TTW Mailbox: Heretical Ideas in Library School

Dear TTW:

I’m taking a little one-credit class called “The Thoughtful Professional” in my library school. One of the requirements of the class is to send the professor a short email with a “Heretical Idea” about libraries. During the last 30-minutes of each class we discuss the idea. The author remains anonymous.I wanted to share mine with you because a photo you put in your Flickr stream inspired me. Here it is:

Throw away the library policy book; toss aside the library rules!

Most library rules and policies serve no one, except the ineffective managers who implement and administer them. Managers who aren’t trained to be effective leaders create rules to deal with difficult situations instead doing the tough work required to really solve them. Most rules create walls between people. Most rules establish an “us vs. them” situation. How do patrons/users/clients feel when they see a sign like the one attached?

Instead, hire the best people for the job. Train and empower them to provide the best customer service they can provide. Establish procedures and guidelines, including “these procedures and guidelines have been made to be broken or bent.” Hire people who are kind and compassionate. Hire people who are confident in themselves and their ability to make decisions. Hire people who are optimistic and who possess integrity. Give them the tools to do their job, and set them free to do the best job they can do. And then reward the creative solutions that will undoubtedly arise when they have been empowered to do something greater than fall back on weak-minded rules.

Signed, LIS Student

Wowza, LIS, that is heretical! You make some good points. I hope the class discussion went well. I like the format – it gets people thinking outside of their comfort zone to examine what at first might be heretical or forbidden thinking. Thanks for the note.

We know every library has its own unique circumstances, and certainly large libraries in big cities have a certain set of issues that others do not. How can even the biggest library evaluate the rules?

And, TTW readers, what is your heretical idea?

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11 thoughts on “TTW Mailbox: Heretical Ideas in Library School”

  1. In a perfect world, yes. Unfortunately I think Codes of Conduct are necessary. In fact, I have had one really help me out when I was being followed and harassed by a patron. It is firing power for banning someone from a public place. “They violated codes x, y, z and are therefore banned”. There are legal issues implicated in banning an unruly patron from a public place. And I certainly do not feel that it was my fault, which I think this writer implies. There are circumstances where not having policies could be detrimental to a working environment.

  2. I think it’s an interesting idea, but utopian and ultimately unworkable in the context of the reality that people need boundaries set for them. These boundaries are set in a variety of ways–parents, peers, institutions, society, &c.

    The library has every right to demand that a certain standard of behavior is required if the person wants to use the library. To say no rules in the library is akin to saying that all laws should not exist, as well, which is pollyanna thinking at best and dangerous at worst.

  3. I wonder if that library school student has ever worked public service in a busy public library. Probably not; otherwise they would be very happy to have “guidelines” and “policies” and stuff like, oh, sexual harrassment rules to protect them. Hey!! Throw away that one! And how about employment discrimination – age, race, gender, sexual orientation – throw THOSE away!!

  4. There’s a fine line between heretical and stupid. A public library has to have rules, insipid as they may seem sometimes. I mean, as far as rules go I’d say public libraries are pretty lenient, and best of all free.

  5. This is an interesting post, because my Library actually does exactly this. Which is isn’t to say we don’t follow federally mandated rules (like those against harassment and discrimination) but that we do ask staff to make decisions based on the patron in front of them. And give them the ability to make real choices based on patron needs. When it comes to things like legality, I think we can make a decision based on the specific instance without endangering a commitment to serving each unique patron.

    Sometimes, it drives all of us crazy. It IS easier to say, I can’t do this, it is against policy. BUT a different kind of approach does allow negotiation and some risk-taking. In the end, I would prefer to discuss my information needs with someone who is free to make good decisions about how to assist me. Even when we are busy (and we do have a very high circ rate), I think patrons are more willing to be patient because they feel the service will justify the time.

  6. This is definitely interesting although really not so heretical or earth-shattering as a proposal. (Sorry LIS student, not dissing you.)

    While public policies are often very helpful for guidelines and our patrons/users benefit from knowing what the boundaries are, I think libraries (and perhaps many other entities) get bogged down by rules in the behind the scenes functioning. That is something that, so far, this discussion seems to be missing. As an employee, the less restriction and more creativity I can bring to my job, the better I function. However, this doesn’t work for everybody and some people are always going to be by the book. But that is why throwing in that statement can be helpful. For those who don’t want to bend or break, find. But for those of us who do, it gives us more leeway to think and work outside the box.

  7. Let this person sit at the reference desk of a main library in a large city with homeless people filled to the gills with illegal drugs and fortified wine wandering the stacks and see how they view rules after a day of that.

  8. @ Ed lol

    I have been thinking about this quite a bit the past few days…hoping that my mind would change or at least find a possibility where the idea of not having rule or a code of conduct would work. And I certainly do not mean to demean the efforts of Meg. But I believe there are issues addressed in a code that are just not addressed in federal and state regulations. For example, I worked in a public library where a man would prop himself in the aisle, take off his shoes, his jacket…and basically camp out. He was reading…supposedly. So he really wasn’t loitering. But he was a nuisance. No one wants to go down an aisle where a large, pretty stinky man has sprawled out. But we had a rule about blocking aisles and therefore could tell him to move. I don’t know how else this could have been addressed.

  9. I find it fascinating that all of the responses to this post have been so negative. They seem to be focusing on the word “policy” in the first paragraph and completely missing the spirit of this LIS student’s idea. There’s often such a negative vibe that permeates our workplace, one that makes us more eager to complain about patrons than come up with new ideas or services. Part of what makes some libraries so frustrating to work in is that librarians and staff aren’t given the freedom to innovate or develop new, more effective ways to interact with patrons. Instead librarians and staff have their hands tied by policy, rules, and the “we do what we’ve always done” mentality. I think this thoughtful, idealistic LIS student is right on the money. We need to be thinking of other new, exciting, and even “heretical” ways to help shake things up in libraries, rather than just crapping all over a new idea the way we always do.

  10. I find the comment from the librarian the most balanced but in my experience there are two camps on such issues and administration always sides with the rule makers. The trust people camp is distrusted and quite rightly cause people can’t be trusted. But this is all in the past conciousness though it’s not a word that spelling dictionaries recognize is rising! However don’t forget Marx saying that “theft is the responsibility of the poor” and don’t think that excuses avarice! or in this case kleptomania. All in all people are so afraid of betrayal. Afraid to trust because it could be broken! Like a moral problem of one!

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