Punishing Everyone For A Single Transgression

Does something like this ever happen in your library? A single-parent student has no choice but to bring a toddler son or daughter to the library. It’s a weekend, and the student has an assignment due on Monday. College libraries can be a little boring for the young, so the child does a bit of acting out or the parent lets the child use a computer. Another student complains about the noise or inability to get on a computer. It’s an isolated incident. The vast majority of the community members who bring their children to the library cause no problems for others. Despite this single transgression, because of a complaint, the library administration overreacts. Something must be done. A response is required. So the answer is to punish everyone who needs to bring a child to the library even though the vast majority conform to the existing policies. The existing access policy is quickly revised to restrict toddlers from coming into the building, or they are perhaps limited to a single area of the building. Whatever the response, it was likely too much too quickly – without really thinking through the impact of the change on the majority of the user community.

This is just one scenario. It could be anything that involves a single incident in which a community member violates a policy. Perhaps a laptop was broken. It could involve a special collection item that was damaged. Whatever the case, does the “this means we have to change the policy” response make any sense? It’s good to respond to a complaint, but is there really a need to change the policy over a single incident? In these situations the outcome is to punish every person who follows the existing policy and causes no trouble at all. You may have seen a previous presentation by Derek Sivers. He’s done a few memorable turns at TED. I enjoyed his short video presentation about this problem, “Don’t Punish Everyone For One Person’s Mistake”.

Sivers makes the point that people are going to break the rules, screw up or otherwise act out in some way that will create a problem. It’s going to happen. You can’t prevent every problem. You can only do your best to create an environment that facilitates the best possible library experience for community members. When that doesn’t happen because of the actions of a single individual or perhaps a rowdy group, Sivers says that we need to resist the urge to change the policy to prevent everyone from possibly making the same transgression. I think it’s a good idea to keep things in perspective and ask yourself and others if this single incident really is causing a problem that needs a strong response. Why not do the damage control, then lay back and wait to see if it happens again?

There’s always an opportunity to change a policy. If we change it too rapidly, for the wrong reasons and without contemplating the cascading consequences of our action, we may ultimately alienate far more of our user community members than would have happened as a result of the original problem.