or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk



Yes-Based Library Policy

   April 22nd, 2008

Unshelved Comic StripThis is a long story, so I'm going to try to summarize as much as possible. It's a good story, though, so stick with me.

A few months ago, an incident at my library finally brought a long-smoldering issue to the surface. My library doesn't charge overdue fines, and we rely on patron integrity to get things back on time. So far, this policy works very well, and I know the staff enjoys not dealing with fines.

That being said, our system is abused from time to time. The culture in this library is to put customer service first, to give patrons a good library experience, with "getting to yes" as our unwritten rule. But since we had no written policy to that affect, and what rules we do have are considerably flexible, different staff would enforce overdue items in different ways (some would allow patrons to check out new items, some wouldn't).

But worst of all, this situation allowed some patrons to "shop around" amongst desk staff until they got the answer they wanted, and this is what finally caused a blow up.

We (the department heads) decided we needed to ensure that patrons received consistent service, no matter who helped them. We rewrote a portion of our circulation policy, with the goal of making it clear and fair, while making sure it allowed for the highest degree of service but still punished those who flagrantly abused the system.

It took some time, and as Reference Librarian I was only marginally involved. But I was so impressed with what our Circulation and Childrens Librarians came up with that I wanted to share. The beginning of the new policy contains this preamble:

This library makes certain assumptions when dealing with the public:

  • The staff of this library works to “get to yes” with patrons
  • The vast majority of patrons are honest; therefore, we take patrons at their word
  • Patrons appreciate courtesy and understanding. Gentle reminders, along with compassion toward extenuating circumstances, are used to prompt people to return overdue items

    It goes on from there into the technical nitty-gritty for enforcing the policy, and in general staff was very satisfied with the result. The goal is still serving patrons, but the more black-and-white desk staff now have an up-to-date policy in writing to guide them.

    And since this policy has been in place, the number of abuses and difficult situations seems to have gone down.

    I'm generally a rules-based person, but serving patrons as well as possible should always come first. It's a fine line between completely meeting one patron's needs and also serving the next patron in line equally and fully, but having a written yes-based policy goes a long way towards making everyone happy.




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    5 Responses to “Yes-Based Library Policy”

    1. Stephanie Chase Says:

      Brian, is there a way we (or, more specifically, I) can take a look at the whole circulation policy? It sounds like a great model to use!

    2. thildebrand » Blog Archive » Post #4 - “Yes-Based Library Policy” Consistent Service Says:

      [...] http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/2008/04/22/yes-based-library-policy [...]

    3. Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week – 3/25/12 :: Brian Herzog Says:

      [...] library policy, I'm also going to give them one of these handouts – that way, we're maintaining our yes-based policy and fulfilling a core library function by referring them to the most appropriate [...]

    4. Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week – 6/3/12 :: Brian Herzog Says:

      [...] office for library staff. We have no official policy on the public using it, other than our general yes-based policy. And in the past, if a patron had just a few sheets that needed to be shredded, I would take the [...]

    5. Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week – 1/20/13 :: Brian Herzog Says:

      [...] (I personally have), and I think she felt bad this patron was turned away (especially with our "getting to yes" [...]