Wording Policies to Welcome Patrons

No sign. It’s been a while since I blogged about the library world, but I’ve been thinking about policies a lot lately. My library just got feedback from several community focus groups that we’ll use to update our strategic plan (policies being just one small part), and I’ve been looking at the policies/codes of conduct at a few other libraries to see how we compare.

Some words that I’m seeing a lot are “don’t,” “can’t,” “forbidden,” and “prohibited.” One library’s teen policies sounded almost like something a warden would post, with restricted hours the teens were allowed on computers, requirements that they read a certain amount of time before using a computer, and even certain hours during which teens are banned from the building (as well as certain spaces they’re banned from using there). I assume this last rule is designed to ensure teens who are skipping school don’t come to the library; but if they’re cutting class, wouldn’t the library be a better place for them to come than, say, the local druggies’ hangout? And what about teens who are homeschooled?

But I digress. The purpose of this post is not to tell anyone what policies their library should have — different communities call for different policies — but to examine how those policies are worded. Instead of telling people what they can’t do, try telling them what they can. Give your code of conduct a more positive framing. For example:

  • “Cell phones are not allowed in the reading area” could become “Please silence cell phones in the reading area and take calls in the lobby or outside.”
  • “Don’t eat or drink in the computer lab” could become “Please enjoy snacks and beverages in our cafe area, not the computer lab.”
  • “Don’t re-shelve books” could become “Please leave any books you don’t want to check out on the cart, and we’ll put them away for you.”

I know not all policies can be rewritten without the “don’ts” and the “can’ts,” but if we change the ones that can, the whole code of conduct will be a little more welcoming. And I know, my suggested alternatives don’t technically ban the behaviors the original policies do, but I think the amount of argument you’ll get over semantics will be small compared to the change in people’s perception of the library. And a note at the end of the code granting library staff the right to interpret and enforce all policies as they see fit (which most libraries already have) should take care of any nit-pickers.

Have you examined your library’s policies lately? Do you think any could be rephrased to use more positive wording? Do you have concerns about rephrasing? Please share in the comments.


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