Mental Health & Library Patrons

If you have read any of my posts, you know I believe in librarians.  Above all, we are here to provide a service to the people in our communities.  We assist in finding resources for educational or entertainment purposes and are committed to bringing technology and new research to our patrons.  We respect privacy, freedom of speech and press, and freedom to read.  We are professional and educated.  Librarians are strong, ethical, public servants.

Our patrons are community members from all different walks of life – age, religion, race, and health.  We are here to connect equitably with all people, no matter what their values and beliefs are. 

I believe one of the hardest and, for me, most fun parts of working with the public is – you never know who your next customer will be or what they need.  When you work in a store, the interaction is often more straightforward.

Customer: I’m looking for socks.
Clerk: Socks are in aisle 7.
(It’s below zero degrees as I write this. An extra pair of socks sounds good!)

In a library setting, we typically have to conduct a reference interview – a more in-depth conversation – to truly assist the patron.  We spend more time with them and build professional relationships with them.

When you work with the public, you need training on how to handle a variety of situations.  If you work with the public, it helps to know how to empathize and connect with people.  Do yourself a favor and learn a little basic psychology – to understand how to communicate with people.


foolI have a different approach to life than some.  I believe people – as they present themselves.  I believe people are good.  Whatever face I am presented with is truth.  Whatever story I am told is truth.  No matter how far fetched a story – I want to know more.  No matter how loud you are and angry you appear – I will listen with a sympathetic ear.  No matter your quest – I will try to help.  Until I find out otherwise – I believe.

We can handle someone having a bad day – stay calm, listen more than speak, and take care of them quickly.  But some circumstances require more skill to handle the situation.  Some situations escalate over time while others happen quickly.  Sometimes we are dealing with someone who is angry, while other times we are dealing with someone who is overly friendly.  Librarians are exploring ways to handle special situations with patrons – especially those who have mental health problems or disorders.

What can we do?  Communicate.  Empower.

If you are a manager, listen to your staff and partner with local counseling and mental health facilities.  They can help:

  • Obtain training for staff.
  • Research and share your knowledge.
  • Build realistic policies and procedures.
  • Empower your staff.

If you are an employee, educate yourself before you encounter a problem.

  • Read policies and procedures.
  • Research and share your knowledge.
  • Speak to your peers.
  • Talk to your manager.

The best information I have read and have given on this topic is this: communication is the key.  Librarians need to feel safe to talk to their peers and managers about inappropriate behavior or behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable.  Libraries have policies and procedures in place.  Utilize these to analyze the situation and act accordingly.  Managers need to listen to their staff and be proactive in taking steps to speak to the patron about their behavior. 

There are ongoing conversations about safety.  Libraries have policies and procedures in place for the safety of patrons and staff.  We might want to tell the stalkers to leave and come back when they got the help they needed.  We might want to tell someone who is overly friendly to stop Googling information about us – we are sitting right here and it’s creepy.  But what we will do is treat you with the respect we want from you.  We will follow our guidelines and band together to ensure everyone’s safety.

At one of the Tennessee Library Association conferences, there was a great response to problem patrons.  There was a presentation called “Streakers, Stalkers, and Squatters: Dealing with Problem Patrons” by Susan H. Martin.  Here are a few of the responses:

  • Listen carefully to the user’s question, request, or complaint.
  • Approach patrons who are engaged in questionable behavior with as nonjudgmental an attitude as possible.
  • Be calm and receptive to the library user.
  • Avoid humor or personal remarks.
  • Alert other staff members as soon as strange behavior has been reported.
  • If the user seems emotional, don’t respond immediately. Pause, breathe deeply, and think before speaking to the patron.
  • Stay pleasantly calm and firm. Do not argue. Stick to the issue and do not get sidetracked by new complaints and arguments.
  • Try to offer a choice of actions or alternatives that do not violate policy. 

We need to be proactive and listen to one another.  When faced with a patron – who is clearly not someone we can assist in a routine manner – we need to work as a team and support one another.  We need to brainstorm how to actively handle behaviors and situations together. 

 ~I’m here to help



Easton, Carol. 1977. Sex and Violence in the Library: Scream a Little Louder, Please. American Libraries 8(9): 484-488.
“Reasons why libraries have always been magnets for the mentally and emotionally disturbed; Ways in which staff have dealt with problem patrons; Recommendation that library systems issue emergency manuals to employees.”
(Yes, this is article is from 1977.)

Martin, Susan. 2006.  Streakers, Stalkers, and Squatters: Dealing with Problem Patrons. Tennessee Library Association.  For a complete list, Responses to Problem Patrons, check out:

Miss Ingrid. Please Don’t Say This to a Librarian. Magpie Librarian.
“Bottom line: If you are sincerely convinced that the librarian in front of you is the love of your life, keep it to yourself.”  Retrieved from:

Pera, Miriam.  May 2014.  Library Security.  American Libraries Live.
“In terms of stalking or other inappropriate/sexual behavior targeted toward library employees, especially women, Albrecht says there are two parts to handling the situation: (1) The employee should have the courage to tell administrators that there is a problem and that the behavior is happening, and (2) management has to step in and tell the patron that the behavior is inappropriate and needs to stop.”  Retrieved from:

Public Library Association. 2014. Violence Prevention in the Public Library – Webinar. Retrieved from:

Safe Harbor: Policies and Procedures for a Safe Library.  (Also found on OCLC’s WebJunction.)  Retrieved from:
A large group of experts and librarians, along with funding through a LSTA Grant, made this comprehensive document possible.


Excerpts – bad patron behaviors found in library policies:

“Creating a disturbance by making noise, talking loudly, whistling, singing, using profanity, running, fighting, or engaging in other disruptive conduct is prohibited. This includes, but is not limited to, stalking, staring or following another with the intent to annoy, or intentionally behaving in a manner that could reasonably be expected to annoy or disturb other customers or staff.” ~La Crosse Public Library

“Interfering with Library staff’s performance of their duties…. Engaging in intimidating or harassing behaviors, including following or stalking other patrons or Library staff, leering at others.” ~Yutan Public Library


And yes:  communication is the key. 

  • Librarians need to feel safe to talk to their peers and managers about inappropriate behavior or behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable. 
  • Managers need to listen to their staff and be proactive in taking steps to speak to the patron about their behavior.