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




More Policy Updating

   April 29th, 2008 Brian Herzog

cellphonebooth.jpgIn addition to updating our Circulation policy, we also recently revised a few different areas of our Library Use policy.

For the last ten months or so, we've had a trial period of not enforcing our "No Cell Phones" policy, to see how much of a problem it was. During that time, we learned two things:

  1. Cell phones aren't the problem: loud ringers and loud talking are
  2. People who do get a call are usually pretty good about removing themselves to a quieter area to speak, without us asking them to

Since two people sitting at a table having an overly-loud conversation is just as disruptive as someone having an overly-loud cell phone conversation, we wanted to reword our policy to permit non-disruptive use. Our goals were:

  • Promote behavior that is courteous to other patrons
  • Provide areas and circumstances where cell phone use is allowed
  • Use wording that does not target a specific technology, so it doesn't get outdated as technology evolves

So in the end, we went from this:

Cellular phones may not be used inside library buildings.

to this:

Mobile devices such as cellular phones and hand-held computers should be set to "silent" mode. Use of a mobile device in the library should be brief and quiet. Out of respect to other library patrons, prolonged conversations should be moved to a less public area, such as the foyer, the courtyard or the parking lot.

Wordier, I know, but hopefully clear and more in line with modern patron needs (though still a bit short of a cell phone lounge).

For our Food and Drink policy, we wanted to change it to permit drinks in covered containers, so we went from this:

Food and/or drink are not permitted.

to this:

Food is permitted only in the meeting room during special events and in the outdoor seating areas. Food is not permitted in any other public area of the library. Drinks are allowed throughout the building, but only in covered containers. Care must be taken to avoid spills, and patrons should notify staff if any spills occur. Beverages and waste should be disposed of properly and containers should be recycled whenever possible.

And we expanded our Smoking Policy from this:

Smoking is not allowed.

to this:

The use of tobacco products and alcoholic beverages are not allowed.

Funny how specific you have to be when writing policies. "The use of" was added at the last minute, because without it, we realized the policy forbid people from even having cigarettes in their purse, and Library staff is certainly not going to be checking bags.

We had input from our Board of Trustees on these changes, so although they won't be officially approved until their May meeting, we've already got them posted on our website.

A patron may never notice something like this, but hopefully it'll go a long way towards making everyone's (patrons and staff) library experience better.



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Yes-Based Library Policy

   April 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

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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