The Training Not Given…

February 24, 2010 at 2:43 pm 9 comments

A post by Cynthia Lambert

In the past I have blogged about what surprised me when I first came to libraries.  Many people commented on the drunken patron—an unexpected customer service challenge if ever there was one.  One thing I expected, but three years later still have no idea how to deal with, are the mentally ill or chemically altered patrons.  I am not alone. 

When I get together socially with librarians both new and seasoned, often the talk of customer service turns into laments about the homeless, the mentally ill, drug addicts, and the unwashed.  No one it seems has any idea how to properly help and/or deal with these people.  Why is that?

A March, 2009 article in Public Libraries gives a list of 10 tips for dealing with the mentally ill, all of which suggest training.  In library school—only one class, a class on communication, even touched on the issue of mentally ill people at the library.   Of the four libraries I have worked in, not one gave me training, despite  mentally ill, homeless, and drug addicted patrons causing problems—some small, some very significant.  In fact, at one, most of the staff simply will not deal with the issue.  Rules in place against sleeping or pornography are ignored and management explicitly stated that maybe it is best to just let them sleep unless another patron complains.  

The San Francisco Public Library is trying something new to deal with the problem.  They have hired a full-time social worker.   While I think that is fantastic, the reality is that very few libraries have the money to hire adequate library staff these days, let alone getting into the business of health care.  So what is there for the rest of us? 

Other than a handful of articles, I have found no indication of a training program in place to help library staff identify and deal with the mentally ill or drug addicted.  I am sure there are many programs out there, I simply cannot find them.  I found programs for educators, for families, for children, for teens, and for law enforcement, but nothing for libraries and library professionals. 

The literature I did find is limited, suggests speaking to experts, and provides a list of ‘tips’.  Much of what I do know, I have learned informally on the job or from other librarians.  (For example, never yell, speak harshly, or seem upset–simply speak in a calm voice, speak clearly and in short sentences, show respect,  enforce the rules).

Librarians love training.  We love meetings.  How many offers of training on Twitter or Facebook have you seen in the past year?  Now think about how many you have received for dealing with drug addicts or the mentally ill?  How many hours have you spent in endless meetings discussing the best way to support e-books?  Now consider how many hours have been spent on dealing with difficult patrons in a safe and effective manner (and get management does not cut it given there lack of availability at night and on weekends).

So I ask you dear readers—please send me your training programs, your tips, your tricks, and your coping strategies for dealing with the mentally ill or drug addicted.  It is my goal to create an online professional directory of services, training, tips, and discussion to assist library professionals in dealing with the most needy and most challenging of patrons.


Entry filed under: advocacy, Continuing education, Customer Experience, Demographics, Librarians, Libraries, Policies, Public libraries, Staff development, Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Name Change from Media Specialist to School Librarian- moving forward? A quote by Alfred Mercier


  • 1. Steve  |  February 24, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I’m the Customer Service Assistant (which we jokingly refer to as the “bouncer,”) at a public library.

    A few hints, I hope they’re helpful:

    Enforce the rules, and enforce them equally. If you tell the smelly homeless guy that he has to wear shoes in the library, you’d better enforce the same rule for the teenagers who kick their shoes off while they read. You get problems when people feel they’re being singled out. It’s not who, it’s what.

    Have someone in the building during all open hours that is willing to confront people when they’re breaking the rules. It’s preferable if that person is either very confident or large. I’m 6′ 2″ tall. I wouldn’t hurt a flea, but people don’t know that. Be firm when you tell people to stop breaking rules. Not “I’d prefer if you weren’t using your cell phone in the library.” Much better is “no cell phones in the library.” It’s a rule and there is no room for negotiation.

    Establish an eviction procedure. Our procedure goes in three stages: inform, warn, evict. Once a patron has broken rules repeatedly, evict them, notify all library staff of the eviction, and call the police if the patron returns. Serious offenses can result in immediate eviction. It helps if you have a good community police department that responds quickly and takes your issues seriously. Don’t be hesitant to call them.

    Write incident reports about all major rule violations. Distribute them to all staff. Catalog them in a database. Maintain a list, with photos if available, of all patrons who are evicted.

    Save lifetime evictions for the truly dangerous. Others get temporary evictions. Try to get photos when you evict, though this may be hard at times.

    Try to be empathetic, but don’t let people walk all over you. It IS hard to be homeless. No one asks to be schizophrenic. That doesn’t mean that those people get to break the rules. They follow the same rules as everyone else. You have to be willing to throw them out in the middle of winter when they might not have anywhere else to go.

    You will almost certainly find that some homeless folks are perfectly good patrons–they might spend all day at the library, but they read quietly, are polite, and even helpful. Try not to make too many generalizations.

    Network with local service providers. We have an evening service organization that provides free meals and clothes to the homeless. I’ve got their phone # programmed in my cell phone.



  • 2. Susan V  |  February 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    One library where I worked invited in people from the local community mental health center to do a training. They had an outreach team specifically for doing these kinds of presentations.

  • 3. Jeff Scott  |  February 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Wow Steve, thanks for posting this. I will have to look into creating a position like yours for my library 🙂

    I think most staff aren’t trained on how to handle a person, not just mentally ill, but in general. They don’t know the techniques to neutralize a problem or how to handle a person so they leave peacefully. It’s very tricky, but certainly a tool any library staff member needs to know how to do. I’m working on getting that kind of training for the staff at my library.

  • 4. wanda  |  February 25, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    hm. i am not a mental health professional, and if i wanted to be one, i would have gone to school for that, instead of to library school. it does tend to pay better. i have no aptitude for that type of work. yet, i have great empathy for the mentally ill. in some of its forms i know that it can be disorienting and even frightening. and i feel strongly that the mentally ill need to belong somewhere, and that the library is one of the best places in the world for anyone, where all should be welcome.

    i frankly think that hiring a social worker — or a psych nurse — is a brilliant idea, and that it mightn’t be a bad idea for libraries to just *find* money for that purpose.

    it wouldn’t be bad, either, if the u.s. would provide better mental health services to its people, so that the responsibility doesn’t get shoved off onto librarians, teachers, bus drivers, and law enforcement.

  • 5. Shelley  |  February 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I smiled at the comment about having someone “very confident or large”! As someone who is not a librarian,but a writer who relies heavily on libraries, I just want to say that the whole humane tenor of this post is admirable.

  • 6. Peter Bromberg  |  February 26, 2010 at 8:50 am

    Cynthia, I’ve scheduled trainings with the Mental Health Association in NJ (yes, it’s “in NJ” not “of NJ”) through their Community Education Dept. PPL or CJRLC (hey Amy!) could probably set up the kind of training you’re looking for. MHANJ contact info at:

  • 7. Roch Pisarek  |  February 28, 2010 at 11:43 am

    My family and I go to the Doylestown library every weekend and enjoy the facilities greatly. I read this article a few days ago and thought that it was irrelevant to our experience, for there have been no problems like in this article in all the years going. Then on our Saturday visit this week in came a young, maybe twenty something boy, speaking on his cell and quickly darting about the entire room. It was fairly obvious that he was distracting and bothering many of the usual patrons. I used some advice given here went over to him and politely let him know that there are designated areas for phone use. It worked quite well, as after the short confrontation he moved off and was not a bother anymore. Thank you for the post.

  • 8. Megan  |  March 1, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    At the small suburban library where I work we see our share of poor behavior decisions and patrons with problems, to be sure. The two bits of wisdom I’ve gained from these experiences are:

    1) Have a good relationship with your local police. Leave the handling of any potentially dangerous patrons to them. Do not use them as babysitters for run-of-the-mill behavior problems that can be solved through consistent enforcement of policy, including temporary bans.

    Thanks for collecting this info-I’m excited to see what shakes out! It would definitely make for a good round table discussion!
    2) Abstain from judgment. A patron that may appear to be drunk may be sick (indeed, we’ve had this in our library) and a patron who may appear to be on drugs could be mentally ill. Judge situations in terms of library policy and staff/patron safety, not on your personal feelings about perceived lifestyle choices.

  • 9. Cynthia  |  March 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks everyone for your responses. I will put into place many of the suggestions here. I am also going to contact my local NAMI office to ask for help in developing strategies for dealing with these situations better–especially from the POV of the patron in need of help.

    I am always surprised and thrilled by the help and support of fellow professionals in library science. During these difficult times in the industry, it is a nice reminder of why staying is not a bad choice.

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