Don’t Fear the Library

Borrowed from computersafetytips.files.wordpress.comIn a recent post on Tame The Web, Carrie Straka shares an experience in which a patron offered that she was intimidated by the library. Carrie assured the patron that libraries are nothing to be afraid of and sent her on her way with the book she wanted. It later occurred to her:

That was the wrong response. I should have asked her “How can we make the library less intimidating?” I could have gained a lot of insight had I just thought to ask that question.

We’ve all had some experience with this notion of library intimidation. In fact, I suspect there was a time in most of our lives that we, too, felt intimidated by at least some element of a public or school library. And why not? A new hire on her first day at the office, a new student on his first day at school, a young immigrant whose heard she can get ESL assistance at the library. They walk in the door, see many other people engaged in myriad activities, and really don’t know what to do first. I’ve been there many times–the guy with the question mark above his head.

Kathy Gould, director of the Palos Verdes Library District, wrote about a conversation she had with a community member who cited issues of usability and inattention among her reasons for avoiding the library.

She wasn’t talking about a generally unwelcoming environment, or unfriendly staff. She was talking about a set of systems and service models that discourage her from even trying to use our services.

With minimal instruction, much of this intimidation can be alleviated. Navigating the computer catalog, searching through call numbers, and downloading digital materials are easily attainable skills. Questions about who is a librarian and other roles can be addressed in any number of ways that may help alleviate trepidation among new library patrons. As for inattentive staff, well, that’s a can of worms for another day.

What are your experiences with intimidating libraries? In what ways are libraries intimidating and how are these matters resolved? These are issues that should be addressed before the patron walks in the door. How do we ensure that our welcoming nature is among the motivations for people to become regular library users?


About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

4 Responses to Don’t Fear the Library

  1. Kristin says:

    I think a lot of libraries are definitely intimidating for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. Even college kids. College students are asked right away to research on levels they’ve never done. They go into the huge campus library and are like “Whoa. Where are the books? What’s a database?” And having librarians or support staff ignore people who walk in is definitely a big problem. You’ve probably seen the “ASK HERE” signs around or places that have an information desk next to the ref desk. Thoughts?

    • I like a general information/reception desk if the space is large enough to accommodate it. I also like the ASK HERE or START HERE idea. We commonly see spaces now that consolidate two or three different stations into a centralized, multipurpose station where ASK HERE means “ask any type of question here.” Maybe they include circulation at that station, maybe circ is near the exit. Every space is different and has different resources and limitations. It’s interesting to see how libraries use that space and signage in the interest of creating an organized, yet comfortable user experience.

  2. J. Johnson says:

    I feel soooo sorry for Carrie for having that happen and it just didn’t click with her to have that convo, going through the course of the day as usual. It just goes to show that we ALWAYS need to be thinking outside the box and not get too caught up in the routine. Don’t let the job make you a robot. I think those are all totally true reasons people are scared of the library. We just need to work on it. 🙂

  3. Jahidi says:

    Two things strike me about this. First, all of those things really DO scare people away and drive them to the comfort of Google. You do a good job of summing them up, and I think we definitely can correct the problems by teaching and being more outgoing in our face-to-face service. Also, our library is set up like in the comment above. There’s the “Information” desk with the circ desk right next to it. People are constantly coming in and assuming it’s the ref desk and that the receptionist is a reference librarian. I wish I could change this! (sigh)

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