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Monday, July 19, 2010

How Libraries Send Mixed Messages

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:
1. Attitude
2. Facilities
3. Policies
4. Signage

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?


Andy W said...

My only disagreement with his points is over showing ID. There are statutes preserving the privacy of people's records which necessitates the insistence on showing proper ID. It's more of an observation of the law than a "let's dream up the most restrictive policy possible and use it" situation.

Otherwise, this is a great post, Kathy, and I have forwarded it to people in my library system.

~Kathy Dempsey said...

True enough, Andy. The "more ID to get a library card than to get a car" was an extreme; sort of a laugh-line to make his point. I believe he went on to use examples of places that require 3 forms of ID to prove your address, which does seem like a bit much.

But yes, he had some great points that I embellished a little with my own thoughts. I think it's important to point out how we appear to everyday people who don't understand why libraries work the way they do.

Becky said...

This article expresses my thoughts so much eloquently than I ever could. Thank you so much for saying what needs to be said

Anonymous said...

Blame the victim. This is in the end about dumbing down the library and apologizing and begging. Yeah right. Look around and you'll see enough street people looking at MTV and porno and sleeping to discourage actual scholars and researchers. Please dont think we have any rules here, please forgive us for not allowing you to undress in here and cook your soup....
This article is a symptom of a general attitude: rules are bad, scholarship and learning are really just elitist affections.

Sara said...

Anon- I don't think its about dumbing down libraries. You may be thinking of academic libraries when they have a mission very different from public, school and special libraries. You can have all the lofty ideas you want, but if you can't get your students in the door and asking questions then its just you, alone, with your lofty ideas. The goal of going to college is to get an education. You can't expect them to start at the level you want them at- you have to take them from where they are to where you want them to be. Being inviting and positive is the first step in that process.

mkbridges said...

I really liked this article, because I agree that there are so many things that we can be doing to welcome and encourage people in our libraries.
I especially agree with the point about the librarians behind the desks. Wouldn't it be great to have a greeter at the library, asking "how can I help you?" As people walked in the door. Or some universities are doing away with their formal reference desks and having roving librarians who walk around and interact with patrons.
Perhaps librarians who were found all over the library and not just at a desk could engage with patrons more and help encourage them to use the library resources better.

~Kathy Dempsey said...

@Becky: Thanks!! pass it on!

@Anon: Sorry for the troubles that you seem to have had w/ homeless people in your library. But I disagree with your post. The point here is not to dumb down or to apologize. (In fact, a sign saying "Quiet!" is more dumbed-down than one saying "Please take conversations to our Cell Phone Zone.") The idea here is to make policies and signs a little friendlier in order not to dissuade serious users from coming to the library.

And in no way do I think rules are bad. They're quite necessary. But rules do need to be revisited and updated from time to time in order to work in a changing society. Otherwise, not one drop of drink or crumb of food would've ever been allowed in any library. Once that changed, didn't the cafes make the buildings more pleasant and welcoming? Personally, I'd like to see "learning" become less "elite" so that more people would see themselves as belonging in public libraries.

~Kathy Dempsey said...

@Sara: Agreed. And for all the similarities between public libs & other types, there are still many differences that necessitate different rules, setups, and actions.

@MK: I can think of certain libs where the person at the desk appears completely unfriendly and unapproachable. And if *I* think that -- "I" being a person who should be able to walk into any lib & feel as if I own it -- then what would a layperson or a shy person feel like? I once took a speaking course where the instructor told us to look around the room at the "resting" expression on faces, the one that's there when the person is doing nothing. On most people, the mouth naturally turns down a bit, toward a frown. I've discovered that it's effortless to look unhappy (or worse), and that you need to make an effort to look open, happy, welcoming, approachable. A big lesson that everyone in public service should know.

And many libs are trying roving reference or greeters, but now w/ staff levels so low, it's hard for them to justify those positions. To make that work, the rovers really need to track how many people they greeted or helped, how many questions answered, and then compare those #s w/ the ones from a stationery ref desk. It's certainly worth experimenting with!

Anonymous said...

Roving is great, and we've been doing it for years (long before it had a trendy name). I fully support it.

But why are we so set on either/or? Desks have a role, too. They are where you go to find someone. All roving, all the time, means the customer has to rove too.

I can just hear the greeter: "Oh, you need help finding a math book? OK, go wander around the floor (it's only 20,000 square feet) until you find someone to help you or they find you." Not good service!

Peter Bromberg said...

Fantastic post Kathy, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

All valid points, the problem with librarians is we don't do anything about it! We DON'T take down signs, we DON'T change policies, we DON'T do simple things to market our collections and services. Let's stop talking and read and start DO-ING!