On the heels of Matt’s “What Does Your Building Say?” post, I stopped in at a couple of libraries while traveling recently, and there was one library branch in particular that told me a particular story.
I could tell that this library was recently built/renovated, probably within the last ten years–the furniture was sleek, the light fixtures minimalist–but wear and tear were also evident. There were stains on carpeting, stains on upholstery, veneer peeling off of table edges, and cobwebs on lights throughout the library. While it wasn’t crowded at the time, I could see that the library had been well-used throughout the day–empty cups and used napkins on tables, receipts on the floor in a couple of spots, chairs askew, abandoned materials, scattered toys in the children’s area.
Seeing this kind of usage makes me feel good for libraries (we are not dead yet!) and also makes me cringe, because pride of place is one of my triggers as a library director. I saw a library that did not make upkeep a priority. I saw employees walking past chairs and not pushing them in, walking past toys and not straightening them, and walking past garbage and not throwing it away. As a visitor, my impression was that this library isn’t very concerned with how their community treats them, and that their community picks up on this, which feeds into a grimy spiral.
Our patrons are our guests. Company comes to visit us at our “house” every day, and we should always be ready for company. My staff will tell you that I really hammer this home; for my first couple of years here, I talked about cleanliness and pride of place at least twice a month with staff, and pretty much weekly with my managers. I am sure they all thought I was being ridiculous (and maybe some of them think I’m still ridiculous) but I am adamant that the patron who comes in at 8:00pm is just as deserving of a nice-looking library as the patron who came in at 9:00am. We (yes, this includes me) make patrons feel welcome throughout the day by keeping the library looking fresh–pushing in chairs, picking up abandoned materials, and throwing away trash.
We have an early literacy area and tidy it up several times throughout the day; while it never looks as perfect as it does at opening, we have experienced the added bonus of kids and families who see us picking up and will pitch in to help us put toys away, or will put toys away themselves.
We cut back on the frequency of window cleaning, carpet cleaning, and upholstery cleaning due to our budget reductions, but we still do them several times per year, because a) I don’t want our patrons to think we accept dirty windows, carpets, and upholstery, and b) it helps prolong the life of those items. If a spill or stain occurs in between scheduled cleanings, our cleaning crew will spot-treat it. Our Building Supervisor has a rotation he’s worked out to maintain the library on an ongoing basis–dinged corners, chipped paint, loose carpet, and outside the library, too–to keep the library looking nice.
Keeping the library neat and maintained for our patrons shows them that we care, and that we take pride in our work and in ourselves. I want our visitors to feel that warmth and pride in our personal interactions with them, and to feel it in the library’s surroundings. That’s the story I want libraries to tell.