Signage Abounds

Signage in libraries has garnered a great deal of blog press of late. Michael Stephens often posts pictures of library signs that present a rather negative and off-putting stance to patrons. Ten Signs I Hope I Never See in Libraries Again is one of my favorites. On the opposite side, Steve Lawson posts some friendlier signs in his post, Shiny happy signs. Libraries have a long history of using signs like those posted by Stephens that start with “No . . .” I guess that I have started thinking about why this is. The signage parade often begins as the direct result of some type of bad behavior on the part of users (or behavior that other patrons complain about). Staff put up a sign that no one reads or follows. The signs get bigger and more direct – please don’t use cellphones in the building become NO CELLPHONES with a big red line on the sign. The most ironic thing about this penchant for signage is the fact that NO ONE EVER READS THEM – regardless of what they say. I saw this wonderfully funny piece on Candid Camera many years ago (the 1990s version – not the original) where the show placed a sign to warn people about a slippery, wet floor in a well-traveled bus station. The cameras caught people as they came through the station and their reactions to the sign. The bottom line was that during the entire process where hundreds of people came through the area, only one person ever took note of the sign. The crew enlarged the sign several times, moved the sign several times – and ended up putting the sign directly in the path of people when they entered the station. All of these changes made little difference. The interesting part was that the only person who read the sign was a young woman with a very young child – who read the sign and was obviously keen to protect the child from the slippery floor. I think this says quite a bit about the usefulness (or rather the lack thereof) of signs.

So, if signs don’t work why do we invest so much time in energy in them? Is there a better way? What is the best way to convey information to our patrons? Do we need signs if the majority of our library clientele don’t read them? What does these signs say about our policies? Is it important to have a sign that bans cell phone use? Wouldn’t it be better to simply ask someone who is disturbing other patrons to move to a less quiet area? Why do we make so many policies? I tend to think that libraries need to get rid of most of their signs – friendly or not. Patrons will only take in so much information, and we need to choose which information is most important for them to have (not what we think is most important, but what they would think is most important). And for those signs that we decide that we do actually need, we need to seriously think about how we word them. Christopher Harris some great suggestions for this over at Infomancy. Christopher writes “Even though I think copywriting could help develop better signs, what might be more important in a long-term sense is effective policy and procedure development.” Very well said. I learned quite a bit from this post and I agree with him about the relationship between signs and policies.

Other good posts about signage:

7 Responses to Signage Abounds

  1. Jim Elliott says:

    We just had a lady come in and complain about a floppy drive she bought from the library. The metal clip came off in the computer. I suggested she buy a flash drive and only use those, as floppy disks are unreliable, especially those she buys from the library.

    Her response?
    “You should put a sign up telling people they use them at their own risk!”

    Would she have read it? I highly doubt it. We do have a sign up “the library is not responsible for personal items left in the computers or computer room”, but that gets ignored, too.)

    (By the way, we refunded her money, but she is still steamed about losing her data.)

    Legally, signs cover our a$$ when people complain. The County Commission says that unless it’s posted in a sign, we cannot enforce it. (which is why we have our internet policy and patron ‘code of conduct’ posted on the bulletin board in the lobby — no excuses). THAT’s why WE have signs.

    Jim Elliott
    Reference Librarian and maker of signs.

  2. kiki says:

    I was just grousing about sign blindness on Sunday!

    A power outage had knocked out the campus servers, so there was absolutely no computer access, and I had made signs for the library doors stating just that, yet folks still wandered in and sat down at the computers, then were surprised when they couldn’t log in. Sheesh.

    And like Jim, we also often post signs just so we have something to point to when there’s a rule that needs to be enforced.

  3. Jim Elliott says:

    Hey, Kiki,

    It is a relief (kinda) to know that our patrons aren’t the only ones who do this … we will even put signs up at the computer sign-in in addition to having them on the doors, and they still sign in and sit down then say “Something’s wrong with the computer, I can’t get into the internet!”

    well, “duh!” LOL

    Usually, though, we try to head them off before they sign-in, but some are too quick for us!

  4. Jennifer says:

    It is rather nice to know that patrons are the same everywhere. We generally lock our doors during power outages because people can’t seem to understand why they can’t use the internet -or print. We are actually getting to the point where we are considering locking our doors during internet outages because that is even more difficult to make patrons aware of.

    We also have signs in our library – that nobody every reads – in order to be able to point to a rule that needs to be enforced. And, we are in no way ready to get rid of our signs. It really is all about CYA – and that is a shame. I hate needing unfriendly and unwelcoming signage just for the few problem patrons who make lots of noise. There needs to be a better way. Maybe there should be one board with all relevant policies posted for public consumption rather than signs throughout the building. Information overload is a serious problem – and the use of signs make it worse. I believe that the more signs you use, the more people ignore them.

    We actually had science students bring their dissection materials (yes, dead frogs included) into the library in order to dissect them in one of our study rooms. Fortunately, we decided that we really didn’t need big signs with frogs and a big red line through the picture of the frog (although some people thought we should do this). Staff members simply spoke to the students – and then called housekeeping to thoroughly clean the area.

  5. kiki says:

    The disection story makes me feel a little better about the big blob of hot pink gum I just found on the stairs down to the second floor. You’d think college students would be able to clean up after themselves….

    I like the all-in-one-place idea, though in practice it might be tricky. The “no gaming” policy, for instance, really does need to be right on the computer monitors. Not that that keeps it from being ignored, but it has to be enforced on such a regular basis that dragging folks around the library to the correct bulletin board would get old very quickly.

  6. Jim Elliott says:

    Last night we had a mom take her 3 year old into the computer room with her (we tell the patrons that there is not enough room for mom and children, so please use the family computers if you have a “little one” with you — which of course she ignored).

    The little darling, when not screaming up a storm or running around the desks, sat quietly and tore up the rubber back off a mouse pad and delighted in opening the CD drive on the computer and stuffing torn strips of mouse pad backing into the drive and then closing the door. Of course we didn’t learn of this part until after they’d left and the next patron said they couldn’t get the drive to read his CD-r.

    Now I KNOW the mom had to have seen this, unless she was totally clueless (which wouldn’t surprise me, either), as the solitaire game she was playing wasn’t that exciting, yet she said not a word — either to the child or to us! And because the desk was so busy, we didn’t have the staff to keep going in and asking her to move out to the family computers, or check on things (separte, enclosed room).

    And patrons wonder why staff feel they have to be so negative?

    By the way, if you haven’t discovered the great on-line comic strip “Unshelved” yet, it’s superb.

  7. Jim Elliott says:

    at our staff meeting this month, I mentioned the above incident, and stated that I thought we needed to tell parents with small children that they either have to hold them in their laps when in the computer room, or use the computers set aside for families and children (half of these have internet, the rest just have games like “Arthur’s Teacher trouble” Barney, Magic Schoolbus, etc.) mainly because our new computer room is too small for more than the person using the computer to be in there! (not our idea, we wanted it bigger, the County Commission didn’t think we needed more room — so it’s one chair per computer and get cozy!)

    … Get this: our children’s librarian said:

    Well, there’s no sign stating that kids can’t be in the computer room!

    we all just looked at her and said, “it’s common sense!”

    “Well, there needs to be a sign up if that’s our policy.”

    “It’s not policy, we don’t have a policy because the room at the old library was larger, we didn’t need a policy there. But the situation has changed.”

    “Then you can’t enforce it.”

    oh well. such is life at the library.


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