The Patron Asks for a Date (and Other Awkward Situations)

Working reference can be extremely interesting. A librarian or archivist never knows what questions patrons will bring. There are the usual “I need help finding this or that” or “I don’t know where to start.” There are the directional questions, most commonly “where are the restrooms?” and “where are the printers?.” There are the repeat patrons who always want the librarian to do their searching, no matter how many times you have taught them information literacy skills and how to use the catalog, databases, and other search tools. However, there are the awkward situations that can occur at the reference desk.

The top six I experienced as a Graduate Reference Assistant:

SJSU Librarian Helps Student in Reference

“SJSU Librarian Helps Student in Reference” from Flickr Creative Commons.

6. The Professor Can’t Use the Database: I once helped a professor at the reference desk who could not search a database. He had no clue where to begin. Admittedly, he was older (probably in his 60s) and said his subject librarian had tried to teach him, but he insisted it was easier to have someone else do it. How did I handle this? I explained all the steps, helped locate the articles (he had the citations!). However, he said he’s be back later with more citations. My demonstrations fell to deaf ears.

5. The Patron Prefers You to His Subject Librarian: There was a patron my first year at Ellis that always can to the reference desk for assistance locating needed material for his dissertation. Almost always, it was something he needed via inter-library loan and was not a book or article (ex. DVD or CD). His subject librarian always reminded him that those items are usually not sent via inter-library loan and the patron said that’s why he wouldn’t go the librarian. The first time I helped this patron, I reminded him of the same rules, but at least placed the request. After this, that patron always came to me when I was at the reference desk. He’d even wait until I was finished with someone else, including when the other librarian on-duty was free. Once, I was setting up a display during my time off, and he still came to me for assistance. And I did help. By the way, I don’t know if he ever did get anything he requested via inter-library loan.

4. The Doctoral Student Wants You to Research Their Dissertation: This happened all too frequently. A doctoral student would come to the reference desk expecting us to find everything they need to write their dissertation, right down to locating raw data. The problem here? No matter how hard we searched, we seldom found what these patrons desired. Why? Dissertations are supposed to be unique and add new ideas to scholarship. We couldn’t locate information that the patron should be discovering from conducting their own surveys, experiments, and studies! Yet they expected us to and were frequent customers! We just did the best we could when this situation arose.

3. The Patron Left His Wife: My last semester I had a man and his friend come into Ellis Library wanting to set up guest-user accounts. The man spoke passionately about how he left his wife earlier that evening, frequently using words not meant for polite company. All I could really do was listen, but I think he wanted me to voice my opinion on the situation. As a professional, I really shouldn’t voice an opinion in this situation because I could risk angering him or being lured into providing legal advice. And librarians are never supposed to give legal advice; they should just locate information the patron wants.

2. The Patron Provides His Complete Medical History: I once had a patron come to the desk to ask where the restroom was, then he proceeded to tell me his whole medical history (which was directly related to why he needed the restroom). Needless to say, it was not fun. Speaking for all librarians, we don’t want to know an stranger’s complete medical history. All I could really do was listen, though I think he wanted sympathy or advice. Just like with legal matters, a librarian cannot give medical advice. Our code of ethics prevent us from giving medical and legal advice because we could get into legal trouble ourselves for doing that.

1. A Patron Asks for a Date: How did this happen? The patron in question was a doctoral student I had been helping at the reference desk for over an hour. Luckily, I found everything he needed and he was extremely grateful. The patron then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to go with him to a local coffee shop. So how did I respond? After a few seconds of stunned silence, I turned down the offer. Why? Mainly because I was already in a committed relationship. Also, it is an ethical situation. While on the job, I needed to be a professional, even thought I was still a student.

Looking back at “situation 1,” if you were single, would you have accepted or declined?

Why do I ask? I once tried to explain this ethical situation on a class discussion board. I thought it would have been wrong to accept the offer, even if I hadn’t been in a relationship. Why? That’s how it would be handled in a real-life situation in a library or archive. On the job, we are professionals. If the question had been asked when I was off-duty and I was single, then I could have accepted. My fellow students’ counterpoint was that since I was also a student, it should have been okay to accept the offer while on the job.

Have you ever experienced similar situations to these, whether it be at the reference desk, in a classroom, or other customer service role? Would you have handled them differently?

6/10/13 at 6:30 PM: Consider taking a look at the comments. They flesh out these situations a bit more and have other useful information. Thank you Rachel!

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9 thoughts on “The Patron Asks for a Date (and Other Awkward Situations)

  1. #4 is tricky. There’s a fine line between answering specialized questions in subject fields (something subject librarians are SUPPOSED to do – this is why we’re supposed to have graduate work in the field, in addition to our library degree) and doing the research for the student. I would say that helping a social science student locate government statistics that have already been compiled falls squarely within the “reference work” category. It’s okay to find out that there really are no statistics available on a subject, but I’d say if a Ph.D. student needs assistance finding the material they will be covering in their review of literature…that is what we are there for.

    • Rachel, I’ll respond directly to your comments later today. You bring up some good points, but they are hard to respond while using my smartphone while out running errands! I need a bigger screen!

    • Per #4, I agree locating government data and helping with lit reviews are reference work, but the cases I had that fit situation #4 were not that. They were cases where searching databases, catalogs, and the open web yielded no data at all, for me or the subject specialist. The doc students already conducted the literature reviews and had approved topics.

  2. You’re on target with #2 and #3. Often, people, being human, just need a listening ear. But if they’re after legal or medical advice…you tell them you can’t offer that. It never hurts to keep some numbers handy for local social service agencies and the like, for some of these situations.

    #5 If I were in this situation, I would speak with the subject librarian involved and let them know what is happening. The person will want to know that they are doing something that is driving patrons away! It’s a little weird that the patron doesn’t just place his own ILL requests, and let the chips fall where they may – mediation is not really required here. But I can see where a help-me-find-this inquiry can morph into a let’s-fill-this-form-out-together experience. If it’s physically possible to place the request, and there is no widely accepted and publicized policy against requesting certain types of items, there is no reason for any librarian to balk at filling the ILL form out with the patron. If the patron generates a huge number of requests that are not filled, it may be time for Access Services/ILL to take a look at either forms or policies. You can’t really force the patron to go back to their subject librarian, but if you have had a productive conversation with the subject librarian, and you have good reason to think the patron will be treated differently in the future, I’d at least tell the patron that.

    • First, before I forget again, thanks for all the comments!

      Good points about having the relevant numbers on-hand should the patron need contact info for medical and/or legal advice.

      Per situation #5, in this case, the subject specialist knew what the situation was. He had been the other librarian at the desk at least once when this patron worked with me! I don’t know why the patron always wanted help, but at least he always came in knowing that the item was not in MERLIN, either locally or at another campus. I don’t know how many times I showed him MOBIUS (while not usually the case, I still checked to see if the item was lendable), WorldCat, and ILLiad, but he always came back. This situation is one of two I could have written a whole post on, but then I’d fear giving out too much information and it could identify the patron and others involved.

  3. On #1 – I can think of at least one marriage that began with a patron asking a librarian on a date. I don’t know whether he did it the optimal “right” way (wait for librarian to leave the workplace and THEN ask her out)…or not. If one is single when this happens, and the attraction is mutual, it seems awkward and a bit contrived to say, “ask me again when my shift is over,” but I suppose that is an approach one could take. To me, the more important thing is what happens if you say no…and the patron keeps coming back and asking repeatedly, either during work or after. If that happens, you have a more troubling problem on your hands, and you will need to document each instance of it and talk with your supervisor and/or HR person about your institution’s policies on sexual harassment. Be sure, first, to have made your “no” to the over-interested patron extremely unambiguous – better to come across as abrupt or “mean” than coy. It feels harsh to say straight out, “I am not interested in dating you,” instead of just “I need to be a professional here!” or “I have a personal policy of not dating patrons.” But if you really do not want to date the guy, that is what you must do, or a persistent guy will take your “policy” as a challenge for him to get you to break it.

    • On #1, if we are thinking of the same person, the story I heard was she first asked to see him again and he came up with the idea of a first date. Like you, I’m not sure whether the actual discussion was before or after the shift. I’d consider this to be a slightly different situation because of the evident mutual attraction from the beginning. In my case, where it came out of the blue and was one-sided, it was odd.

      Per your ideas on how to handle the situation, I agree with you. Asking them to repeat the request when you off-duty is awkward, but works at keeping the professionalism. And if the patron is persistent, then you have outlined the right plan of action. Luckily, this was not the case with me. The only other time I saw him was at a distance speaking with his subject specialist in the colonnade.

      Oh, and readers, I know Rachel and we’ve worked together so sorry for some veiled references in these comments and mentions of local places and acronyms.

  4. I once read a statistic that the majority of librarians meet their spouse at the circulation/reference desk. Of course I can’t track this down and therefore can’t speak for the statistic’s credibility, but it does seem to make sense. Would it be ethical to say “ask me after work, I get off at x o’clock”?

    • I hadn’t heard that statistic! If it were true, I would imagine it would only apply to librarians with a public service focus as those in technical services (or processing for archives) are usually behind the scene. As for the ethics of the question, I think it may just come down to personal opinion and/or library policy. I think professionalism should be first at the desk which would lead me to suggest re-asking later. But again, that’s me. I opened the debate to see what others have to say.

      And thanks for commenting!

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