Module 3: Tricky Situations

In any situation, the primary responsibility is to provide service excellence

Tricky Situations and How to Handle Them

Many situations arise at the reference desk that don’t have clear-cut right-or-wrong answers. Some possible solutions are listed in this module, but your own library’s policies should be your final guide. No policy can cover all possible difficult situations. You will be called on often to use your judgment both in new situations and in applying guidelines to common ones. Feel free to discuss points like these with your supervisor, and don’t hesitate to call for help if you find yourself in a situation you are not sure how to handle.

  • Remember that service to patrons is your primary responsibility.
  • Apply professional ethics.
  • Use the techniques discussed in reference interviews.
  • Be positive and helpful.
  • Stay calm even in stressful situations.

Too Many People, Not Enough Time

All who work at public desks are at times faced with several people waiting for attention. You can only serve one person at a time effectively, and you should always fully serve the person in front of you. Some tips for handling lines at the reference desk are:

  • Ask if anyone has a very quick question (like directions to a part of the library) that can be answered immediately. Sometimes a patron may think they have a quick question that turns out to be a long one. In this case, you may have to return to the patron who was next in line and get back with the “quick question” patron.
  • Acknowledge the people waiting. Let them know you are aware of them and will get to them as soon as you can.
  • Keep your equanimity; getting frustrated or rattled is very counterproductive.
  • Be frank with patrons. Let them know that this is a busy time and that you will be glad to do what you can now, but that if they contact you at a less busy time, you might be able to provide more in-depth assistance. Let the patron choose what they would like to do.
  • Create procedures for a system that allows you to call for back-up without leaving your current patron. While not possible at every library, when it is possible, it helps clear congestion.

Juggling Phone Calls

Juggling phone and in-person users is a case where you need to know your own library’s policy. Some libraries give preference to in-person users, since they have taken the trouble to come to the library. Others treat phone patrons and in-person patrons equally and take them in order.

It will save frustration for you and your patrons if you are clear about how your own library handles this area. All staff should be consistent in the approach to this problem. Some tips include:

  • Take callers’ names and phone numbers and offer to call back at a less busy time. Be realistic about when that might be. Don’t promise to call soon if you can’t follow through.
  • A ringing phone is a distraction to everyone. It’s very hard to ignore. It is often better to answer the phone, take a number to call back, and then continue to help the in-person patron. Let your patron in the library know you will be right back to help them with their question. However, it is okay to allow the call to go to voicemail, but get to the message as soon as possible.

Major Point: You can only serve one person at a time effectively, and you should always fully serve the person in front of you.


  1. What is the procedure in your library for handling many people? Do you work with patrons and also take calls? If you can’t answer a question completely, do you call back later? If you’re not sure, talk to other staff members about the ideas suggested here.
  2. Look at reference and information desk or circulation desk policies for your library. Ask and observe what other staff are doing.