Monday, August 31, 2009

Signage, paper, and other trvialities

I've been thinking a lot about the somewhat "trivial" aspects of the physical space in a library (this is what happens when you spend too long debating about Ikea chairs...).

I often joke to people that some libraries aspire to an interior design aesthetic that is best described as "Unloved Church Basement, circa 1982." It's like the flip side of maintaining a collection: librarians and paraprofessional staff have only recently managed to swallow the idea of actually weeding the collection. We have yet to even begin to cut into manageable, bite-sized pieces the idea of considering the physical space of the library as a component of our services.

That's a sweeping generalization, of course. The Idea Stores, love them or hate them, at least considered space and design, northern Europeans in general are pretty good at designing cool libraries (more below; also, Shannon, your pics were too good NOT to link to...), Seattle did a wicked job (signage!), as did Vancouver.

Quick sidebar re. the Swedes and libraries: I saw a fascinating presentation at IFLA last year about getting children and young adults involved in developing and designing their space in the library, and is based on Howard Gardner’s educational theories about multiple intelligences. Libraries should play with: words (linguistic intelligence – this one is fairly obvious for us!), pictures (spatial intelligence: colours, materials, structure of the library, windows, furniture, etc.), music (musical intelligence: having a music room, instruments for lending), self-reflection (intrapersonal intelligence: quiet spaces, reading rooms, theatres, fireplaces, sofas), physical experience (bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence: ladders, sofas, climbing walls, skateboard ramps, playground outside), social experience (interpersonal intelligence: group work rooms, cafĂ©, friendly helpful staff), experience in the natural world (naturalist intelligence: plants, fountains, maps, a nice smell in the library!). Questions to ask in the process include: How can interaction with the library space develop? How can you strengthen language and stimulate the joy of reading with new techniques? How can you develop meaningful participation for children and young people when it comes to developing the library space? The project organized focus groups with children and incorporated their drawings and 3D models into renovation plans. The web site for the project acts as a resource for other librarians interested in the project.

Whoo, sidetracked. Sorry.

Maybe, upon reflection, it's the smaller branch libraries that concern me. And smaller things: not even furniture, or carpeting, or windows, but non-permanent signage (i.e. not the signs affixed to the wall that point out the washrooms, but the small posters advertizing your branch's programs, for example), display space, flyers, pamphlets, bulletin boards...

Here's where I'm coming from. At Westmount, most of the staff were pretty aware of the little things. We also had a hawk-eyed senior management team who would tear down posters they didn't like, scour the bulletin board for expired notices, and chose everything from the program notice boards to the plastic baskets patrons can use to pile up on books with infinite care (some might call this micromanaging!)...

When I started working at another library, I was appalled at the standard of ... um, cleanliness? Tidiness? I developed this theory that the way the physical space of a library is designed, and maintained (or not - garbage on the floor, grafitti in the study carrels, ignored for days...) influences the way patrons act in the space. I'm not saying we all have to be as intimidating as possible when designing spaces (something I think Westmount was, in fact, guilty of, when it designed its high service counters - how unfriendly and unergonomic!). I'm just saying that keeping the library in good shape on a daily basis has to be everyone's responsibility, or else it becomes no one's. One of my previous bosses used to do a walking tour of her branch every morning - what a great way to stay on top of things.

Some smaller infractions I have been guilty of or have observed in my day that are totally unnecessary:

  • A suggestion box with the X in box ripped off.

  • Handwritten signage - seriously, dude, use a computer!

  • Grafitti up for more than 48 hours.

  • So many pamphlets at the Reference desk that you can't see the staff person.

  • So many book trucks of work-related material pulled up beside the Reference desk that you can't see the staff person.

  • Now that I think of it, any book truck storage in public spaces.

  • Notices for summer programs in the community still up in October. Bonus points for also having the "expired" flyers or booklets, too!

  • Cluttered public workspaces (seriously, is it SO HARD to put your crap away?)

  • Dusty things.

  • Dead plants (fills me with such confidence about your dedication to serving actual humans).

  • Things used for purposes other than that which God intended them: cardboard boxes as storage for toys out in a public area, signs held up using a metal bookend and a plastic page protector, old milk cartons as storage for plastic bags for patrons, Kleenex boxes full of crayons, etc.

You're wondering where all this hostility is coming from, aren't you? I know we're public libraries, and we're poor and all that, but we need to have some self-respect, or we can't really expect our patrons to have any respect for us, can we?

And signage. God, I could write a whole other post on signage alone. First of all, no one reads signs, right? This became all too clear when people pulled on the door of Rideau Branch every day we were closed, despite the sign on the door (directly above the door handle) saying CLOSED. Especially in the children's department: some of our patrons can't read! Plus, we have new Canadians, and the elderly who can't see very well anymore, and so on. I've started using pictograms in my signs: covers of famous picture books in the pic book section, giant dinosaurs in the 567.91s, and so on. Why aren't more of us doing this? It astounds me. We talk ourselves blue in the face about welcoming people to the library, do outreach, entertain school groups, provide readers' advisory services, answer the phones, and do myriad other things - why aren't we paying attention to "smaller" things like signage as a part of the same philosophy of accessibility?

On a related topic, what do you think about this presentation about empathetic signage? On the one hand, I can hear my husband saying, "Why do we need to encourage people to be empathetic? Shouldn't they BE empathetic already?" On the other hand, I appreciate the light touch of humour. We spend too much time being totally obvious, and stultifying, when we make signs.

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