A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Reading Your Library Patrons

by on December 26, 2012

I have worked in a public library for over almost eight years. I worked at the circulation desk for six years and have worked at the youth services desk for over one year. One similar thing I have noticed that is that reading people is a big help in providing the best service you can at either desk.

At the circulation desk some people may want you to just check out their materials so they can leave. It’s true that patrons come to the circulation desk for other reasons, like resolving fines or to discuss lost materials, but the majority of transactions involve checking out patron materials. Some people will engage you in a conversation, but not all. You have to become good at reading people at the circulation desk so that you will know to enter into conversations with people that look like they want to talk and not with people that want to grab their stuff and go.

I always tried to greet people and would react based on their reaction. If there was a line of patrons, I would always try to be pleasant but brief to everyone. If there wasn’t a line, I might try to engage someone who smiled or gave me a joking sort of greeting. The people that grumbled or looked away were, most of the time, the ones I would just greet and say “Have a nice day” to at the end; the people that seemed more positive might get a little conversation in between.

People at the youth desk are, in some cases, a bit more invested…they come to the reference desk seeking answers and are willing to stick around a bit more so they can get them. I have observed, however, that even though they are seeking answers they are not always willing to stick around long enough for me to find the answer. There is definitely a certain amount of reading people here too. I have feared before that some people will leave because I cannot find their answer fast enough, and this has happened a few times in the two different public libraries I have had the pleasure of working in.

The best thing you can do is to listen to what people are asking and read their body language to help you decide what they want your involvement to be. Listening to what people are asking is very important, they either know exactly what they want or they don’t. The patrons that don’t know exactly what they want are the ones that I ask further questions to so I can gain more insight into what they are looking for. Reading their body language is a constant challenge. The people that don’t look at me when they ask a question can be problematic, they may be too afraid to ask or they may not feel like they have time for me to help them. For the people that are afraid, usually children, I throw on my biggest smile and try to make them feel more comfortable. For the people that feel like they may not have time for me I try to help them as best I can. There are a lot of different people that can come to the desk and you have to just do what you can to help.

The bottom line is that library employees are there to serve the people. It is our job to help the people that come in. Gauging that someone does not want to talk can show that you are serving them by respecting their wishes for privacy. Having conversations with people that seem friendly can be providing better service too; you are creating a friendly and warm environment for your patron. Learning to read people is one way you can provide better service.