A year or so ago, I watched Thirteen Days, a movie about the John F. Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The movie was interesting and compelling, and it featured some very impressive performances. The moment that I found most arresting—for reasons that had only partly to do with the plot—took place in the White House situation room, where the president and Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, are desperately trying to manage the rather bellicose Joint Chiefs of Staff as they impose a blockade on Cuba. At one point, a navy admiral orders his ships to fire a warning shot across the bow of a Soviet ship, and McNamara angrily confronts him. When the admiral defends his decision in military terms, McNamara erupts with these memorable lines: “This is not a blockade—this is language! A new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen!”
I make no representation as to the accuracy of the movie’s version of that incident, but the principle expressed in McNamara’s lines is a powerfully important one, and it’s a principle that we in academic libraries forget at our peril. While I’m not generally sympathetic to postmodern “everything is a text” semiotics, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that everything we do in the presence of others is, among other things, language—and in the academic library, virtually everything we do is done in the presence of others: our colleagues, other campus departments, the general public, campus administration, and (most important) the students and scholars who are our patrons.
Libraries are not—thank heaven—generally in a position to start or prevent military conflict. (I’m fond of saying that one reason I’m a librarian is that the term bibliographic catastrophe simply doesn’t exist. There’s comfort in knowing that I can only do so much harm.) However, we are constantly doing things that send a message—sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. In fact, everything that we do sends a message. If we don’t pay attention to what I like to call our “organizational body language,” we run the risk of sending the wrong message inadvertently.
For example, consider the messages that we send explicitly, using conventional language. A no-smoking policy sends the explicit message “if you try to smoke in the library, you will be kicked out.” Written announcements and newsletters tell the world in explicit, conventional language about upcoming events and what the library and its employees are accomplishing.
Now consider the messages that we send implicitly. For example, in my library we have installed nearly 200 large, deeply reclined soft chairs (affectionately known as “the womb chairs”). These are perfectly suited both to leisurely reading and to sleeping. Many of them are located in a very large area that is mostly filled with computers and multimedia workstations and surrounded by glass-walled study rooms. There is no signage telling students what we want them to do in this space. But the implicit message is clear: Here is a place to work and also a place to rest. Our students do both of those things there, in droves.
In another area, we send a different implicit message. Along several walls in the book stacks, we have study carrels separated by side panels. The stacks are naturally quiet, and the panels between the workspaces send a clear (though implicit) message: Here is a place for reading and for quiet individual work.
These implicit messages—expressed as organizational body language—greatly outnumber the explicit ones we send. And when our implicit messages conflict with our explicit ones, the implicit version is more likely to be believed. If you were to label the computer area in your library a “no food” zone and yet failed to enforce the restriction, which message would your patrons believe—the explicit one (this is a no-food area) or the implicit one (this is a place where everyone is free to eat)?
Organizational body language communicates who we are and what we’re doing much more effectively than our formal communications do. When there is a divergence between policy and practice, it’s the policy that loses credibility; when our stated priorities are not reflected in our budget allocations, or our physical spaces make it difficult for patrons to do what we say we want them to do, or we proclaim a value that is not supported in reality, we quickly lose credibility with our patrons. A sign on the service desk that says, “We’re here to serve you!” means nothing when the person sitting at the desk acts as though service is an unwelcome distraction from his other work.
Organizational body language is, for all of these reasons, both tremendously powerful and highly dangerous. The danger, I think, lies less in the risk that we’ll send the wrong message and much more in the risk that we will send messages inadvertently. It’s the signal you send by accident that will come back to bite you—not only because it may be a message you don’t wish to send (and perhaps even the opposite of the message you wish to send), but because you won’t be prepared for the response to it.
So here’s an exercise that I would suggest all of us undertake: spend a day experiencing your library as a patron. Do some research using the library catalog—not from your desk computer but on your mobile device or your laptop. Walk through the stacks with a call number in hand. Make an interlibrary loan request. Walk in and out of the library several times, once at every entrance. Wait until someone you don’t know well is on the reference desk, then go up to that person and ask a question. Follow a journal citation. Submit a suggestion. As you do each of these things, pay attention to your organization’s body language, and ask yourself what messages it is sending you. You may be surprised.
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