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: