Why We Talk Crap About Patrons

Matt Smith —  December 6, 2016 — 5 Comments
photo credit: BRICK 101 Facial animation cycle via photopin (license)

photo credit: BRICK 101 Facial animation cycle via photopin (license)

Patron Bashing – a.k.a. venting, ruminating, letting off steam, gossiping – is a huge problem in the library profession. To me, it’s nothing short of the number one barrier to providing excellent customer service. Front line staff, librarians, managers, directors – we all are do it. And we do it a lot. Every single day.

And I’m not here to shame anyone. I used to do it as much as anyone else, probably more so (my first library job was a security guard, after all). I’m here to understand it, to make an attempt at explaining it.

The first step is admitting we have a problem, individually and collectively. I think that’s the easy part.

The second step is understanding why we do it. This is how we move beyond it. The simple and naive answer would be this: we talk badly about patrons because patrons really are bad, or difficult, or [insert generalization here]. In other words, I’m not making this stuff up! Unfortunately that’s false. I would confidently estimate that 99 percent of our everyday patron interactions are either (a) positive or (b) neutral and unmemorable. That leaves 1% of patrons who are difficult, or break the Rules of Conduct, or give you a hard time, or puke on the floor. As a fun experiment, urge your staff members to make a tally sheet, to measure objectively their patron interactions for a particular day. They will be surprised.

Moreover, I have yet to come across any data to suggest that patrons are different than any other people, demographic or otherwise. If you come across such data, let me know. Patrons are people, just like us – people who walk into the library and use it. Yet we constantly get subliminal messages from library staff, library blogs, books about libraries, and even staff training that patrons are mentally unstable, or homeless, or dirty, or criminal, or rude, or liars, or stupid.

Let’s think deeply about why Patron Bashing exists.

  1. Negativity Bias

    Psychology tells us that our memories are hard-wired to remember negative experiences rather than positive ones. And we sure as heck don’t remember neutral experiences. Negativity bias, an evolutionary gift, has survival value – that’s why we have it. It’s far better to remember that our cousin was killed by a lion than to remember he wasn’t killed by a gazelle. We need to recognize this defect and move beyond it.

  2. Confirmation Bias

    Another well studied defect in human thinking, confirmation bias starts with an assumption, or narrative, or thesis: patrons are crazy, for example. Then, we only select those experiences and observations that conform to that worldview. We stockpile crazy patron stories while ignoring the rest. We do this all the time, in various aspects of our life.

  3. Group Think

    Sociology tells us that, when we get into groups, we tend to go with the flow. We go along with things, agree to things, engage in things we would never dream of doing. Patron Bashing spreads like wildfire because of this. It only takes one or two people to get the ball rolling. Pretty soon, the entire work environment is a patron bashing factory. Nobody wants to be the person to stand up and say: this isn’t right. And I don’t blame them; it’s hard.

  4. Racism and Classism

    Patron Bashing reminds me of racism in two ways. First, they are both based on false stereotypes about a group of people. “Black men are dangerous” is like “Patrons are crazy.” Both are false, and both perpetuate and fuel the oppression. Second, patron bashing reminds me of racism when it frankly is racism. Sometimes patron bashing is nothing more than a disguised way to talk negatively about people of color. Don’t believe me? If you were google the phrase “crazy library patrons,” you would immediately find the blog “Crazy Library Shit,” in which is a young pretty white librarian loathes her job and makes fun of black folks, using coded and harmful words like crackheads, Madea, in da Hood, gang wars, etc. Similar to racism but different, there’s also a socio-economic sort of snobbery going on, too. Privileged librarians with jobs tend to look down on “the public,” which is a kind of classism.

A humble look at our flaws as human beings makes us better people. The psychologist Carl Jung said this was the hardest thing for people to do. But when it comes to patron bashing, I believe this is the first step to ending the practice. I won’t go into alternative strategies here or positive ways to deal with difficult patrons – that’s another article, another Staff Day talk – but I will suggest the best way to stop talking crap about patrons is to stop talking crap about patrons!

Matt Smith


home brewing, reading, philosophy, religion, exercise. Husband and father.

5 responses to Why We Talk Crap About Patrons


    I think you make a lot of good points in this post. Patron bashing is negative and dismissive and harms the people who use our services, and it is definitely a problem.

    However, I don’t think it’s the case that ‘patrons are no different than any other people,’ or that’s it’s wise to pretend that they are on average, just like the people who are sitting behind the desk. As a white librarian from a middle class background, I’m aware of the *dozens* of advantages that I have that have put me on one side of the desk while my patrons are on the other. Acting as though patrons are just like library staff can lead to dangerous assumptions about what patrons ‘should be able’ to do. Someone like me, who had a computer in my home growing up and who had parents who read to me, can navigate the internet on my own, use the catalog, and read the many text-heavy signs in the library without difficulty, but someone without that background might struggle with those things for no fault of their own. I think expecting patrons to be like us just sets us up to feel frustrated and disappointed by their behavior.

    Acknowledging and trying to fight classism is certainly important, but I think erasing class differences is counterproductive.


      Point taken, I agree we cannot assume anything about any particular patron: about their upbringing, education, background, all of that. And we also have to understand social distinctions like race and class. I too am highly privileged and aware of it: white, male, middle class, employed, able bodied, etc.

      But again, I have yet to see any data or evidence that suggests people who use the library are any different than (a) people in general, in all their diversity or (b) people who work at a library, in all our diversity. I could see a case being made for (b) but who knows? I guess my point is this: we shouldn’t assume patrons are x,y, or z. Just love them and serve them like people.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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