A couple of weeks ago, the director of the Wadleigh Memorial Library in New Hampshire wrote me with this question (I'm paraphrasing):
We have an intern for the summer, and she's started a blog about her work at the library. However, the next thing I knew, there was a link to her blog from the library's homepage (it's since been removed). While I like the idea of the public getting a bird's eye view of what we do at the library, I have to think of worst case scenario....
I couldn't find your blog linked from CPL's website, but you do publicly announce on your blog where you work. Does CPL have any policies in place about staff blogs? Have you ever had anything you've written come back to bite the library?...
This is a very interesting question. Something I wrote once did come back to bite, and the Town, the Library and I were all threatened with a lawsuit. That prompted a discussion between my director and me about separating library and personal, although no written policy ever came of it. But in general, here are the blogging guidelines that I follow:
Nothing written can be unwritten - think before you publish
Get permission before using names, and be vague when referring to people otherwise
Personal website has a disclaimer disassociating the library/town from me
Which is basic, I know, but since it's a personal website done on personal time, there's not much keeping me from doing whatever I want - other than common sense, experience, and goodwill towards the library. Since most of what goes on in libraries is public record anyway, pretty much everything I do at work is fair game, so long as I don't break the law or violate patron privacy.
Even still, it might be a good idea for libraries to create some sort of guidelines for staff who publicly use the library's name online. I don't think libraries can force people to do or not do most things (aside from using library resources and time), but basic guidelines might help a well-meaning library employee avoid awkward situations they might not have otherwise considered.
A few resources for these guidelines are:
Check with library/municipal Personnel Department for any existing policies or contract clauses
It's a great idea for library employees to share their work with the public (and other librarians). Especially if the library is going to link to that personal blog from the library's website (in which case, the library might be entitled to more control over the content of that personal blog). If no employee is doing this on their personal blog, the library's blog itself could occasionally spotlight behind-the-scenes activities in the library.
I guess the bottom line is that people are still discovering Web 2.0, so there's a lot of inexperience and new situations out there. Libraries shouldn't try to prevent their employees from participating, but instead can assist them in doing it well (remember 23 Things?).
After our email discussion and speaking with library Trustees, the Wadleigh Library decided to put the link to their intern's blog back on their homepage, which was good news. So if you're looking for a model on how to do this, check out Lexi the Intern's blog - she's doing a great job.
I like this video from Denmark. It shows police officers using hugs to make the point that laws are there to keep people safe. So of course I thought, "could we do this in a library?" I can just imagine a staff person hugging a patron before asking them to speak more softly on their cellphone.
But I do like the point: most rules are in place for a reason, and if patrons know the reason behind the rule - and that we care about our patrons, not just enforcing rules - the patrons' library attitude and behavior might change. Hmm, maybe not. Unless we gave away helmets, too.
The biggest oversight when my library was built was that they only put in one Quiet Study Room.
It is constantly in use, and constantly in demand. Because people want a quiet place to close the door and spread out, we do what we can to accommodate them - or they do.
When otherwise not in use, we let people use the Conference Room as a quiet study room. We also have a Local History Room, and many people decide to go in there and close the door.
And this is the root of the latest controversy in my library. Our Local History Room contains our local history resources, and, by library policy, is Open To All* patrons whenever the library is open. Which means anyone can go into this room, and if someone is already in there, they have to share.
However, we've recently had a spate of patrons closing the door and telling other patrons the room was reserved, and they couldn't come in. This confused patrons and irritated staff, so we finally had to put signs up on the Local History Room door to very clearly spell out our policy.
As you may know, I have a reputation for taking down signs, so I wanted to make sure this sign was clear and effective - and I think it is. Since it went up, we haven't had any problems. People still go in and close the door, but no more intra-patron intimidation, and that is a good thing.
Oh and by the way, I hung a sign both on the outside as well as on the inside of the door - that way when someone does close the door, they can't claim they didn't see the sign.
The serious stuff first:
We've been reviewing and updating all of my library's policies for the last few weeks, so I've got policy v. procedure on the brain. Because of that, it occurred to me this week that most library staff can be grouped into two types: "policy" staff and "procedure" staff.
Policy staff - like to be given broad goals, not explicit directions. This is an asset in that they take initiative and can be innovative
Procedure staff - like to be given explicit directions, and will follow and enforce limits and rules like a checklist. This is an asset because they are consistent and treat everyone the same
Neither type of employee is better or worse than the other, just different. Managers (and coworkers) can be more effective at their jobs if they identify staff's needs and strengths and play to or accommodate them. I know this isn't some huge insight, but I had never noticed the parallel between work habits and policy/procedure before.
The jokes second:
Here are my favorite "There are X kinds of people in the world" jokes:
There are 3 kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can't
There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't
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:
Cell phones aren't the problem: loud ringers and loud talking are
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.