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« Do you have questions about virtual reference legal issues? | Main | Update on a rabbi's oral history defamation lawsuit: is a one-year statute of limitations long enough? »

May 20, 2005

Comments

I agree with the general sentiment. A single comment can be ignored, but harassment of any type is unacceptable. I have dealt with this issue personally and said in a friendly manner, "That is a personal issue that I prefer not to discuss, and if you don't have any reference questions I need you to clear this area so that other patrons know I am available," or words to that effect. Of course now I would probably just say, "Yes, and he told me he doesn't want you talking about him anymore."

Take a tip from the family-therapy world: stick to an "I" statement, as in:

"I prefer not to discuss it."

This can be endlessly repeated. No one, public employee or not, is required to engage in conversation when they would rather not. But surely no library has a content-specific rule about what their employees can discuss with patrons! Much better to focus on a neutral, true statement: you'd rather not discuss it.

Note: I used a similar tactic when I managed a coffee shop and had to kick out unwanted patrons (drunks, people harassing other customers, etc.). I would simply say, "I'm asking you to leave," without any discussion or explanation. They would protest, ask me to explain myself, etc. I would simply repeat, "I'm asking you to leave." Usually they would. If not, I graduated to tne next "I" statements: "I've asked you to leave. Now I'm going to call the police and have them arrest you for trespassing."

I agree with the above. It's more about focusing on the job than restricting the patron's speech, though. There will always be a patron who wishes to discuss religion or their personal medical condition or their mistreatment by the system or their cheating, no-good ex or their family history and royal bloodline... People do recognize a captive audience when they see it. The challenge is to not rise to the bait. Try to focus back on the question they are asking. If they are not asking a question, let them know you are there for them should they need assistance. [It's not at all easy - I know from long experience and there have been patrons who have gotten the best of me.]

Don't even open the door to your own personal life. If you refuse to answer personal questions, or refuse to even acknowledge those questions, most people take the hint. Of course, along with that closed door to your personal life goes the rule that you shouldn't chat up co-workers about your personal business where patrons can easily overhear. If they hear all about your life from you through these conversations, it makes it difficult to convince them that it's not their business.

I'm impressed with readers' comments - especially since I don't know the right answer. The only thing I'd like to say (for now) is that any speech regulations imposed on patrons will fare better legally if they are not content-based... I wrote about library patrons and hate speech (not religious speech) for California Libraries here: http://www.cla-net.org/resources/articles/minow_doyouallow.php

Yes, it makes no difference whether it's Jesus or sports scores; there's no reason why a librarian should have to put up with being endlessly harangued by a patron on any subject, unless it's a legitimate library-related problem. The way to deal with it is to recognize that it's NOT a religion-related issue, but a matter of being able to do one's job without being pestered beyond a reasonable level. In spite of the nonsensical claim that "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion," the First Amendment doesn't make religious proselytizing a privileged activity.

Libraries often have Rules for Behavior that may address these sorts of situations. The library system I work in has two rules for behavior that may provide some relief for staff and patrons.

One rule prohibits all kinds of speech (such as, but not limited to, petitions, solicitations, sales pitches, interviews) that disrupt normal activities in the Library.

The other rule prohibits loud conversations "in louder volume than the general noise level of the area."

The consequences for violating these rules are 3-tiered.
First the patrons gets a verbal warning from our security staff.

If they persist a 2nd time, their library privileges are revoked for a month.

Finally, if a third contact is warranted, they lose their library privileges for a year and if they violate that ban, they are considered trespassing and legal action is taken.

It is tricky at the branches because they do not have security on duty. The best course of action in this case would be for patrons to file a formal complaint to Library Administration or ask that staff contact Security so they can file a formal complaint.

I concur with the above, particularly the harrassment angle. Also, what about the other patrons? When you say tirade, does that mean the patron is creating a public nuisance? If so, you would probably have grounds for removing the patron from the premises, depending on library policy regarding patrons disrupting other patrons. It seems like a drastic measure, so it's not one I would get trigger-happy on, of course. But if he is bothering the other patrons, he should be warned that he could be removed from the library. If he were screaming sports scores, the policy wouldn't be any different.

I'm in agreement with the previous poster. If it were me, I would somehow indicate that my religious decisions are mine, and private, and that I don't want to discuss them with him or be browbeaten over them. I would make my work with him brief and if he persisted in continuing the conversation I'd say I wasn't interested in talking about it. The sports metaphor is weak: if I tell you I like the Red Sox and you hassle me over and over about the Yankees, you are harassing me. At the point at which you tell someone you don't want to continue a conversation and they belabor it in an unwelcomed and unwanted way, you can, in my universe, rightly discharge your obligation to them once you have provided them with the service that your position requires.

Librarians at the reference and circulation desks are often targets for various people who have something to say and take advantage of the fact that you can't easily leave your post. Learning how to deflect unwanted attention in these instances is, sadly, often a crucial part of public service.

Public employees, just like the employees of any other organization, have the right to have their own religious beliefs (or not). Instead of telling the patron that engaging in religious debate is "inappropriate" -- thereby allowing the equation with sports discussions, I would have all staff remind this patron that many people view religion as a personal matter and therefore do not wish to discuss it with patrons. If he continues, make an analogy to other aspects of personal life, such as medical conditions or sexual behavior -- many people do not discuss these openly, at work, and with patrons.

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