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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

When patrons misbehave: 10 guidelines

One of the surprisingly popular talks I've been giving (most recently, this morning in Rapid City SD) is about public library policies. I don't focus on particular wording, or even a checklist (although such checklists do exist, like this excellent one from the Colorado State Library). Instead, I focus on the general orientation that boards and staff should take when confronted with the inevitable issue of patrons behaving badly.

Although it will come as a surprise to some, the best response to trouble isn't always to create a new policy so that stern librarians can ensure it never happens again. I propose a set of guidelines, instead. They are:
  1. Begin with general policy guidelines. Start with ALA's Library Bill of Rights, one of our clearest statements of professional purpose.
  2. Use your best judgment. No matter how thorough your policies may be, there will be surprises. Remember the mission and values of the institution, and do your best.
  3. Presume innocence and good intentions. Most people are wonderful.
  4. Treat everyone with respect: eye contact, smile, handshake - but don't touch when they are upset.
  5. Model appropriate behavior: speak quietly and courteously.
  6. Set sensible boundaries and state them clearly when necessary. When wild things happen, sometimes it just never occurs to people that they're out of line. So tell them: "Sir, you are speaking very loudly, and other people are having trouble working."
  7. Know when to make an exception. Most of the time, the rules are reasonable, and people follow them. But sometimes, people are in various kinds of trouble, and holding to the rules is actually bad service. That's why libraries hire smart people: to discern the difference between usual and unusual, and make a good call.
  8. Look out for each other. Buddy up, whether it's to extricate one another from awkward situations (someone monopolyzing or creeping out a librarian) or perilous ones (walking out into dark parking lots).
  9. Holler for help when you need it. When you feel that your safety, or public safety, is threatened, you're not a SWAT team officer or superhero. Call 911. That's just knowing your own boundaries.
  10. Review policies after an incident. Was it a one-off event, or a trend? Every problem doesn't need a policy. Most situations don't. But reviewing an incident while it's fresh helps to clarify what steps might have been taken to make things better.
What policy guidelines would YOU add to the list?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Six trends

I've been doing a talk for a while now about what I believe to be the five transformative trends most deeply affecting libraries today. But after each talk, I pick up a lot of insights from the audiences. After my last talk (for NEFLIN, in Jacksonville FL), I realized that I now think there are SIX trends. And I have begun to think of them as a movement from one thing to another. So it looks something like this:


  1. EMERGENT LITERACY ==> from book desert to book abundance
  2. DIGITAL PUBLISHING ==> from gatekeeper to gardener
  3. COMMUNITY REFERENCE ==> from embedded librarian to community leader
  4. SELF-DIRECTED, COLLABORATIVE LEARNING CENTER ==> from consumer to creator
  5. GENERATIONAL TURNOVER ==> from Boomer to Millennial
  6. ADVOCACY ==> from head to heart


Literacy. That is, given what we have learned about the importance of early literacy, there's no excuse not to push more books in the homes of children between the ages of 0-5. And we can track that.

Digital publishing. In the area of digital publishing, many libraries have already begun to grasp our new role as helping our communities to write better books.

Reference. In the area of reference services, it's not enough to get librarians to leave the building. It's time for us to step up to true community leaderships, part of a broad-based team.

Learning. What I used to call "library as place" has become something more. I think this phrase is unwieldy, but it's right: public libraries aren't just hosting programs. There's a new intentionality about what they're doing. It's a conscious learning focus, but it's not the prescriptive focus of schools. The driver is still individual interest, but perhaps because of the next trend, it is far more collaborative.

Turnover. Each generation has different skills. Our institutions change to reflect the demands of new patrons. What does this mean for libraries? I think it means some new thinking is required about "succession planning." That does not mean "making the next generation just like us." Rather, it means more thoughtfully managing our human resources processes to provide a new kind of interim support to a very bright generation that, thus far, hasn't had much management experience. The focus over the past 10 years or so has been leadership development, which is certainly important. But it's hard to be an effective leader if you don't know how to manage.

Advocacy. Finally, libraries have done a terrific job of marketing use. We push our services, and our gate counts show that it works. But at the same time, we have lost, across the nation, the support that once was almost a given. Our marketing and advocacy has to shift away from all of those heady arguments about statistics and services, and toward a more heartfelt communication of meaning and of value.

Anyhow, this is how my thinking is changing as I both test my observations, and see shifts in library practices. It's still an exciting time to be a librarian! I've also been thinking about ways to make this talk more interactive...