Saturday, May 24, 2008

Library directors can get obsessed with the numbers

I was reading an article that has been circulating through the library world, Hartford Public Library: a study in bad behavior. The article describes the various illegal acts that have been occurring in the library with total disregard from the library administration.

A troubling discovery is that the library director removed the security gates simply because they did not go with the new layout of the library. The gates were also not working properly, but that is no excuse to remove them completely. Furthermore, illegal acts have been routinely ignored. In fact, the article seems to indicate the library director encourages people to avoid calling the police. In the end she justifies her decisions based on the numbers. The library is getting heavy use, isn't that what we all want?

There are many statistical tricks for library directors to boost their numbers. One of them is to remove restrictions: removing barriers such as fines, security gates, and not having or not enforcing behavior guidelines in the library. No need to upset anyone and make your library look bad or provide someone with a bad experience at the cost of looking unfriendly. However, the long term costs are dramatic. People will not want to come into the library as they would perceive it as dangerous and out of control. Furthermore, books and materials that state "in" on the catalog are in fact not really there, leading to further frustration and lowered use. They say they have it, but they really don't. Nothing good is ever in, again, leading to a decline in usage. I've even worked in a library that didn't require ID in order to obtain a library card. You can imagine the non-return rates.

What troubles me the most is the lack of a behavior policy and the amount of illegal activity nobody does anything about. Library staff shouldn't have to engage with someone who is committing a criminal act. They shouldn't have to deal with overwhelming situations which they alone have to handle on a regular basis. It leads to low morale, and in worse situations, bodily harm. Police officers are trained to deal with these situations. If a situation suddenly changes, then a staff member must find a way to minimize the situation until the police arrive. Of course, they must do something. There is an obligation for staff to be proactive in preventing and stopping these types of issues, but not on their own, and not if the situation is overwhelming.

Stats go up because of good service, good collections, and fully functioning computers. That, plus marketing, will lead to an increase. It is not necesssary to remove all restrictions and rules to increase usage. We can't have an unsafe environment in which patrons and staff are afraid. We cannot hemorrhage money through lost collections. In the end, the short term gain only leads to a long term loss.


Terry Dawson said...

I hope there's another side to the story in Hartford, but that sounds dang near unconscionable.

I sit down with each new person we hire and tell them there's nothing more important than the safety of the patrons and staff. Every staff person is authorized to throw somebody out of the library when they think it's needed. Every staff person is encouraged to call the Police whenever they think it might be needed. They don't have to ask permission, just make the call!

Our statistics are just fine, thanks. But you've got to do things in the right order.

Jeff Scott said...

I have heard that approach from other library directors. It's always a wonder if there is another side. It is always good to respond. Of course, the situation in Wisconsin with the "Customer Service Librarians" had a response that was worse than the original article :)

I say the same to my staff. If they aren't comfortable or feel overwhelmed, they need to call the police.