The Reference Librarian’s Guide to Coping with Emotional Demands of the Job

Imagine the scenario. You are a reference librarian working a five-hour shift. It’s nearing five o’clock. Only three people have approached you in the last hour, two to ask where’s the bathroom and one to ask where he can pick up Interlibrary Loan items. The land of reference is quiet. Perhaps it’s a Tuesday, typically your quietest day.

Then a teenager walks into the library. She approaches the reference desk and asks for help with a school assignment. In the next twenty minutes five other high school students come in, wanting help with the same assignment. It’s due tomorrow. They’re anxious, and you only have so many resources on 16th-century France and the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

But you must remain friendly, helpful. You want to. But the students are impatient, rude, and you have to hear them out, each one, though you know the answer already.

The emotional demands of reference work are often overlooked. Sometimes the demands are rewarding, other times they’re simply frustrating. How do you cope?

Luckily, that question has been answered. An article in a 2013 issue of The Reference Librarian, “Emotional Labor in the Academic Library: When Being Friendly Feels Like Work,” discussed what 6 interviewed reference librarians had to say about how they cope with feelings of anger, boredom, fear, and frustration on the job. They had strategies they used with patrons, and strategies they used during down time. Here’s a summary of reported coping strategies:

Coping strategy used in dealing with patrons:                   Actions:

Helping someone really hard. Focus on finding the wanted information and not on the patron’s emotional state. Often, finding the info will take care of the patron’s frustration. Remember, you deal in information, not counseling.
Reframing or excusing behavior. Avoid taking a patron’s negative emotions or behavior personally. Instead, imagine to yourself that the patron’s behavior is due to a backache, an argument with a boy/girlfriend, or family issue.
 Empathizing. Try to understand why the patron is upset, especially if the reason library-related. For example, if he/she is confused by a lack of signage in the library, say “Yeah, I would find that confusing too” if you were a first-time visitor to your library. Acknowledge the patron’s frustration.
Using or threatening to use authority. As a last resort, in extreme circumstances, for example with a dangerous or abusive patron, you can say “There’s the door. You can leave, or I can call police.”

 

Coping strategy used during ‘down time’:                          Actions:

 Venting. Talking with co-workers about on-the-job problems or difficult patrons.
Stepping away. If someone is available to cover the desk for 10 minutes, you can take a walk outside around the building. If you are stuck at the desk, you can take a “break” by searching for something non-work-related to read on the internet.
 Hiding (this is serious, guys). A last-resort technique. You can vacate the desk when a well-known problem patron comes into sight.

 

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