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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Advice on Dealing With Difficult Patrons-- The Hyper-Specific Reader

I get a lot of questions about serving specific difficult patrons and while I share my advice with the person asking, the advice often does not make it into the blog. It should. It could help more of you. So I am going to fix that now.

Today will be the first of an as needed series where I offer Advice on Dealing with Difficult Patrons. I will tag all of these posts "serving difficult patrons" so that they can all be indexed together.

If you have a specific difficult patron you would like my FREE advice on how to deal with, contact me with the details. The only rule I have is that I must be able to share the generalities of the question and my advice with the rest of the RA world.

Our first difficult patron is the Hyper-Specific Reader. You know the type. They only want to read a very specific book that may or may not exist. Here are a few I have had in the past:

  • Only books that are “about baseball.” He would read fiction, nonfiction, kids, teen, adult, but it had to be “about baseball. It couldn’t just have baseball in it.
  • Only books set during the time of the Tudors
  • Only books with dragons
  • My books cannot have the word cancer in them. Not just books with a cancer storyline. The word can’t be in there. 
  • Only books from the mystery section....with the mystery sticker. Nothing from our regular fiction section which included many books that could be classified as mystery. And, don’t get me started about the fact that authors like Harlan Coben who started as mystery writers and moved into suspense, but in order to keep his books together we kept them all in the mystery section. She’d read his suspense titles but not other similar authors because they were not in the mystery section.
That is just a small sample from my 15 years at the RA Service desk. But last month when I travelled to South Carolina, this question came up again. The very general hyper-specific patron in question here would only read “antebellum stories set in the south that did NOT focus on slave life.” She was not against stories with slaves in them, she just didn’t want that point of view only.

We talked about titles that stretched her specifics and together the room came up with a few more suggestions. But that is not the point. The point is that eventually, if she stays this rigid, not only will we run out of books that exist within those parameters, but also, the staff will come to resent helping her. Both are equally as bad.

When dealing this hyper specific reader I suggested that together, they make a list of the books that she feels perfectly fit her specific tastes. Then she should also make a list of other books she has enjoyed that do not fit this mold [she had read a few outside her narrow box]. Then I suggested that they go on NoveList together and note the appeal factors that are similar across all of the books. Using the database they could let the computer identify some possible titles.

I really want to stress using a resource with this patron-- together at the desk. She was fairly stubborn and didn’t want the library workers “forcing” her to try something she wouldn’t like-- even though she was asking for their help [people, what are you going to do?]. By allowing the database to identify the titles, the pressure could be off the staff. The choices seem less personal based and more official. We can say, “this is a resource identified suggestion based on your previously enjoyed titles."

The key is to get at least 2 titles outside the hyper specific zone to use as a bridge. The staff in this situation had at least 4 or 5 that they knew of off the top of their heads. You need something to move you a bit out of the corner the patron has boxed herself into before you start.

You can do a version of this to fit the person. So with my baseball guy, we found out that one of the reasons he demanded baseball was that he was reading on his overnight security guard shift and he knew that baseball would keep his interest enough to keep him awake. So instead of struggling for more baseball books, we made a larger list of his interests and found him titles that included those [using NoveList and Goodreads]. As we went on helping him, we were able to find authors who he had enjoyed who also write in a series. Once he found a series he liked, he read them all. That kept his interest which kept him awake and happy.

The point is, we dug deeper together. Often the thing making the patrons so hyper specific and demanding has more to do with their insistence on that type of book. All you have to do is find them 1 book outside their comfort zone that they enjoyed and then they will try another, and another, and then even another. Soon they are miles away from that narrow boxed in corner.

I was just pointing this out to one of my former patrons who I still meet with weekly to help her choose her books. She used to only read James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark. All other books she read grudgingly while she waited. Now she has found so many more authors across many genres that she is considering taking her name off the automatic holds list for Patterson. We both had a laugh about how a few years ago that would have been a “scandalous” thing to say for her.

One last thing though. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you cannot get the person to budge even a centimeter. There is a point where it is okay, with your supervisor's approval, to nicely tell the person that you can no longer help them.  I don't think we talk about this enough. If you have done all you can to match this reader with books and they are unwilling to try your suggestions, you are within your rights to simply allow them to browse alone.

For the record, I have done this with a handful of patrons over the years.

Make it clear that you cannot suggest books that haven’t been written, but that there are thousands of options at your fingertips now, books that she should give a chance. Books that you think she will like despite the fact that they are not exactly what she thinks she needs.

If she is still unwilling to read what you have to offer, then I have shown these people how to use NoveList [if you have it] to help themselves.  Again, you need to okay this with your supervisor.

We love to help readers find the perfect read, but we also cannot create books out of thin air. Don’t let unreasonable expectations make you resent your commitment to public service.

So try my advice on how to convince these hyper-specific readers to try something outside of their strict confines, but if you can’t get them to bite, move on to help the next person.

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