Patron Complaints: Firsthand Experience

So, something happened to me recently that I have heard tell in my many library school classes, but I hadn’t actually had first-hand experience with. Now that I HAVE, I feel as though I am in the position to offer advice, as (in my humble opinion), the interaction went about as ideally as it could have. I present to you:

The Patron Complaint

Yes, it’s true, I had a patron complain to me about a book I had recommended to her and her daughter. Here’s how the situation played out:

  • The patron, a mother with three young children, comes to the desk to ask for recommendations for her daughter (who is not present with her this day).  She tells me her daughter has been reading Raina Telgemeier’s books, and particularly enjoyed Drama, and is looking for a read-alike to those books.
  • I’m not told how old her daughter is, but based on that, I recommend to her three books: Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, Meanwhile by Jason Shiga, and This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki.
  • Can you tell where this is going yet?
  • Three days later, the patron comes to the desk, This One Summer in hand, to tell me in no uncertain terms that she couldn’t believe I had suggested it, should it even be in the J Graphic Novels, maybe her daughter should just avoid the graphic novel collection all together.

She wasn’t mad, or at least she didn’t give the impression of anger. I think she was more taken aback and disturbed that I thought it was an appropriate recommendation (which I’ll get to in a second). She could have rolled in with righteous fury and demanded the book be taken off the shelf – she didn’t.  She could have asked to speak to my manager. She didn’t. In terms of handling a patron complaint, it was basically an ideal first experience for me, and this is how I handled it:

  • I apologized. Not for the book’s existence, but for the fact that she had had a bad experience of which I was partially responsible. I apologized that I had made an inappropriate recommendation.
  • I assured her that the book in question was on the high end of the maturity level for that section, and assured her that other recommendations could be made that would be more in line with what she considered appropriate (I didn’t say it like that. I was much less eloquent – my actual words were more like “I know we can find something else that you and your daughter will enjoy more.”)
  • I asked her not to write off the section as a whole, and recommended commonsensemedia.org if she was concerned about content in graphic novels her daughter might choose to read in the future.
  • I ran a plot synopsis of Zita past her to make sure it was more of what she actually wanted to be reading with her daughter.

Here’s the thing. Yes, I’m aware that This One Summer deals with more mature things than many of our other J graphic novels (I have a copy in the YA section, also).  But I also stand by my original assessment, that it’s an in-between book; we consider our tween audience to be ages 8-12, and our teen audience to be ages 12-19.  So you can see immediately that we have at least one year of overlap in actual numbers, and a couple of years of overlap in terms of reading level and interests.

Here’s the other thing. She told me that her daughter is seven, which falls well outside of that overlap I was talking about, and had I known the age of the reader in question I probably would not have recommended the book.  But based on the context I had (reading those Telgemeier books), I stand by recommendation.  I also never apologized for the book’s presence in the collection; I do the collection development for both graphic novel sections, and while I thought long and hard about the book’s placement after this encounter, I ultimately decided that it should stay on the shelf.

Patron complaints, especially in the graphic novel collections, have a lot of bad history.  Since I took over development I’ve been bracing myself for a concerned parent to question a book in the collection; I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence my purchasing decisions somewhat (not too much, though, I’m still a librarian).  I got lucky in that the first one I dealt with was pretty lowkey and had no lasting consequences, but it did remind me that I need to carefully consider the recommendations I make and who I make them to.  It always pays to be mindful, especially when working with parents.