Where do we go from here?: a content audit of library signage

Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?”-Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches, Useful, Usable, Desirable (2014)

Inspired by the idea of a content audit (essentially, an inventory), I went around the public library building where I work and took pictures of every sign. The library has five floors, and I took about 250 photos. I did not include signs in staff-only areas, nor did I take pictures of every single stack end, each of which is marked with the call numbers it holds (e.g. 910-919 for travel books).

Still: about 250 signs, with 100 on the first floor alone. The sheer number of signs is overwhelming, as is the variety: there are a few different “official” styles (gray plastic plaques with white printing; brown text on a cream background in plastic or behind clear plastic), some semi-official styles (laminated or in plastic sheets), and some that are just paper and tape.

The signs serve many purposes, and to some extent they follow Schmidt & Etches’ advice: “Different types of signs (directional, identification, instructional, regulatory, informational) should be visually distinct.” Donors, for example, are acknowledged with brass plaques, whereas programs are advertised on paper in plastic holders, so they can be changed out frequently. However, even the more permanent signage has two different designs (the gray-and-white and brown-and-cream), indicating that it was probably created and installed at at least two different times. The Teen and Children’s areas also have distinct signage of their own – again, not a bad thing, as they are distinct areas of the library.

Laminated sign over post-it over button to open door mechanically

“Please DO NOT bang.” A laminated sign, a handwritten post-it, and the automatic door button itself.

Where do we go from here, with this jumble of excessive signage? Ideally, we’d take a step back and create a “brand manual” for typography/fonts, colors, and logo/wordmark, then create templates for signage, posters, brochures, and the website. (We could even re-design our library card!) Personally, I’d love to see some brighter colors, and I like the idea of using icons rather than words wherever possible; they’re recognizable at a glance (the good ones are, at least), and offer better guidance to more people (especially people whose first language isn’t English, or younger children who can’t read yet).

Do you work in (or frequently visit) a library? What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about the signage there? What other institutions have good signage ideas that libraries could borrow?

Updated 9/22/15: Here’s another great piece from Aaron Schmidt’s UX column in Library Journal, Positive Signs.” In it, he talks about accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in library signage. In other words, don’t tell people what they can’t do, encourage them to do what they can.

Librarians are also detectives

We received three beautiful framed prints recently, and although they tickled something in the back of everyone’s brain, no one in the group of assembled family and friends was able to recognize them with certainty.

Three framed prints of color illustrations

Naturally I brought them to the library, certain that the librarians in the Children’s department would know. No one recognized them right away, and an image search on the Internet was also fruitless. I turned to Twitter, choosing a few tags (#librarylife, #librarians, #kidlit, #kidlitart) and also sending a tweet directly to Mel of Mel’s Desk, who kindly re-tweeted to her many followers, a good percentage of which must be children’s librarians.

Screenshot of a tweet: Children's librarians, please help. Recognize these illustrations?

In a matter of minutes, I had my answer: not The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Anderson, but Get-A-Way and Hary Janos by Maud and Miska Petersham. According to WorldCat, this is “The story of a worn out toy horse and his friend, a wooden soldier doll, who travel to a land where old toys become new.” I requested it from WorldCat, since there isn’t a copy in my library system.

I’m glad that (a) I have an answer to my mystery, (b) the Internet can’t answer everything, and (c) librarians are awesome detectives.


LibraryReads October 2015 list

LibraryReadsLibraryReads is an initiative that was launched in September 2013 and has been going strong ever since. Simply put, LibraryReads is “The top ten books published this month that librarians across the country love”; it’s a list of ten books compiled every month by library staff across the country. All library staff are eligible to vote and write reviews. I’ve seen presentations from the LibraryReads organizers at least twice (once at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May 2015, once at BEA in May 2014), and have written occasional reviews for the books I’ve managed to read ahead of time, but this is the first time one of my reviews has been featured, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s for David Mitchell’s Slade House.

Cover image of Slade House“Every nine years, Slade House appears in a little alley in London, and every nine years, someone – or multiple someones – disappears into it, never to be seen again. Slade House is a lacuna, frozen in time, and its inhabitants need a new soul every nine years for their continued survival. Fans of The Bone Clocks will inhale this compact, six-part work that draws on Mitchell’s previously established mythology and, of course, reintroduces a familiar character or two. New readers, however, won’t be lost, as important pieces are explained to each new character who is drawn into Slade House. Literary fiction, fantasy, and a dose of horror combine here to make a deeply satisfying book.”

See all ten of October’s LibraryReads picks here. I’m also looking forward to After You by Jojo Moyes, The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, and Welcome to Night Vale. October is always a good month for publishing!


Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library

Cover image of Useful, Usable, Desirable

Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (2014)

Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches came to my attention at the end of last year, in a blog post by Sarah Houghton (a.k.a. the Librarian in Black). I’ve been interested in usability and UX for years, and I’d read articles by Aaron Schmidt before, so I added it to my to-read list and asked my department head (who orders the professional development books for our library) to get a copy. As Sarah writes, “I could probably work for the next year on bringing our library into alignment with the principles outlined in this book, and I can honestly say it would be a year well-spent.” It’s hard not to want to dive in right away!

In order to implement any changes, however, it’s important to get buy-in from all levels, from senior administration to front-line staff, and the authors acknowledge this. They give each “checkpoint” a “difficulty rating” to indicate the scale of each and how much time and skill are required to complete it; not all changes require months-long processes and committees (thank goodness).

But let’s start at the beginning: What is user experience (UX)? According to the authors, UX is “how someone feels when using a product or service,” and the title words of the book – Useful, Usable, Desirable – are “the trinity of good UX”; they are “the three essential elements required for a great user experience at your library.”

Schmidt and Etches cover every element of the user experience in the library, including the physical space (floors, walls, furniture, bathrooms), service points (e.g. the circulation and reference desks), library policies, customer service, signage, technology, programs and services, the collection, and of course the website and social media.

Throughout, the authors focus on user-centered design. For example, they note that libraries tend to be divided between circulation and reference “because those distinctions reflect different specializations in our profession. It’s really not a user-centered way to think about service points and service desks, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the way users approach service points in our buildings.” How do library members know which desk to approach? Usually, they don’t; even labeling the desks “circulation” and “reference” isn’t much help. Some libraries – the Carnegie Free Library in Pittsburgh, for instance – do a better job in this area: they still have multiple desks, but the signage is user-friendly and free of library jargon.

National Library Symbol: white person reading a book against a blue background

The National Library Symbol

Signage and customer service are closely related. Schmidt and Etches write, “Think of the signs in your library as a form of customer service and an expression of your library’s attitude toward its members. Are they as friendly and helpful as the people in your building?” (Assuming your library staff are friendly and helpful. Remember, “An interaction with a person can equally ruin a good experience or redeem a bad one.”) Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?” These are not just questions that new library members have; sometimes regular users need to accomplish a new task at the library. Do your signs help them find what they need?

Many of the UX principles in this book were already familiar to me, but one new tool I learned about was the content audit, meaning simply a list of all the content in an area. The authors suggest conducting a content audit on a few areas, including the website, the signage in the building, and all print promotion materials. Once you have a list of all the content, you are better able to assess what’s necessary, what’s unnecessary, and what needs to be updated. Once you’ve done one content audit, keeping that spreadsheet up to date will help you keep track of website content, signage, handouts, etc., thus creating a better user experience for library members.

I could go on (see additional notes here), but suffice to say this is a fantastic, clear, compact little book that would be a great addition to any library’s professional development collection. But don’t just stick it on the shelf: it can serve as a great guide for any library that wants to improve its members’ experience of the library. And that should be all of us.


Data collection on banned and challenged books

You know when you are talking with someone and suddenly you wonder, “Wait, how did we get on this subject?” I like to be able to trace back to the original subject, as a kind of memory exercise. When the “conversation” isn’t with a person but is just you clicking from link to link on the Internet, the trail is a little easier to follow, thanks to tabs and the browser’s back button. Here was my path this morning:

All of the above links are worth reading, so I’ll only offer a very brief summary, and a few thoughts. The author of the 538 article, David Goldenberg, expressed frustration that (a) the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) would not hand over the raw data they collect on book challenges, and that (b) the quality of the data presented on the ALA’s site was not particularly granular or detailed and may not be statistically valid. For instance, a “challenge” might be a request to move a book from the children’s collection to the teen or adult collection, or it may be a demand that all copies of a book be removed from an entire library system. There’s a big difference between those two challenges.

In his reply to the 538 piece, Andy Woodworth delves into some of the issues behind challenge reporting and data collection. He writes that students in library school don’t learn they have an obligation to report challenges, that there may be external pressures not to report challenges, and that librarians simply may not know to report challenges. If they do report a challenge, though, there are more problems with the ALA-OIF itself: the amount of information required in the online challenge form is minimal, and the OIF does not have the budget or staff to chase down details or outcomes from the challenges that are reported. (The challenge form is also available as a PDF that can be printed, filled out, and faxed to the OIF. It’s certainly possible to find an e-mail address for someone at the OIF, but shouldn’t this be included as an option on the form?)

While I was in library school, I learned about the ALA’s Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources, a form that can be adapted by any library and kept on hand in case of challenges. At both of the public libraries where I’ve worked, we have had this form ready to hand (though in my experience, challenges are exceedingly rare, at least at the adult reference desk; this is borne out by the ALA data – and many media reports – that show more challenges happen in school libraries than in public ones).

Should someone come to the reference desk with a challenge, I would be prepared with the reconsideration form. But what the form lacks, I noticed after reading Andy’s piece, is anything about reporting the challenge to the OIF. (On Twitter, Andy said he wrote it into the reconsideration policy at his library that “we reserve discretion to report challenges to the OIF.”) I don’t think it would hurt for library patrons to be aware of that, and it would remind library staff to take the extra step to report challenges when they do occur.

The granularity of the reporting, as Andy, David, and Jessamyn all pointed out, still leaves something to be desired. Every September, I put together a Banned Books Week display in the library and write about banned/challenged books and the freedom to read on the library blog. Every year, I’m frustrated by the ALA website, which, despite a redesign within the past five years, does not adhere to many of the web conventions and usability guidelines outlined in Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (about which more soon). The information architecture is convoluted and fragmented – there’s information on the ALA main site and a separate Banned Books Week website – the presentation isn’t as clear and attractive as it could be, and despite the existence of both sites, neither usually has the quality of data I want to present to our library patrons.

Both of these problems – the information itself and the organization of information – are especially vexing because information and organization is what we do. Furthermore, intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession; Article II of the ALA Code of Ethics is “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” We need to do better, and it shouldn’t be that hard. We need to:

  • Raise awareness among library staff that reporting challenges is important and that there are ways to do it confidentially.
  • Collect more detailed data when possible and present it in as granular a fashion as possible, noting if necessary that not all reported challenges include the same level of detail.

It’s not rocket science. What are we waiting for?

Epistolary books on The Reader’s Shelf

M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands

M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands, via Wikipedia

I’ve written about letters and epistolary novels here before, but I revisited the topic with my friend, librarian and fellow blogger Brita, in the Reader’s Shelf column for Library Journal. It was tough to narrow down our initial list of epistolary books to just six titles, but we did it!

Library Journal logo



Check it out, dear reader, and let us know what you think. Then come back and let us know, what are your favorite epistolary books?

I want to go to there: places books have made us want to visit

I promise it’s not going to be all Top Ten lists all the time from here on out*, but I am new to The Broke and the Bookish and some of their prompts are too tempting to ignore.

*For example, you might be wondering who the next Librarian of Congress will be, in which case I recommend you mosey over to the page Jessamyn West set up, Librarian of PROgress. It turns out that the Librarian of Congress doesn’t even technically have to be a librarian, though, in my humble opinion, it would be good if s/he were, not least to avoid a terrible misnomer.

The Top Ten Tuesday list that caught my eye this time is top ten places books have made us want to visit. Both real and imaginary places are on the list, but we’ll start with the real:

1. The Orkneys, Scottish islands that are the setting for most of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey’s retelling of Jane Eyre. They are a bit remote to get to, but I’d still love to go.

Cover image of The Boggart2. The Isle of Skye, because of both Susan Cooper’s The Boggart and Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. It must be magical if those two honed in on it.

3. Antibes, France, because of the American expatriate scene there in the 1920s (Fitzgeralds, Murphys, etc.). I’ll give credit to Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill for piquing my interest.

4. Various locations in London, especially the Tower of London (where Anne Boleyn was executed) and the Globe Theater (Shakespeare!) (modern reconstruction, I know, but still). We can’t time travel, not exactly, but it is an incredible feeling to stand in the exact place where a historical figure (or fictional character) once stood.

Cover image of The Time Traveler's Wife5. Various locations in Chicago, including but not limited to the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the Newberry Library, Ann Sather’s Swedish Diner, and the Monroe Street Parking Garage – all because of The Time Traveler’s Wife. And speaking of Chicago…

6. The Field Museum’s exhibit on the 1893 World’s Fair, because of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

7. The Temple of Dendur in the Met in New York, partly because of an episode of Sesame Street (or else a dream I had – did anyone else see that episode?) and partly because of From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

And now for the imaginary:

8. Lyra’s Oxford in The Golden Compass, because I’d want to know what my daemon would be.

Cover image of The Night Circus9. Who could read The Night Circus and not want to visit Le Cirque de Reves? The real question is, which tent would you visit first? Which treat would you taste first?

10. I have to copy from the Broke and the Bookish for the last one, because I’d love to visit J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. If only Muggles were allowed…

This list would seem to indicate that I have read books set almost exclusively in the U.S., Europe, and fantasy lands, which isn’t the case, but the books I’ve read set in Russia, Asia, Africa, and South America haven’t filled me with the desire to travel there myself – I’m happy just reading about them.

Which places from books have caught your imagination? Where have you traveled because of books, and has it been satisfying or disappointing? Which places have you traveled to first and read about afterward, and how is that different?