Daily Archives: March 30, 2010

Life Lessons from the Library: Make Only Necessary Rules!

Librarians don’t have the best representation in tv, movies, and literature. We’re usually shown as old women in poorly-fitting suits who shush and give evil looks at the person daring to talk or keep books past the due date.

And there is some truth to the stereotype. A colleague visited a library, and he set off the alarm as he was leaving the building. A librarian stopped him, and he explained that he didn’t have any library books. She looked in his bag and found nothing. He set off the alarm as he walked through again. She kept making him walk though until he could get by without setting off the alarm, because there was a rule, that if the alarm went off, there must be a hidden book or video on that person, and no one could leave until it was found. Finally, in frustation, he made a comment about what a waste of time all of this was. The reason I know about this is that the next day, I received a call from that library’s director saying her employee had found my colleague extremely abusive and rude. Now while there are many adjectives that can describe him, he’s neither abusive or rude. But he was determined never to put his head inside that particular library again.

Libraries are notorious for having rules:

  • no talking
  • no cell phones
  • no food
  • no checking out reference books
  • no sleeping
  • no putting feet on the chairs

Now, to be fair, most libraries no longer have most of those rules, but the stereotype remains. And the rules made sense at one time, but simply didn’t change after the reason for them was gone.

When I first came to the library, there was a rule that only database searches could be done on the library computers. Students wanting to check their emails had to go to an open lab. Now at one time, this made sense, since there were only a few computers and we needed to reserve them for students actually doing research. But unfortunately, it was a rule that was hurting the library since the President of the College only saw that students were lining up to use the open lab computers while many of the library computers sat empty. No new funding for us. Plus the times had changed: students received information from their instructors over email. They had assignments to look at YouTube and Facebook. We needed to change, so we did.

But it taught me an important lesson. Make only a few rules and make sure they are  necessary. For awhile, we fought a terrible battle against cell phone users in the library because they were noisy and people needed to study. And that is still true. But what became obvious is that we, the library staff, often made more noise trying to keep students off cell phones that the actual users themselves. Going on the loudspeaker to ask people to get off their cell phones generated more disruption for other students than perhaps seventy cell phone users. So we re-evaluated. If our goal was a fairly quiet environment, then cell phones were not the problem. It was noise. So we now only ask people to stop using their cell phones if they are disturbing others around them. Other than that, we leave them alone.

It seems to be a good lesson for life. Make few rules, make sure they cover the essentials, and don’t spend time trying to cover every possible misbehavior that might happen. Everyone will be happier, and, strangely enough, more order will reign.