Rethinking the Rules of Behavior: Part 1

“We’ll work it out as we go along. Let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise theoretical coherence.”                       

 – Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang

No running.  No stealing. No smoking. No staring at staff.  No rearranging furniture.  No interfering with the free movement of any person.  These were just a few of the 21 specific, line-itemed behaviors prohibited in the old Rules of Behavior at Chapel Hill Public Library.  You can hop in the Wayback Machine to see the full list and the old policy here.

It might look familiar, as lots of libraries approach patron behavior in this manner.  The policy may have started out with just a few things called out, but over the years, as someone did something that wasn’t on the list, it got added to the list – that’s the Monkey Wrench Gang approach mentioned above.

That’s also how things like “Harassing staff or patrons, including but not limited to staring at or following individuals around the building.” ended up on the list.  That’s also how the default staff response became “What’s our policy on staring?” instead of a response that deals with the person and the situation first and responds accordingly.  This policy approach isn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t working for us.  

Over the past three years, one of our top priorities at CHPL has been becoming more customer-focused in all we do. A big part of that is focusing on empowering and equipping staff to create a great customer experience every time – on the floor, on the phone, online, out in the community.  Rethinking our Rules of Behavior was one way to start building that customer-focused foundation and empowering employees. Here’s how we did it:

We convened a staff team and our first step was a conversation about outcomes – What did we want our policy to be?  When our work was done, what words would describe our policy?  The group came up with a list that included:

-reasonable & enforceable

-kinder & gentler

-clear & concise

-positive not punitive

There was also a general consensus that we wanted our policy to be oriented toward the vast majority of folks out there who use us in the spirit of shared trust and mutual understanding.  Too often, policies seem to be created to address the small subset of humanity that is out to do some negative or nefarious.  We agreed as a group that if people are dead set on stealing our materials or getting multiple library cards, they would most likely find a way to do that regardless of what our policy says.  We set out to craft our policy with the majority in mind, assuming that most folks want to use us and weren’t out to screw us.

The group then attacked those 21 line items.  We first agreed that if one of those items was prohibited by local, state, or federal law, it did not have to be listed as it was illegal to begin with.  Property theft is against the law, we agreed that we don’t need to restate that in our policy – it becomes verbal clutter and diminishes clarity. That took care of a lot of things on the list – smoking, drinking, stealing, etc.

Then we looked at what was left and considered the behavior itself.  For example, is rearranging furniture necessarily “bad” behavior that we need to protect against?  We agreed that rearranging furniture is okay – someone might want to push two tables together to work in a group – and we also agreed that blocking an exit with a table is not okay.  We wanted a policy that would address both scenarios and allow staff to respond as needed to the situation at hand.

In the end, we ditched all the rules and instead created Expectations for Behavior:

The Chapel Hill Public Library is a place for everyone, shared by the community and used by many different people for very different reasons. Here’s what we expect of all users:

-We expect users to respect the comfort and safety of fellow library users and library staff. If your behavior is making others unsafe or uncomfortable, we’ll ask you to stop.

-We expect users to comply with requests from library staff. If you don’t, we reserve the right to suspend privileges and/or access.

-We expect users to comply with local, state, and federal laws. If you break the law, we may prosecute.

If you feel that someone or something is making your experience here uncomfortable or unsafe, please let a staff member know.

Reasonable & Enforceable? Check. Kinder & gentler? Check. Clear & Concise? Check. Positive not Punitive? Check.  The team agreed that they achieved the desired outcomes – and we also knew that this was a radical rethinking of a policy that had been around for a long time.  So we knew that talking about the new approach would be very important, as would training around it. I’ll talk about how we did – and continue to do – both of those in the next post.

How do you think about behavior and policy?  Have you reviewed/revised/reconsidered behavior policy? I’d love to hear about it…

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Rules of Behavior: Part 1

  1. Brilliant and I absolutely LOVE IT!! We did away with all our negative signage in Dallas Public Library as well. I can’t wait to hear about the training and would love to incorporate it here too. Thanks for sharing.

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