Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Red Tape = Patron Kryptonite

I'm usually a silver lining kind of person, but I'm having a rare day of disgust. I've been thinking a bit about user-centered library experiences, and how the policies and guidelines libraries have in place do (or, sadly, don't -- at least not most of the time) make coming to the library easy and satisfying for our patrons. People, things are not looking good.

We make them jump through so many hoops just to access information about items they might want to check out (nevermind the items themselves) that it's a wonder people even come to public libraries anymore. Some disheartening examples:

I was helping a patron learn to use the OPAC yesterday and I had to apologize for being a little bit rusty with it, because I don't use that interface at all, ever. I use the employee interface, which is faster, cleaner, easier to use, and provides more information. This makes me a more effective (i.e. better, from the patron's standpoint) librarian when I'm looking up items for patrons, but also sloppy, stubmling (i.e. worse) librarian when I'm offering patron training. It also says some negative things about the OPAC we're using -- when an intelligent, web-literate person receives a result list from a keyword or author search and can't figure out how to proceed to access the information s/he wants, that's our failure to provide good service.

We make people provide multiple forms of ID and proof of residence before we'll give them a library card. Why do we do that? A library card isn't like a credit card -- you can't run up thousands of dollars of debt by irresponsibly using a library card. Okay, we might lose some materials, but most library users aren't going to check out stuff and then cut out on us. Couldn't we ask for just one form of ID, issue a temporary card, and then fully authorize the card after, say, successfully sending out a hold notice? There has to be a way to make the process easier on the user without sacrificing the collection.

My library put up little table tents asking people not to use their cellphones in public places here in the library. I'm all for doing what we can to stanch the hemorrhaging of social niceties, but I don't think banning cellphones in libraries is going to get it done. Saying a blanket "no" to cellphones is saying no to the way people (especially young people) communicate now. There's at least one other blogger thinking about cellphones in the library: behold, I Shush, by Woody Evans (most relevant posts are here and here. Jenny Levine writes about this issue pretty regularly. See here and here. There's plenty more if you just search her archives, too.

Worst of all, some libraries don't permit non-residents or non-cardholders to attend library programs. Paul Miller elaborates on his recent experience. Mind you, this anecdote applies to a library in England, but I've seen it in American libraries, too. If we are aiming to dissuade non-library users from ever becoming active library users, I cannot think of a single more effective off-putting tactic than this one.

So here's my question: what are libraries out there doing to cut through the red tape? What policies have you abolished? Where are you meeting your patrons halfway? Or more than halfway? We're interested in interviewing you for the blog, so please either post a comment below, or write to us!


  • At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    We're in the process of putting a "skin" on our OPAC to make it easier to use and more patron-friendly. We've hired a web design company to do the work (we got an LSTA grant to re-do the web site) but other libraries have used staff programmers to do the work.

    I usually don't use the OPAC either, so it was interesting to pick it apart, find everything that was wrong with it, and dream up ways to make it better.

  • At 4:36 PM, Blogger amanda said…

    yep, it certainly doesn't look good, does it?

    I'm pretty proud of something my library just did: we've been getting a lot of complaints in the suggestion box about a few related things: cell-phone use in the library, noise in the library, and students "holding" carrels by leaving their stuff on the desk/chair and going to class, going to lunch, etc. (we have a huge space issue - i.e.: not enough of it!). So, instead of just issuing policies to BAN cell phone use or BAN carrel-saving or BAN noise (as if!), we held a drop-in discussion asking students (and anyone else who cares) to come and tell us what they think, help us decide what to do, and hammer out some plans for action. We put up posters all over the place and posted to our blog saying: "a community problem requires a community solution". How cool is that? They're still hashing out what the new policies are going to be to deal with these problems, but way to involve your community in those solutions!

  • At 4:40 PM, Blogger Tasha said…

    As a library director, I have started looking at how we can say yes to our patrons. So to do that, we recently added a computer with a CD burner, added Word to all of our computers not just a designated word-processing computer, decided not to ban cell phones but to use our already-existing noise and disturbance policy to approach patrons who are being too loud, allow patrons with special computing needs to use the staff machine, give longer check out periods for a variety of reasons, have generous teacher card rules, allow non-residents to access all of our services, etc. etc. etc.

    Our existing policies did not have to change to do this. Our own approach to the rules had to change. We had to start being more flexible and listen for those things that we can say yes to without violating our policies. And if a policy needs to change, then change it! That's why we keep the policy file on a computer, easier editing!

  • At 9:30 AM, Blogger Sophie Brookover said…

    nanette, amanda, and Tasha, I'd love to talk to all three of you a bit more about what your libraries have done & are doing to make your libraries more user-friendly. If it's okay with you, I'll e-mail you some questions next week.

    Tasha, your Blogger profile is not public, so if you're willing to be interviewed, please e-mail me with your e-mail address.

    Thanks for contributing! All of your ideas are excellent, practical, and inspiring.

  • At 8:35 PM, Blogger Peter Bromberg said…

    Reading the comments left by Nanette, Amanda and Tasha left me feeling proud and hopeful. Great service you guys!

    I see a common theme running through the comments, particularly Amanda's and Tasha's: Listening. Amanda's library is actively listening to their community. Tasha's library is actively listening for things they can say yes to. I can only assume that Nanette's library is changing their OPAC because they've been listening to customer feedback.

    Shameless promotion mode: I've been writing about similar issues over at my nascent blog, Library Garden, http://librarygarden.blogspot.com. Check it out if you're interested :-) -Pete

  • At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    With respect to the library in the UK limiting its resources to residents, my local library (I am not a librarian...sshhhh, can I comment?) and several others won't allow the public to use the computers unless you live in the community and have a library card. So what is it named The ***** Free Public Library?

  • At 3:34 PM, Blogger Liz B said…

    My library is in the process of re-examining the no cell phones policy; I'm all for getting rid of it and having the existing rules about noise apply.

    What's even worse about the catalog, is even when I'm using the better in-house version to find a book, when the question is subject matter, I hop over to Amazon and then see if we have the book I've found.

  • At 4:31 PM, Blogger WE said…

    There's this 'no word processing software' policy for this library's public computers... but patrons just use Notepad or Wordpad (which they can still access) or Writely.com or Yahoo! accounts "notepad" to get the job done. There's always a way around a policy, seems like...

  • At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's just a little thing, but I don't have the power to do much. I started lending out headphones without requiring collateral. Our headphones are huge black hideous things that nobody would ever take with them, yet patrons including teens and childrens who carry nothing of value were asked to leave an id at the desk. Since I've started just giving them out I hardly ever have to ask patrons to turn down the volume.


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