Samples below are from real signs found in public libraries. Keep in mind that we, as libraries and library workers, strive to be welcoming, warm, friendly, and foster the type of environment in which our users feel comfortable. Okay, now read these sign examples and ask yourself if you’d come back to these places a second time.

This computer doesn’t work so don’t even bother trying.

No waiting or dozing allowed.

You must have a valid library card to have access to the bathroom.

Materials are reference only, so don’t even ask if you can check them out.

Absolutely NO food and NO drinks (even water) allowed. If you are found with these items outside of your bag, you will have 2 minutes to save your work and leave.

No chairs. No sitting.

Huh? It’s no wonder library workers are asking for help and ideas for more customer-friendly signage. If you recognize your library in any of these examples, here are some questions and answers that might help to improve your landscape a bit.

Question: We’re not allowed to make any signs at all. Signs can only come from our PR department, and the ones they send sound mean. How can we suggest to professional PR people and marketers that they ought to rethink our signage?

Answer:
Your question actually contains part of the answer. Whom are you dealing with? Librarians? People who have studied and practiced working with the public? People who are dedicated to helping build community spaces and welcome diverse users in their doors? No. You’re dealing with “professional PR people and marketers.” Talented people in their own right (and industry) no doubt, but perhaps some subtle and respectful training in librarianship is in order.

One option is to see if you can get permission to do a brief “Today’s Library” presentation for the PR department. You could focus on what it means to be a welcoming community gathering place. This includes how libraries have evolved to be more focused on providing outstanding customer service in every way. You could emphasize how critical the PR department’s work is to helping you achieve that goal and then, perhaps, give some signage examples to show exactly what you mean.

Question: How can our signs ask patrons not to do something in a friendly way?

Answer:
There’s an old reference adage that says “Don’t tell them what you can’t do — tell them what you CAN do.” Remember that approach when creating signage! When someone comes up to the desk to ask a question, we don’t gruffly ask, “What do you want?” Our signs shouldn’t sound unfriendly, critical or threatening either.

For example, consider the common door sign that says “No admittance before 9:00 a.m.” What if that was changed to something like “It’s almost time! We look forward to welcoming you at 9:00 a.m.”

Instead of “NO cell phones!” you could try “Would you like to enjoy some peace and quiet? So would everyone else. Please turn off your ringer.”

One useful and fun way to get some creative ideas is to turn to your most creative resource – your staff. At your next staff meeting, post several unfriendly signs on flip chart pages on the walls around the room, and give everyone some time to walk around and write alternative messages on them. You’ll be surprised by the many different ways the same message can be conveyed, especially when you’re really concentrating on being nice!

Question: How can we make our signage not only friendly, but also more creative and easy to understand as well?

Answer:
Great question! It’s a quintessential challenge for library staff to speak in a language patrons can understand. Our literature has been telling us for years that people don’t want to feel stupid in a library, and that it’s often why they’re so reluctant to ask us for help. They’re afraid their lack of understanding will make them look less intelligent. So go around your library and consider all the signage you see. Ask yourself, will someone who is not used to libraries or library lingo know what this means? Ask yourself if someone who is new to the English language or doesn’t speak it at all could understand your signage. If the answer is no, consider changing it to non-library language.

For example, what if all a patron wants to know is where the cookbooks are and the only sign he sees says “Reference”? What does reference mean, exactly (not to us, but to non-library folk)? One of the smartest signs I have ever seen provided a clear alternative to the label “Reference.” The library staff had just hung a big question mark over the reference desk. It invited everyone who had any kind of a question at all to bring it on!

Here’s one more example of what I mean:

In most libraries you’ll find stack-end signage that looks like this: 601.4 – 610.5. Many library users are unfamiliar with these numbers. It’s not a football score. It doesn’t look like an address. Maybe it’s a page in the tax code? You may not be ready to completely abandon Dewey, but how about a compromise? Consider this sign instead:

Philosophy & Medicine (601.4 – 610.5)

At least with this type of signage, we’ve served the customers’ needs first, then ours.

Question: Why do patrons get so mad about all of our rule signs?

Answer:
Giving them the benefit of the doubt (and understanding that some patrons come in just plain mad), it may be because they just don’t understand our reasoning. They’re tired and thirsty. And they have to write a paper. Why the heck can’t they have coffee while they work?

Let’s try telling them why. For example, instead of simply announcing “No drinks in computer lab!” explain the reason for the rule right on the sign. How about “It costs about $2,000 to replace a computer that’s had coffee (or even water) spilled on it. Please help us protect these computers for everyone and enjoy your drinks outside the computer lab.”

Or, rather than “No unattended children in the library,” how about “We care about your kids, but library staff cannot watch them. Please, no unattended children in the library.”

Question: How can we use signage to share a positive message?

Answer:
Make sure you post some appreciative signs, as well.

When customers leave your library, don’t let them go through a door that only reads “Exit.” Consider instead posting something like “Thanks for coming! We’re looking forward to your next visit.” Or use this opportunity to remind users of your online services: “Thanks for coming! Remember, you can renew your materials online!”

Positive signs will help keep the library on your patrons’ minds, and the signs don’t always have to be on the wall. If your library system issues check-out receipts, add a friendly message on the bottom. Remind users to go to your website for renewals, or use that space to advertise a program or new resource or service.

Our customers know us not only for what we do, but also for what we say – and how we say it. Maybe it’s time for your library to look for opportunities to apply your outstanding customer-service skills to your signs!

Post your comments, reactions, questions and experiences below. Let’s learn from one another!

So, what else would you like to know? If you have nagging questions that you have always wanted another opinion on, now is your chance to ask. Write your questions in the comments below, or send your confidential questions to me at ideas@demco.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

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