I’ve been doing a whole lot of thinking lately about helping patrons, marketing our services, and just generally about making libraries better. Something Steven Bell wrote recently got me thinking about the idea that there are some librarians who just don’t want to improve libraries:

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that making libraries and their resources easier to use is a good idea? Probably not. I’ve been working in academic libraries for close to 20 years, and most of that time the planning and implementation activities I’ve been involved in were geared to reducing barriers to access for end users… I tuned into Rick Anderson’s (Director of Resource Acquisition at Univ. of Nevada, Reno Libraries) Soaring To Excellence program on Friday, February 3rd, and one of the strong messages I came away with is that libraries are broken, patrons are running to get away from us at top speed, and that we don’t have a clue as to how to turn things around – nor do we care to.

Maybe I’m totally wrong here, but I agree with Steven that there isn’t a librarian out there who doesn’t want to make libraries better. At the same time, I believe that librarians sometimes make pretty bad mistakes in the name of improving our libraries. Sometimes librarians think they’re helping patrons by putting policies in place that actually end up creating more barriers. Sometimes librarians create policies that help one group of patrons but hurt another. Sometimes we implement some new service or policy only to find that we were completely wrong about what our patrons wanted. Sometimes we implement bad policies because we don’t know any better or because the library board/college administration/etc. tell us we have to do it. Sometimes we don’t do enough because we’re afraid of change, we don’t have the funding to do what we need to do, or we just don’t know what changes we should make. So while I believe that librarians all want to make libraries good places to be, the road to hell is paved in good intentions.

Aaron Schmidt, in his excellent post Libraries and Trust stated “non-user-centered library policy corrodes the trust that we should be aiming to develop.” I totally agree with him. However, as misguided as they are, sometimes these policies are created with the intention of helping patrons, not hurting them.

Why do we put up these barriers like “no cell phones” and “no food or drink?” Sure, part of it is because we don’t want to be dealing with the remnants of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in/on our computer keyboards, but neither does the next patron who has to type on a sticky keyboard. Drinks are certainly a lot safer with lids, but how do libraries deal with the patron who spills an entire can of coke onto a keyboard (though they do cost next to nothing these days and any library should have a spare one lying around)? And “no cell phones” doesn’t seem all that unreasonable when people are quietly studying and some jerk is talking loudly into their cell phone (or, heaven forbid, one of those oh-so-annoying walkie talkie phones). Let’s just say that I understand the logic of preventing behavior that has the potential of annoying and hurting others. As Spock said “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But instead of expressing the desire to “help patrons” in such an antagonistic way (as seen on Aaron Schmidt’s blog), I think there are better ways to handle this. Why not have special quiet areas of the library where people can study without interruptions from cell phone users and loud talkers? What about having designated areas in the library where patrons can eat that are not near computers? I mean, if we’re worried about patrons getting food on the books, maybe we should stop loaning them out altogether since we certainly can’t control what they do with the materials once they leave the library.

Aaron also stated “the same case could me made about the fines we charge or overdue items.. Do they exist because we don’t trust our users to bring items back? Is this justified?” I’ve been thinking a lot about the arguments people have made to get rid of fines and go to a Netflix model. I love Netflix, but I love it because I have never had a problem getting the movies I’ve wanted. If it took me four weeks to get a copy of Crash I’d be pretty annoyed. Getting rid of overdue fines and limiting people to a certain number of popular books would be great if individual libraries had as many copies of popular materials as Netflix does. When I worked at a public library we had a certain number of copies of the DaVinci Code (I think 10). While 10 books may seem like a lot, there were well over 100 people on the waiting list for the book. What if each person who took out the book could keep it out for as long as they want? I think that number 65 on the waiting list to take out a copy of Marley and Me would argue that overdue fines are very user-centered. What would people think of libraries if it took them over a year to get books on their hold list and if libraries couldn’t offer them any time estimate on when they’d get a book back that a patron really needs for their research? In academic libraries this could become a huge problem for students. There has to be some balance between the freedom of the individual and the needs of the community. Getting rid of fines may very well annoy more patrons than it would please and we shouldn’t make the assumption that all of our patrons want to get rid of fines.

I worry that sometimes we are so focused on being cool that we’d risk alientating a lot of our patrons for the sake of appearing less like a “stereotypical librarian.”

We enlightened librarians are not immune to making mistakes. We create blogs for populations that don’t want them. We develop programs that none of our patrons attend. We see what people are doing successfully at other libraries and we try to replicate those successes, not considering the fact that our population is not the same as theirs. I’ve certainly been guilty of that sort of hubris. In short, we think we know what our patrons want without ever having asked them.

The key is not assuming that we know what our patrons need or want. We need to make every effort to know our patrons, rather than thinking we know them. We need to actually ask them what they want and what they think about our current services. We need to try and get patrons involved in the decision-making process at our libraries. User-centered means thinking about all of the stakeholders when making decisions, not just the youngest, the loudest, or the ones with the most money. Often, there are groups in our libraries whose needs conflict with one another. It’s not just about making the teens happy by letting them hang out and make noise in the library, but about balancing the needs of teens with the needs of elderly patrons who value quiet in the library. It’s not just about making patrons not “fear” the library by getting rid of fines, but about balancing the needs of those who want to keep materials out longer with those who want to use those same materials. It’s about finding solutions (or at least compromises) that make everyone happy. And in some cases, I wonder if there is a solution that will make everyone happy.