BackTalk: What's Your Sign?

By Julie Winkelstein

As library technology has evolved, librarians have begun to turn over many of their usual tasks to their patrons. There are online catalogs, self-checkout stations, remote access for placing holds, and self-service hold shelves. Some libraries are replacing the centralized reference desk with roving librarians or repositioning the reference desk out of the line of sight of the entrance. Such choices leave patrons on their own more of the time, and they are becoming accustomed to helping themselves. To be self-sufficient, patrons need the guidance of well-thought-out and appropriately placed signage. Unfortunately, libraries don't always excel at this, and, as a result, users get lost and disgruntled, and they may never return.

No signs are not enough

I was recently one of those aforementioned patrons when I visited a small college library in a small college town. As someone who can get lost returning from a restaurant restroom, I was horrified to discover there were no signs - well, practically none. There weren't even signs guiding students to the information desk - although, once I found it, I did notice a small engraved metal placard, with letters so small it seemed to whisper: Reference. Even the bathrooms were hidden; I spent ten minutes snaking through the stacks to locate the women's room, only to find there actually was a sign - hanging outside the bathroom door.

The logic behind this lack of signage is that each floor has a difficult-to-locate, blueprint-like map, with numbers and a key. If you want to find children's books, for instance, you search the key and then look up the location on the map and memorize it. Unfortunately, there is no place on the map that says "You are here" - probably one of the most informational parts of any map - and it took me another five minutes to figure out I had entered the library on the second floor. I also could have used a paper copy of the map to carry with me.

My branch manager at home (a minimalist who is loath to allow any extra ornamentation) would have loved it. There were no extraneous words, no unsightly signs. It was the ultimate uncluttered library. I, on the other hand, hated it. I wanted to put up welcome signs and bathroom signs and subject signs, all with positive wording, so library users would feel comfortable.

Too many can shout

However, at my next stop, that small town's public library, I discovered it is possible to go too far with this concept. As I reached for the door handle, a large notice taped on the glass caught my attention. "No Smoking, No Food or Drink" it proclaimed in large black Helvetica type, on a white background. From a 1995 study done by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), I know this font and these colors are considered easy to read (SPEC Kit 208, Effective Library Signage, I can vouch for that: there was no chance I was going to miss this sign. Its negativity made me uneasy, though.

And this was only the beginning. Though the reference desk was directly in front of the entrance, there were signs on every carrel, every rack, every door, and every wall. It was as if the whole library was shouting. In fact, the number of signs was overwhelming, even for someone with my appetite for signage. Many were computer-generated and taped with wrinkled yet indestructible clear packing tape. This reminded me of an architect I interviewed about signs. "We have to take control," he told me, "or the librarians will just print a bunch of signs out on the computer and tape them all over the place."

As I tried to take in all the information, I realized the only words holding my attention were the stern ones in capital letters (using all capital letters is another attention-getter; these people know their stuff), like: "THIS LIBRARY IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR DAMAGE TO CASSETTE PLAYERS FROM USE OF LIBRARY AUDIOCASSETTES."

My feelings about these two library experiences brought to mind ARL's study: "The signs in a library building set the stage for a friendly or a hostile environment, for a helpful or confusing library visit, especially for first-time users."

Use them to guide

I could go on about the best colors to use, like white on maroon, and font size, "every inch of character height yields 25 feet of readability" (from Use a signage manual, be consistent, use positive wording, and be sparing but thorough. That's all good, but the most important consideration is the relationship between your library's focus and your signs. If the first view your patrons have upon entering the building is not the reference desk, offer some guidance. Clear, positive signs will tell them where to find what they need, whether it's the children's area or the ladies' room. Help them help themselves. If they can find you, they'll thank you for it.

Author Information
Public librarian Julie Winkelstein can be found in the Children's section of the Albany Library, CA.

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