May 8, 2006
A View from the Stacks: Do You Need Some Help?
OK, not really plaguing. More like a nuisance.
Last week, my coworker Tamara and I (she being of the librarian technician persuasion as well) went to local Seattle libraries and examined their spaces. Of particular interest was the use of signage to direct patrons through the maze of shelves, copiers, and in the case of the Central Seattle Public Library, a romp with some escalators. This was all in an attempt to determine what signs work, what signs confuse and which signs should be avoided at all costs to preserve patron sanity.
These outings were not just a nice excuse to be out of the office. They were an attempt for us to figure out what signs our library needs to make it a more user-friendly space. At the time of this writing, we have some temporary signs set up, and it has come to the attention of some of the staff that these signs may look, well, a little too temporary (emphasis mine).
But what we lack for in quality, we do make up for in quantity. Our walls, tables, study carols and circulation desk are covered in signs. So much so, that I believe there are some people who suffer information overload from just looking at our breadth of signs before they even get a chance to crack open a law book. But how do you balance presenting important information for patrons with the desire to not overwhelm?
Some of the libraries thought that forgoing signage entirely was the way to go. They now have temporary signs up, showing locations and giving directions. Other libraries posted their book stack map every other stack, in case you were unwilling to walk two stacks down to consult the map. This makes the space look cluttered and too busy. While each of these libraries probably had very good reasons for the signage they chose, it seems that picking a sign strategy for a library can be likened to organizing a battle strategy. Or selecting a book for book club that doesn’t follow Oprah’s advice.
In other words, it is very difficult.
Maybe it is because libraries move things around. A lot. Or maybe it is because libraries don’t or can’t pay to have a specialist come in and do it for them. Or perhaps, as I suspect, libraries and the staff that occupy them over think the usefulness of certain signs and believe they need to be put up to help patrons. Of course, these signs are the ones that are never read.
In the end, Tamara and I decided that our outing were helpful because it showed us that the process of putting up permanent signs in libraries has yet to be perfected. This takes a lot of pressure off of us, because what we suggest for signage does not have to be based on what we think will be perfect, but what we think will work for us for the time being. Plus, it allows us to think about how the staff can more effectively interact with the space along with our patrons. Do we really need a page of instructions detailing printing options? Or can we just have a simple sentence that tells people to ask a staff member for help with printing? And is it necessary to have “Quiet Study Area” signs set up when people are going to disregard them and still answer their cell phones? Wouldn’t a simple cell phone with a line through it at the front do the trick?
So, in the coming weeks when we all get together as a staff to talk about signs in our space, I am looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say. And maybe, with some luck, somebody will like my idea of tearing down some signs, putting up others and maybe moving some pre-existing signs around.
Of course, if this doesn’t work out, at least Tamara and I got out of the office on some of the first nice days of Spring in Seattle.
Stina McClintock, Library Technician, King County Law Library (Seattle)
Editor's Note: Time for a sing-along:
And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said you look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you'll do
So I took off my hat I said imagine that, huh, me working for you
Sign Sign everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign
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