Dealing with demanding customers

On a couple of recent visits, staff and volunteers at local organizations have commented that they were having trouble dealing with certain demanding customers. In one case the situation involved one institution wanting to borrow a lot of artifacts. In the other, it was a researcher who wanted a great amount of material from the research library. The obvious solution is better policies and procedures. What are some essential elements to good policies and prcedures governing public access to holdings?

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11 Responses to Dealing with demanding customers

  1. Mike Worcester says:

    I’ll address the research material question, especially when it comes to photos. We have had several instances over the last few years where people have brought in their own scanners and asked (nay, demanded) to be able to scan our photos without paying. Why? Because they are "doing all the work" so why should they pay?

    We have had to politely, but firmly, tell them that it does not matter who does the scanning, there is still a nominal charge for accessing our photo collections. The fee would be to not just cover the operation of our office scanner, but to cover the overhead of maintaining the collection: lights, climate control, storage materials, etc.

    While we did not have anything stating as much in our policy–and really still do not, so maybe I should get on that–for the most part, people will grudgingly accept the explanation that there must be a charge of some sort. And we all have to realize that no matter how polite we are to patrons, there will always be some who are rude jerks (wait, can I say that on this blog?). Guess is just comes with the territory.



  2. Mary Warner says:

    This is a tough one. Thankfully, the vast majority of our researchers are understanding and polite. We had one researcher this past year who kept calling, several times a day, for a couple of weeks. It was getting so staff was afraid to answer the phone. We had the phone company put a trace and track on the phone and let the researcher know that we would no longer be doing research for him. The calls stopped.

    As for someone demanding a lot of info from our archives, here’s a situation where copyright is your friend. As libraries/archives, we are allowed to copy only one chapter from a book or one article from a magazine from a source that is readily accessible for purchase. This protects the income of the copyright holder, along with limiting what researchers can copy from our files. However, if a researcher wants something that isn’t readily accessible, we can make a full copy, but must let the researcher know that it is under copyright. These conditions only apply to PRIVATE, non-commercial use of copyrighted material. If a researcher wants copyrighted material for commercial use, they have to get permission in writing from the copyright holder before we copy it.

    Of course, we have a per-copy charge for anything the researcher requests and if someone asks for a large amount of material, we tell him/her that we can’t copy it all at once (because we need more time) and arrange to mail the material when we are finished.

    As for us loaning artifacts, we never do it. Our policy is that staff must go with any artifact that goes off-site (for speeches, photo reproduction, & the like). We do have a general policy for when people want to see particular artifacts that are in storage. We ask people to call at least a day in advance so that we have time to retrieve items with care.


  3. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    In the years of my graduate study, my work at MHS and for the University’s Immigration History Research Center were all deep in the collections: I was managing archival collections and not on the front lines of the institutions working directly with the public.

    When I later was indeed in that position, as curator and archivist of a large local historical society, I found already in place the use of an excellent "explanation" sheet that all patrons were required to review, and sign, thus agreeing to the expectations put forth there. General details concerning fees for reproduction and also for usage of photographic imagery were, if I recall, clearly referenced in this material.

    Its value in those pre-laptop days was to help the visitor understand the need for *control* of usage, as great an issue as the natural desire of the Society to make modest earnings from the collections. Proper citation of image source was stressed, and the guest was required to indicate in what way the image was to be used. I recall no demur to this arrangement in those days. It is very likely that the information document and form was modeled after the MHS materials available to all patrons in the research room.

    However, in an era of truly portable hardware, there might be a decision on whether or not you wish to permit onsite scanning by a patron. Comment from other society curators and directors would be welcome here: I for one would certainly like to know how this issue being managed around the region. To date, all institutions that have held imagery that I wanted for a publication wished to control the generation of that imagery though were also willing to scan to any specs I needed, and deliver it in any form I required via any means I specified. In all instances, the fees were known up front.

    As an afterthought, "difficult people" came in the door in several ways. Those who served on the Board of Directors and as regular volunteers were often the most dedicated to the community history and, very naturally, deeply dedicated to their own pioneering family story. Their need to see their own family story acknowledged explained some of the "anxiety" that would be expressed in perhaps less than gentle ways, and it took me awhile on the learning curve–and I was by far much younger than most of the Board and the volunteers–to remember that the fear of being forgotten or, worse, ignored, underlies much of the difficult interpersonal exchanges that can take place within an organization that houses community history.

    The other kind of "difficult" person was the occasional visitor, often born in the community but living far elsewhere, who had donated artifacts to the museum in the distant past and who, arriving suddenly on a visit, was dismayed, shocked or mortified (all three?) to learn that the item was not being exhibited or ,worse, deaccessioned when the donor could no longer be located to enquire about return of the item. In the first year of my tenure at the local history collection, we deaccessioned over 150 books in the library which had nothing to do with the city history: when pressed to explain why we had sold Grandfather Anderson’s book on the tradition of grand opera in Mozart’s Vienna to an antiquarian bookseller at high value, our explanation that the book topic was not germane to the city story often did not molify: we learned to be gentle but firm. 🙂

    The internal process of managing archives is not a known science to the public: owning twenty wedding dresses from the turn of the century may mean that these dresses sleep in acid-free tissue for ten years before being called upon for one grand exhibit on marriage customs. Or, an item may have belonged to a long past relative but have not relevance to the city/county story and so removed from the collection. Working with these good people was/is an art form: they are at once the past patrons of the museum and potential future donors. It’s a tough walk but necessary where storage space is at a premium.


  4. Claudia Nicholson says:

    As always, dealing with difficult patrons is art and science. The science part is good policy, thoughtfully developed, and passed by the Board of Directors. They need to be totally on board with anything that you propose by way of dealing with researchers, and understand that for the institution, preservation of the collection is paramount, but that active dissemination of your collection is both your purpose and a grand service both by and for your institution. Indeed, it is the reason for being.

    The art is in dealing with people who do not understand, at its core, exactly what your work is. Our work is not easily explained, to some. I have listened often as reference room staff answer the same questions over and over again, always with a smile on their face, and an understanding that, although the question is an old one for them, for every patron, they are (generally) asking it for the first time. These people (good staff) are saints, and when you find individuals that are good at this, you do everything you can to hold on to them.

    In the end, you will always have some unhappy people, and it is unreasonable to expect that you can turn everyone who is unhappy into an ally. I just hope that 50% off them end up getting it. That’s o.k., though. Some people just want to be unhappy.

    You, however, have a larger obligation to the collection and posterity, and should never allow yourself to be bullied into to doing anything that is contrary to policy or professional standards. A tall order, sometimes, but one that is crucial.



  5. Jeff Brand says:

    In the age of information that we live in today, doesn’t it make more sense to create photograph, art and artifact collections online? Although I realize that a fair amount of income is earned by restricting these collections to paying customers, I also think that it’s unfair that more things aren’t made available to researchers and the general public as well. I realize the challenges of modernization that many museums face. I realize that the success of a museum depends upon the number of people that walk through that door each year. But it also seems that the needs of the patrons and the age in which we live in today dictate that we change strategies and look at new ways to diversify our income. The idea that I floated above about the online resources could easily be regulated to paying members only. There are several grant opportunities out there for organizations to pay for new technologies and I feel that it will become necessary to do this in order to be a success in the 21st century anyway.

    As for the demanding customers, I agree it is an art and not a science. Some people are just not easy to please and unfortunately they see museum workers as obstacles sometimes rather than faithful servants to history’s wisdom and knowledge.


  6. Kathryn Otto says:

    A lot of very good comments have already covered much of what can be said on this subject. At MHS the library and archives are physically separate from the museum, so our customers tend to be somewhat different than a local historical society. The museum curators deal with someone asking about grandmas wedding dress and they generally require patrons to make an appointment. We also have library and archives curators that we can pass patrons on to when they are asking those tough donor-type questions.

    Those of us on the library-archives reference staff, however, deal with anyone who walks in the door or calls on the phone. Our problem patrons range from the creepy guy who gets too friendly with the female staff to the woman with the sharp tongue who can make the younger staff cry to the person who wants much more hand-holding than we have time to give them. Everybody deals with these problems in different ways according to their own personality; there often isnt a right way to deal with every situation. Patience and the ability to take a step back and look at the situation from a neutral position rather than an emotional one is good. As a last resort, passing the buck works well, too. Sometimes just having another person take overwho explains things in a slightly different waycan make all the difference. Sometimes having the boss say the same thing youve been saying all along makes a difference; it finally sinks in if there are no more higher-powers to appeal to.

    As just about everyone has already mentioned, having policies and procedures already in place is very important. But know when to change. Often we update or completely change a policy based on something that patrons point out. Our biggest problem with policies, however, is that people dont read them. We can put signs all over the place and they still miss seeing them! Nevertheless, it is important to correct bad behavior immediately when you see it or the person gets very annoyedBut I was allowed to do that yesterday (or last week, or last month, etc.), or But Suzie let me do it. Explaining the why behind a policy or procedure mollifies most patrons. Treating everyone the same wayand letting them know everyone else follows these same rulesis important.

    With the others, you just need to be firm. There will always be ones who think they are SO much more important than your policy that they will walk out rather than follow it. Thats their choice. Again, letting them know that everyone follows the same rules can make the difference. The place I previously worked had a registration form with the rules on the back and we required the patrons to sign and date that they had read the rules and agreed to follow them, which came in handy several times with problem patrons!

    We do have the distinct advantage at MHS that we can call in the security guards if someone gets too obnoxious or threatening, which is really rare. We have occasionally pointed out problem patrons to the security guards for them to keep an eye on. Sometimes the security guards will casually wander through the reading rooms more often than usual if were having trouble. That uniformed presence can make such a difference. (The guard with the gun at the door of the reading room at the National Archives always intimidated me!) Most local repositories dont have security guards, but it might be a good idea to have a person (your director; your biggest, toughest-looking employee or volunteer) designated that you can call on if you really feel yourself or the collections are being threatened.

    The patron who takes up too much of your time can be trickier to deal with. If you do one out-of-the-ordinary thing for them, they start thinking that is the kind of service they will always receive. Or some other repository has more staff time than you do, so the patron thinks every repository should operate the same way. Again, having policies and procedures developed ahead of time, enforcing them, and being firm. If you’ve got the time, doing a reference interview with each patron when they first come gives you an opportunity to both explain the rules and to find out what the person is up to. Also, we keep a list of contract researchers that we will give to a patron if they want more than we have time to do.

    The caveat, of course, is that there are always exceptions, so be flexible if there is a good reason to be. If someone wants a lot of photographs for a book and your repository would get large use fees or tremendous publicity, perhaps it is worth the time. You can always use as your out that you need to discuss the request with your board. That gives you time to consider the options or your board members might have good suggestions (or even ante up the money for the extra work!).

    Another out might be a policy that stated anything beyond a reasonable number of & photocopies, prints, loans, whatever, would be charged at a higher rate or the requestor would need to pay to hire someone to do the work. Then it puts the onus back on the patron to decide just how important this is to them, i.e. how much are they willing to spend to get what they want, as fast as they want it. For example, we charge 25 cents for same-day photocopies with a limit of 50 per day, 20 cents if we can make the copies as we have the time and mail them out. For rush photographic prints or scans, rush duplicating orders, and rush research requests, we charge double the regular rate for the rush jobs and have a policy that says how long a rush job will take. You can always get yourself one of those stickers that says: Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part!

    This is getting awfully long! I have a few suggestions for copyright information and digital policies, so I will put that in a separate comment.


  7. Kathryn Otto says:

    Just a wee bit more, on copyright this time.

    Check out the University of Minnesota Libraries’ website on copyright <>. There is LOTS of information here. You might find the Copyright Decision Map to be of particular interest <>.

    Also, if you’re looking for a book, "Copyright for Archivists and Users of Archives" (now in it’s second edition) is good for that non-published "stuff". You may purchase it from the Society of American Archivists (

    The archives listserv is frequently discussing digital camera policies, copyright, and much of what’s being talked about in this blog thread. The listserv has moved and is now being managed by the Society of American Archivists. To sign up, go to <;.


  8. Mary Warner says:

    Great resource on copyright, Kathryn. I especially like the U of M’s Fair Use Analysis Tool. Just reading through the checklist makes it pretty easy to figure out whether someone can use a copyrighted work under the Fair Use doctrine.

    We recently had a husband and wife doing family research who wanted an entire copy of an unpublished manuscript. They weren’t happy with us when we said they needed to get permission in writing from the author. We provided the address of the author, but it wasn’t current. Turns out that a mother to one of the researchers was good friends with the author and they were able to get more information than expected from her – all because we insisted they get permission. The permission was granted and the author also reminded us that we had a cassette tape interview of one of her relatives in the collection. She gave us permission to duplicate this, too.

    Great posts, everyone.


  9. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    I have had the rare privilege of working in a number of the smaller county and local historical society collections up on the Minnesota North Shore this year in preparation for a new book. As must be expected, due to budgets and range of available archival expertise, the materials found in these excellent collections (under excellent managers, I want to add) were in a great range of condition and housing.

    In one instance brought to mind by (sorry, no name there!), I was stunned to find a full and very well done manuscript on a critical aspect of North Shore tribal history in the open files. The book was (is) under consideration for publication and clearly displayed the copyright, but the manuscript was, essentially, available to anyone who wanted to use the material. And jeepers! did I want that material! But I knew the young author, advised her to request removal of the manuscript to an acid-free book box shelved out of sight until such time as her publication news came through. Absolutely magnficent stuff, would have given my whole heart to use it. I could just *feel* the CRM angels hovering at each ear: "Go ahead! Who would know!" and "No! No! Warn the author now!" So go the dilemmas even for us professionals. 🙂

    P.S. The manuscripts is now in a box on a shelf, unreferenced…


  10. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    Postscript to my earlier note on finding copyright materials in collections files: Ourselves as Difficult People! 🙂

    I just got an off-list email from a colleague who was shocked (shocked!) that the idea of using such material on the quiet would even occur to me. Well, of course it does. We are human, very very human. That I had the thought flit quickly through my mind does not trouble me: it is the decisions that come after such thoughts that determine–I do hope–our character.

    Use and misuse of collections by their managers and those with access is an old story. Minnesota is rife with myths and documented instances of appropriation of collections materials, some never to be seen again in public. Any who think that this not an ongoing ethical challenge is not living in the real world. And, as the value of even the smallest ephemera on the open market (think eBay) is driven upwards, temptation must always dog our heels.

    Honesty and personal conduct ethics are, I believe, a hallmark of our profession. I need to walk into a local or regional archive with my head up and not lose sleep at night that I have sent away my standards for the sake of glamorous moment in the CRM sun. I cannot speak for others, but I do my best–imperious, impatient girl that I can be–to not torment my colleagues. To not be That Difficult Person. Sigh…



  11. Mary Warner says:

    Deborah – Love the conversation between your two selves and the fact that the good side won out. There’s another value to having less than ethical thoughts. It gives us insight into what some of our patrons might do, if given half a chance. We have checked the values on some of the books in our collections (oh, Blessed Internet!) because people are looking at our collections for antique (monetary) value, rather than for historical value. Due to this, we have made some of these books a little less physically accessible in order to safeguard them. We have to be ten steps ahead all the time.


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