What Can We Learn From a Scarring Reference Interaction?

Last week I had the experience we all dread: a bad-beyond-bad reference interaction. The problems were twofold:

  1. I did not know enough about the subject of the patron’s question to be very effective (at least right away).
  2. The patron was very disgruntled and clipped, shortly telling me to leave.

The bulk of my customer service experience comes from a job at a college bookstore where I was regularly yelled at and treated badly by customers who were angry about book prices, glitchy financial aid systems, and a variety of other problems. Therefore I can usually remain fairly unfazed in the face of hostility. But this particular patron got to me. I felt very deflated and upset after the interaction.

But with the space and time to heal, I have been able to pull two positive results from the fiasco:

  1. The subject of the patron’s query was our new scanner. I, unfortunately, had not been able to experiment much with the scanner, which led to my ineffectiveness during the reference interaction. The next day, I set out to remedy this oversight – I sat down at the scanning station, fleshed out a number of scenarios, and typed up more extensive instructions, with screen-grabs, to post at the station.
  2. In an attempt to figure out what had set the patron off on me so intensely, I brought the interaction up to a coworker, who happened to have worked with the patron before. He assured me that the patron is one of the most difficult he has ever encountered and that it took multiple interactions for a sense of positive feelings to emerge between them. He explained that most of this patron’s questions are about scanning, technology, and privacy. It was at this moment that a fuller, less caricatured portrait of this patron started to form in my mind. This patron was not a spiteful, heartless person (as I had come to view them in my mind), but a person who struggles with technology and library anxiety and, while short on patience with others, needs a certain amount of patience from others.
Library anxiety. It’s a real thing, y’all! And sometimes it manifests as library rage. (Image via ALA Store)

All of this is just to say: while I dreaded the return of this patron for a few days, I’ve now come full circle: I want this patron to come back. As soon as possible. While I’m on duty! Instead of flailing, becoming flustered, and ultimately walking away on the verge of tears, I want to assert that while I may not have the right answer immediately, I can be of service and we can figure out the new scanner – together.

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