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.