do instead. The object is not to quell the patron with library rules, but to figure out how librarians can satisfy the patron's needs or complaints within the constraints of our rules and budgets. Her basic strategy is: "Greet, listen, acknowledge, listen, apologize, move toward a solution."

Rubin doesn't deny that the patron may be wrong, or even totally out of control. That does not give us an excuse to respond with disrespect or hostility ourselves, however natural a response that may be. She recommends tactics from breathing exercises to using a buddy system to deal with our own emotional responses. She recommends always acknowledging the anger with validating statements like "It IS frustrating when..." or "You sound upset about that." However, when the patron's behavior is actually abusive, she offers some calming strategies to use while you're waiting for security assistance.

There is astonishing information here that should make us reflect on ALL our transactions with patrons. Did you know that under the best circumstances, we remember only 25% of what we are told? And that the figure goes down to 10% when we are told over the telephone? Did you know that over the phone, tone of voice carries 86% of the meaning people receive? That in face to face conversations, body language conveys 55% of the meaning?

Rubin offers us all several ways to practice for future encounters, including several scenarios, and invitations to fill in the blanks of our own scenarios. She also offers self-tests we can put ourselves through, and useful exercises such as the one in which we identify those points in our systems that most frequently cause stress or anger. Having identified those stress points, we might want to reconsider how we handle these things.

There's no question in my mind that everybody who deals with the public in a library would benefit from reading this book -- the strategies not only can defuse conflict but help us deal with our own anger. Staff would benefit even more if the book was the subject of at least one in-service training day. But the biggest gainer would be our library's reputation as a friendly place that cares about its patrons and welcomes their input.



John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

This books' important point is that our traditional means for transmitting information -- books, newspapers, magazines, journals, conferences, classrooms, the workplace -- are more than inert shells around the information; they have social value in and of themselves. High tech prophets, thinking that information is all that matters, are surprised to see that computers not only did not produce a paperless society, they generated still more paper. Envisioning people working happily out of home offices and literally phoning their work in, they are surprised that conventional workplaces continue to multiply, and telecommuting is done by, at the most generous estimate, only 6% of the population.

High-tech prophets see information as a closed loop: message sent, message received. Thus it seems to them that transmitting it digitally should be more efficient, should simplify our lives. What they are missing is the social context of information. We don't just receive it; we ignore it or accept it or alter it in accordance with what we already believe and know, and in accordance with what the people around us believe to be true and possible.

"Infoenthusiasts" don't understand that ideas may in fact be generated by social interaction and exchange of information -- that half the knowledge passed on at conferences is not from the formal papers but from conversations in restaurants and bars and exhibit halls before and after the papers are delivered. They also fail to understand that ideas may be created individually, but they have to be developed communally. Those who generate ideas do not necessarily have the skills to apply and develop the ideas, envision their possible uses and customers, turn them into workable products, and market them.

The authors show the high tech prophets as people who reduce the world to nothing but individuals and information, through demassification, decentralization, denationalization, despacialization, disintermediation, and disaggregation. To high tech theorists, people in an office environment should be able to work from any desk space, all of them equipped with computers which can retrieve their individual files from central servers. They were unable to understand why workers hated this system, because it worked against our instincts to invest our workspace with our personalities, and to build relationships with the people around us.

The book suggests that "infoenthusiasts" should pay closer attention to things that persist when their theories indicate that they should die. Why do people continue to read books and newspapers when the information is available online? Why do they prefer live conferences to teleconferences, and normal workplaces to telecommuting? Why do so many people who enroll in distance learning courses drop out? What is lacking in the digitized versions of these realities?

This is a valuable book. It would be even moreso, and for a far wider audience, if it was a little less academic in tone. The book is full of fascinating examples of mismatches between people's real-life behavior and the expectations of infoenthusiasts, but not quite enough to relieve the multisyllabic abstract words that carry most of the argument. I hope that in future editions the authors can make their ideas concrete more often, and talk more as if they're explaining their ideas to their next-door neighbors rather than to academics.

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Power shifts occur gradually, but they do occur. Online databases have a democratizing, egalitarian effect. In fact, if it weren't for the high price, they might even have changed the world beyond your recognition, bringing the average library patron information previously reserved for fully tenured professors working in major research libraries.

the always prescient Barbara Quint, in Wilson Library Bulletin, April, 1993.


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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.