Overcoming The Rules Culture In Our Libraries

Two things are on my mind lately. I’ve written previously about what would constitute a good user experience for a library user, and I continue to explore how we could make this happen for our local library user community. But to do accomplish that I’ve also been thinking about what holds us back from reaching our great experience goals. One barrier that emerges again and again is our traditional library rules culture. We have so many rules and policies that we have to search our own web sites to find them when a rule check is required. How does this contrast with the rules environment our users experience in the retail environment?

Have it your way! No rules, just fun! But when you get to the library – “You want that book for another loan period. Sorry, the rules say you can only renew it twice.” I just finished reading The Starbucks Experience, and while the book is by no means one of the best I’ve read on user experience, a librarian reading the book would immediately sense the significant difference between a Starbucks and a library – even the libraries selling coffee. When it comes to their customers, Starbucks doesn’t have rules.  I’ve gone in Starbucks and asked for a small coffee in the medium cup, so I can add milk. Guess what? There’s no cup size rule. I’m sure Starbucks, like all service organizations, has policies that dictate the delivery of customer service. But the difference is that Starbucks employees are empowered to bend, break or shatter the rules if that’s what it takes to deliver a great experience to the consumer.

There are good reasons to institute some rules in our libraries. If study rooms are in significant demand during the exam study period, imposing a time limit can create equitable access to the rooms. That’s a case when a rule makes sense because it does try to allow a good experience to be shared among the community. Where rules break down the experience is when they are used to frustrate users and inhibit their ability to use the library. For example, a student group has already signed up for and used a study room earlier in the day. Now they want to use a study group again in the afternoon. The library rules clearly state only one room per day per group. So they don’t get the room. But there are three study rooms that aren’t being used, so they want to know why they can’t use one. What happens now? Will the library staff member stick to the rule for fear of being disciplined for breaking one or put a commitment to giving those users a great library experience ahead of the rule book?

I suppose the outcome depends on how much effort is made at that library to empower all staff members to  adjust the rules and policies as needed to accommodate and satisfy the library user. That seems to be the conversation we need to begin having in our libraries if we are to change our rules culture. To my way of thinking the first step is to shift the library culture from one that’s designed around the needs of the library administrators and staff to maintain control over the collections and facility, to a culture that is designed around a focus on delivering great library experiences to the user community. Until we take that first step collectively as a library staff, we will have little success in changing our rules culture. 

4 thoughts on “Overcoming The Rules Culture In Our Libraries”

  1. Yes! My best library experience as both a patron and an employee was in a system whose only rule was “do everything you can to give the customer a positive experience, as long as it doesn’t break the law or prevent other customers from having a positive experience.” There were no other rules, just guidelines and policies, and managers clearly stated that they would always stand behind their employees’ judgment in bending policies or guidelines, so long as the employee was following the good-experience rule. Initially, I was skeptical–it sounded like so much corporate jargon–but people really “enforced” the rule and created an excellent environment. Ironically, I think part of the reason for the successful implementation was that it WAS labeled a rule. As you point out, libraries are traditionally rule-centered institutions, and I would also argue that the profession attracts and retains rule-oriented people. By calling good experience a rule, this system used a well-established means to accomplish a new kind of end. It institutionalized good experience.

  2. I’m all about giving frontline staff the autonomy to bend, break, or shatter rules for the greater good, and, blessedly, our director is a true believer. Unfortunately, one of the most outlandish rules we are compelled by law to uphold has to do with library account privacy. A parent can’t use a child’s library card, even while picking up a child’s reserve, and even though the parent signed as the responsible party on the application for said card. A husband can’t come in to pick up a wife’s reserved materials, even if he has her card in hand. Yes, I know the classic argument about wives not wanting their husbands to know they are reading up on divorce case law, but our customers are understandably upset by what appears to be a lack of common sense on the library’s part. And telling them that it’s state law doesn’t appease them.

    We did come up with a solution, which is to issue a family card where the account number is shared by all family members. But first you have to cool them down enough for them to hear the offer.

    I love how we (the collective “Big We”) are constantly shooting ourselves in the foot (feet?)

  3. Well said. I think libraries should empower front lines staff to do whatever needs to be done to retain the library user. Why don’t more library directors get this? I’ve seen reference staff go above and beyond the call of duty to track down the tiniest bit of information, yet there are so many other occasions where library staff are discouraged from “bending the rules” in order to make someone happy. Did you know that front lines Disney employees have a half a million dollars (combined) at their disposal every day that they are free to use to solve customer dilemmas. (lost park tickets or merchandise, accidents, a scraped knee…) Imagine if you empowered your circ staff to forgive $20 in fines over the course of the day. Would people want to use your library?? You bet!!

  4. Philosophically, I agree that the fewer rules the better. However, I will make a case that some rules are necessary for equitable service, and that they play a big role in being “fair”. And in THOSE situations, I really don’t want other staff deciding to bend rules!

    For example, we limit the number of internet sessions for one person during our busiest time, right after school and early evening. When some staff choose to ignore this rule — even when a computer seems to be available — two minutes later someone who hasn’t been on at all that day can’t use a computer for at least an hour, maybe for job hunting or email.

    Scarce resources need to be distributed as fairly as possible. We have a number of patrons who really know how to work the system to their advantage, and that’s WITHIN the rules! It would be different in a perfect world where we had all the computers, study rooms, electrical outlets for laptops, quiet tutor zones, and other resources that anybody wanted, but we simply don’t.

    Rules that *I* would like to eliminate are the ones that make people angry, but that we have a historical bias toward as a public library: no cell phones, no beverages, no snacks, etc. (I will continue to support “no smoking”, though!!) In our library, the Director’s stance about food and drink, inclluding a cafe, is that it won’t be considered until we have a full-time custodian, which is reasonable.

    Other rules, such as the unattended children policy, are to protect the Library from liability in case of problems. We live in a litigious society.
    It’s a hard call…

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