I've been ruminating on a really interesting presentation I heard back in April at the Texas Library Association's annual conference. (I already blogged about part of that conference here.) This talk was given by Wayne Disher, director of Hemut Public Library in Hemet, Calif. For years, he said, he'd been studying, observing, and photographing libraries and signs and people. And from all those experiences, he pointed out a number of ways in which libraries and librarians send mixed messages. Think about these examples and honestly assess whether any of this is happening where you work.
Disher pointed out four main ways that libraries send mixed messages:
Let's consider the reality of each area, as measured against our basic messages, which include these:
"Everyone is welcome in the library!"
"We have experts who are trained to help you."
"The library is a safe, inviting place."
"We have something for everyone."
"We want you to use the library."
"Libraries are still relevant in the age of the internet."
With those in mind, think about how things really happen:
1. Attitude: Is the attitude of every employee actually welcoming? Do staff members invite questions -- go looking for them, even? Or are they often behind a desk, looking down at something, with a (likely accidental) dour/frowning expression? Sure, if a patron approaches them and speaks, they'll look up and smile. But I'm sure there are many who don't feel comfortable approaching someone who already seems caught up in other work. And I'm sure that many shy people go un-aided in these places that claim to be so welcoming and helpful.
2. Facilities: I don't have to explain much here. Too many library buildings are in need of a facelift or a serious repair. Shelves and carpeting, expensive to replace, may be quite old. Also, the outsides of buildings are sometimes not well-groomed. Is this any way to prove that libraries are vital and useful, let alone exciting? Are dingy places very inviting? Even without a huge budget, think about what you can do to look better, and start outside the building. When was the last time your outdoor sign was cleaned? How about putting up a few balloons when you really want to get attention? One thing that Disher suggested was using "sign twirlers" -- people who stand along a street holding your sign as they dance and twirl it around. A moving sign that says "Free Wireless Inside" can surprise and delight people.
3. Policies: Oh, so many policies are old-fashioned and uninviting.
"Come in and spend the afternoon here, but don't bring anything to eat or drink!"
"We're all about new technology, but turn off those cell phones!"
"Please use our resources, but if you owe more than $2.00 in fines, you can't borrow anything."
I know there are reasons for every policy, but if we claim to be customer-oriented and welcoming, then you should take a new look at every rule and see if it needs to be changed to keep up with the times.
4. Signage: In one aspect, this goes hand-in-hand with the policies above. Sure, you can't allow everyone to have cell phone conversations all day. But does your sign rudely scream in capital letters, "NO CELL PHONES!" or does it politely ask, "Please take your conversations to our Cell Phone Zone"?
A major point he made on signage was that, if you have to put up a sign to say what something isn't, that indicates a problem elsewhere. For example, if people keep throwing trash into your recycling bins, you might put up a sign saying "No trash here! Recycling only!" But that's only a temporary fix. Instead, consider whether you have enough trash cans. Obviously, one is needed in that area. So move a trash can there next to the misused recycling bin, or get a different sort of bin that only accepts the proper materials (ie, slim slots for paper or round holes for bottles & cans).
While highlighting these library habits, Disher made several great points. One is that policies are often roadblocks to usage. He quipped that you need to show more ID to get a library card than you do to buy a car. Then he asked, "Are you really lending your collection or are you keeping it hostage?"
Something else to ponder: If people had to pay to use your library, then what would you do to bring them in? Sometimes, simply being free isn't good enough. You also need to be convenient, easy to use, truly welcoming, and worth the time to visit. He also urged his listeners to "Eliminate customer sacrifice." Think about what people sacrifice by not using the library (in their minds, not yours). Unless you can come up with a long list of strong points, you'd better re-think a lot of what you're doing.
Since we cannot change the habits of every patron or potential user, we have to change our own way of doing things. To start, take hard look at your library with fresh eyes. Better yet, ask customers themselves for their opinions, or hire a secret shopper. Wherever your building has a sign that says "NO ____" stop to think about how you could change it to a positive. For instance, "No groups here" or "No more than 2 people per table" could change to "Rooms for group study are available on Level Two." Which feels more welcoming?