Prohibitive Library Signs

In the library world, few issues are more divisive than the use of prohibitive signs.

On the one hand, there are those librarians who see prohibitive signs in libraries as a very bad thing. This post by Michael Stephens is a good example:

Ten Signs I Hope I Never See in Libraries Again (posted on Tame the Web on July 7, 2006)

And of course, there are the obligatory “Passive Aggressive Library Signs” boards on Pinterest:

On the other side of this debate, librarians point out the necessity of having rules—we need to maintain a safe and clean environment for all our patrons and for the maintenance of our collections.

I agree that rules are necessary—but I don’t believe that explicitly prohibitive signs are a useful or healthy way to communicate those rules to our patrons.

Even worse, such unilateral prohibitions punish patrons who don’t deserve it.

Let me tell you a story:

In one of the many apartments I lived in over the years, my roommate and I had a strained relationship with our landlord. He’d had some bad tenants in the past who had caused him serious problems. These experiences made him paranoid and he handled everything as though it was a potential problem-in-the-making. He approached every tenant interaction assuming that it would be a problem that he had to prevent.

By approaching every tenant interaction as a potential problem, he treated all of his tenants as problem tenants by default.

My roommate and I weren’t problem tenants. We paid our rent on time and we took very good care of the property. We weren’t loud, we didn’t throw parties, and none of neighbors complained about us.

I understand why our landlord acted this way and I don’t think it was his intention to be a bad landlord. But we couldn’t tolerate it anymore—he had no right to treat us as though we were troublemakers when we weren’t. He held us responsible for things we never did and made our lives needlessly difficult because of problems that other tenants caused. No matter how well we behaved, nothing we did made any difference in how he treated us. We couldn’t take it anymore and we moved out.

Library policies apply to all patrons equally. When a handful of patrons cause problems and we react by enacting policies and putting up signs to prohibit the problem behavior, those policies de facto hold all library patrons responsible—even those who had nothing to do with causing the problem.

This approach to patron behavior means we treat all library patrons, even the good ones, as problem patrons by default.

It’s unjust to hold people responsible for something they didn’t do. Yet too many library signs do exactly that. These signs generate ill-will and substantially undermine our reputation as a welcoming place.

For example:

A friend once told me about an issue that came up at her local library—too many patrons were sitting on the floor in the aisles in the stacks. Blocking the aisles poses a legitimate safety problem in emergencies, and so the library posted signs forbidding patrons from sitting on the floor. Of course, the signs communicated nothing about fire codes and safety issues—they merely commanded “DON’T.”

The signs didn’t work—patrons still sat on the floor in the stacks. Each time a librarian or security staff saw a patron sitting on the floor, they had to confront them and tell them to move. Patrons got frustrated because they felt the rule was arbitrary. Librarians got frustrated because patrons weren’t following the rules. Tensions rose and too many interactions between library staff and patrons became negative ones.

Contrast this to the approach taken by another library in a nearby town—they also had patrons sitting on the floor. But rather than forbidding anything, they got a bunch of chairs and set them in strategic locations around the stacks. Their patrons stopped sitting on the floor without even being asked. No confrontations necessary.

The problem wasn’t that patrons were sitting on the floor. The problem was that patrons needed a place to sit and had nowhere to do so in the stacks. Forbidding the behavior did nothing to solve the problem. Putting out chairs solved it quite neatly and showed the patrons that the library paid attention to their needs.

Another example:

A library remodeled its lounge area. The new lounge area opened to the public and soon a problem developed—patrons left their food trash sitting on the tables. They didn’t throw it away. Food trash attracts bugs and rodents and so the library decided to forbid food and drink in the remodeled lounge area.

Patrons protested this new rule—the old lounge area allowed food and drink. To forbid it now seemed unfair. What made this situation odd is that in the old lounge area, patrons didn’t leave their trash lying around. Library staff was at a loss as to why they’d suddenly started acting like slobs.

When the library remodeled the lounge area, they took away all the trash cans. Walking into the new area, there were no trash cans to be seen. The nearest trash can was through the adjacent stacks, more than halfway to the other side of the floor. There were no signs directing patrons to this trash can. There was no trash can by the exit, either, so patrons couldn’t drop their trash on the way out.

The library created this problem for itself when they took out all the trash cans from the lounge area and left patrons with no options to dispose of their waste. The solution wasn’t to punish the patrons by forbidding food and drink in the lounge area—the solution should have been to put the trash cans back.

All too often, I get the strong feeling that too many of the prohibitive signs we see in libraries are a way for us to avoid finding real solutions to problems. That they’re a way for us to sidestep the work required to investigate and identify the true causes.

A way for us to avoid dealing with patrons.

Each time I see a prohibitive library sign forbidding some behavior or other, I see a door slammed shut on a meaningful interaction with our patrons. Each sign is a missed opportunity to have a conversation.

Each sign shows our patrons that we’re not paying attention to their needs.

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