the challenging library user: an argument for cultural competency 

The demographics of our local populations are changing as a result of the increased movement of people across the globe.  Dealing with challenging situations and difficult patrons in library spaces is on the rise and increased diversity in our communities can contribute to these incidences (Balderrama, 2000).  While training may include how to deal with the challenging library user, it may not necessarily prepare library staff to deal with the issues influenced by multiculturalism and diversity.

All library policies and training should demonstrate cultural competency (Overall, 2009).  In order to do so, the library needs to know its demographic and diverse representation of both existing users as well potential users.  Cultural competence demonstrates respect and inclusivity which improves relationships between library staff and library users (Balderrama, 2000; Overall, 2009).

Meeting the information needs of a diverse demographic in our communities is an obligation to promote new and continued library patronage and support in our communities (Overall, 2009).  Libraries cannot afford to neglect those needs and would benefit from exploring and extending their relationship with all members of the community.  While higher literacy might have been the privilege exclusive to the educated elite at one time, inclusivity is a new model that should be illustrated in our library mission, goals and policies in today’s open society.

Preparedness for the challenging library user does not come about without any effort.  It should include communication training and workshops to understand and obtain effective verbal skills, understand nonverbal communication, and include increased knowledge and awareness of intercultural communication differences (Overall, 2009).  When an incident occurs it would be helpful to evaluate and discuss the possible cultural influence on the situation during the debriefing to keep an open dialog about diversity to continue to improve both policy and communication skills to promote and support cultural competency.

Using the Evans & Ward (2007) and Week 11 Lecture, the following plan is proposed to deal with the challenging library user:

  1. Develop clear and concise policies and procedures in accordance the mission of the institution and the law in anticipation of various scenarios for the safety of the institution, staff and users.
  2. All staff should go through training to implement the policies and procedures for challenging library users.
  3. Training and dialog should be periodic and continual as needed.
  4. A reference to policies and procedures should be easily available to front line workers.
  5. Pre-determine safe areas to talk to the user in question and signals to inform other staff of a “situation” to obtain their assistance or support if needed should be established.
  6. Staff should be vigilant and walk the floor frequently.
  7. When a confrontation is imminent, stay calm and observe nonverbal cues for clues to the person’s emotional status.
  8. Request clarification of the problem and listen.
  9. Rephrase the information back for confirmation of the issue.
  10. Discuss or state the solutions or consequences according to institutional policy that need to be applied in a given time frame to resolve the situation.
  11. Situations that involve behavioral or hygienic issues may need to be approached by the library staff.  Clear roles and procedures need to be in place for dealing with inappropriate behavior and offensive hygiene.
  12. Keep other staff informed of uncomfortable or challenging situations.
  13. Request help from other staff or supervisor as needed.
  14. Call for local authorities if needed.
  15. Debrief after an incident to inform each other and evaluate the event to improve the successful resolution of future confrontations.
  16. Determine methods of documentation for repeated issues with library users not only for record keeping, but also to watch for patterns or re-occurrences to evaluate the effectiveness of policies and procedures.


Balderrama, S. R. (2000). This trend called diversity. Library Trends, 49(1), 194-214.

Evans, G. E., & Layzell, W. P. (2007). Management basics for information professionals. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: A conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. The Library Quarterly, 79(2), 175-204.

Reynolds, B. (2011). Unit 11:  Dealing with workplace crises: Employee discipline & difficult customers. [Online Lecture, SJSU SLIS LIBR 204].