Library Policies Created By Patron Bashing

Matt Smith —  December 21, 2016 — 2 Comments

images-2Talking crap about patrons, as I’ve said before, might be the number one barrier to customer service in libraries. And when we talk about customer service we don’t just mean personal interactions at the public service desk – that’s the tip of the iceberg. We mean policies, procedures, services: from design to implementation. And sadly, a culture of patron negativity melts the iceberg (and prevents innovation).

Some examples (write yours in the comments):

Public service desks that look like military forts
I’m sure there’s some historical reason for gigantic public service desks – like we didn’t have computers back then or whatever – but c’mon. My library has an AV desk (“AV”, by the way, stands for “audiovisual”…that’s another discussion). Anyway, the AV desk is so large that helping a patron involves taking a short jog around the block. Showing the patron where a movie is – a hallmark of good customer service – is a chore, and leads to missing phone calls. The desk is high, making the patron feel small and submissive. To make the barrier worse, the desk is littered with signage, usually negative. Reduced visibility reduces eye contact, one of the most important customer service interactions. It’s passive aggressive and we unconsciously do it, but people are smart and get the message. And that’s the most harmful part: we don’t trust you, this is my space, I’m busy. As I sit at my public service desk this morning (a Law Library), I measure the desk to be six feet across. That could be a good thing; that’s a lot of space for the patron to see me, approach me, ask me a question. However, with all the stuff – let’s call them unconscious barricades – we are left with a small window of 13 inches! I sit behind a wall of unconscious barricades. It’s time for small, personal, flexible, inviting, open public services points.

Having a “Scissor Policy”
When people need to use scissors at the library, we tell them our policy. Immediately grown men and women become five years old. We tell them to only play with the scissors at the desk so we can watch them. This is actually very funny to me – and the comedic value almost outweighs the harm to the customer – but the message is clear: we don’t trust you. Perhaps they could stab someone in the throat or worse: go on a book-cutting rampage!  Probably this happened 10 years ago (the cutting, not the stabbing) and we designed a policy to stop it from happening 10 years from now (some of our materials, you know, are irreplaceable). Designing for the exception, rather than the rule, as my colleague Kevin King would say.

That’s worth repeating. How many of our policies or services are designed based on exceptions, based on what might happen, based on what a patron might do, based on a philosophy of the lowest common denominator and an intense love and ownership of our materials!

Littering the Building with “No” Signs
I’ve yet to see any evidence that people read these signs, care about these signs and, more importantly, follow these signs. Experiment: try several months without the signs and compare to several months with them. Signs are the ultimate passive aggressive librarian response to not engaging with people or talking to them on a human level. How many meetings have you been in that went like this: (1) complaint about particular patron (2) someone suggests: maybe we should have…a sign? If libraries absolutely need a sign that attempts to control behavior in the building, then a positive sign is a much nicer and more effective. Again, treating people like children is a classic symptom of patron bashing, of a negative culture, of a particular mindset towards the people we serve. The Marketing Team, with a strong customer service bent, should have complete control of signage at the library.

Having Items or Services Behind the Desk
Anytime we make it harder for a patron to access a service, we should think hard and ask questions. I’m currently working on a project to lend Urban Fiction Kindles to patrons. Should they be displayed in the public space, away from staff, with the books, checked out by patrons themselves? Our immediate knee-jerk reaction is no, that they’re too precious, that people will steal them. Where is the stapler located? By the printer or behind a desk? Are there magazines or books people have to ‘check out’? Does the cost of replacing that Consumer Reports ($4) outweigh the cost of treating people like kids? (and wasting staff time). Do some Branches have special services that other Branches do not? Years ago, because of theft, we transferred our video games to a different Branch. That’s potentially problematic. Stealing happens, and we assume it will, and these are hard decisions to make, but everything has a cost. Security is part of the design phase of any service – not a reaction after-the-fact.

The 100 Other Services that were Never Considered
Patron Bashing stifles creativity and innovation, so my point is not to talk about a silly stapler behind a desk (my red stapler). I care about the services that weren’t thought of. We’ve all been in meetings like this: (1) good idea that serves a need (2) patron negativity (3) idea dies. A culture that lifts up our patrons, that cares and respects them as people, that designs services for the 99% rather than the 1% – that is a progressive library.

Matt Smith

Posts

home brewing, reading, philosophy, religion, exercise. Husband and father.

2 responses to Library Policies Created By Patron Bashing

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  1. Library Policies Created By Patron Bashing | Stephanie L. Gross, MSLIS - December 21, 2016

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