Annoyed Librarian
Search ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

I thought it was one of the truisms of the profession that library patrons never read signs. Signage is just that thing librarians do to try to control people who pay no attention to them.

It turns out, not for the first time, that I was wrong. Some patrons pay attention to signs. The library signage in Beaver Dam, WI got a lot of attention from one library loving family there, but not the good kind.

Usually when someone writes their local newspaper about the public library, they’re complaining about it, like that guy from Potsdam a couple of weeks ago.

This complaint is a little different, though. They’re complaining that the library isn’t welcoming enough. The problem? Too many signs, and of all the wrong type. I had to admit I was amused by the end, especially since this wasn’t my library.

There’s a garden area for patrons to visit. Instead of “Enjoy our lovely garden,” there are instead signs telling people not to touch or sit on stuff. Presumably the “don’t sit” signs aren’t on any benches, but they should be for maximum ironic effect. Dada signage.

The family claims to have found 45 signs telling people what and what not to do, and that was before they even entered the library building. It doesn’t make the library seem welcoming, but it does keep up the anal retentive stereotype of librarians.

There were signs saying who could and could not use which drinking fountain. They used to have signs like that in the south, I hear.

Then there’s the sign limiting how many people can sit at the tables. One might think that limit would be determined by physics. There’s only so much space around a table to sit, and double sitting, if that’s the sitting equivalent of double parking, usually isn’t a problem.

But physics be damned. The limit is apparently two, since the person says that “my family of three cannot sit together in the comic book section, because we would exceed the table limit.”

And here’s a response from the daughter to warm any librarian’s heart: “I guess we can’t come to the library and hang out together.” That’s called reading between the lines. Most people just ignore the lines.

There’s good reason to. If I’d been that family, I’d have sat three at the table and dared some officious busybody to enforce a rule like that in a public library, and with an adult no less.

Then there are all the other signs people ignore with good reason. My favorite is the one that used to be ubiquitous, but maybe not anymore: “No cell phones in the library,” sometimes including a picture where the phone in question looks like a WWII era walkie-talkie.

I’m sorry. Is there an NSA briefing going on at this library? Are you worried my phone might be a secret listening device? Didn’t think so. Phone stays with me.

Oh, I know, the reason is so people don’t start answering their phones and talking loudly and disturbing people. But talking loudly was a problem long before cell phones. That’s why we say “shush.”

“No food and drink” signs are popular, especially in academic libraries. Everybody ignored them long enough until libraries started putting in cafes, which is a much better solution.

Students studying for hours need some refreshment. Give them a place to go for that or be prepared to have your precious signs ignored.

Don’t even think about telling me what I can’t do. Just tell me where I can do the thing I’m going to do anyway without disturbing people or spilling croissant crumbs on this library book.

On the other hand, I guess it makes some librarians happy to think they’ve put up a sign banning some activity and think they’ve accomplished something. For some librarians, that might be the highlight of their day. Until patrons start complaining about them, that is.



  1. I was always a fan of posting all of the rules that were most likely to need enforcing in one spot so they could be pointed to if I had to approach someone. “See? The rule is publicly posted right there. Now please watch your two year old child instead of leaving them at the computer while you go look for DVDs.” That way you have a bit of backup and don’t have to put signs everywhere.

    And even then whether or not a rule was enforced usually depended on how annoying someone was being about breaking it. Live and let live until someone starts causing a scene or putting someone (usually their children at my old job) in potential danger.

  2. There were some funny but sad passive-aggressive library signs posted here and other places a few years ago. Too many people at libraries and government agencies try to manage by signs. Let’s do our best to resist that impulse.

    • The last one on that list is actually law in my state. If you don’t have it posted you can’t go after someone to get stuff back. You know, because they don’t know that taking stuff that’s not their property and not bringing it back is theft. Politicians wrote the law about posting….so I guess that means they feel you have to emphatically spell out, complete with Code number, what is theft.

  3. Signage is useless if staff do not enforce policies represented on said signage. Yes, sadly, patrons cannot read, nor have much common sense or courtesy either. They seem to try to get away with everything right?. Common sense would dictate that one doesn’t have a conversation on a cell phone while in the stacks for example, but we still need the signage to refer to when interacting with someone violating that policy. This library seemed to go way overboard.

  4. Zagrobelny says:

    Prohibitory signs are not there for the reasonable people like the letter writer. Signs are there for people who are too stupid to know not to climb on plants or furniture and will argue with you when you try to correct them.

    When I first started working in a library, I was stunned to learn how few people pay attention to signs. I prefer explanatory signage because I want to find what I need and do it quickly and efficiently, instead of asking someone who will explain it to me like I’m five and take an hour doing so. Some people need the explanation, and that’s why we have jobs.

  5. In 2004 after we took down our “No talking on cell phones” signs, we actually had fewer incidents using them in a rude manner– maybe the image of the cell phone on the sign subconsciously made people defiantly remember a phone call they needed to make? If a person talking on a phone was no louder than they’d be quietly chatting with someone at the same table, then it just isn’t a big deal.

    Yes you definitely want to minimize signage and avoid “don’t do this don’t do that” language and instead reinforce the positive. “Silent Study Area” and “Group Study Area” instead of “NO TALKING HERE”, etc.

    Even for the positive, we use a rotating digital frame display to minimize the number of signs posted around (much like “ad banner blindness” that occurs on the web, too many signs are unattractive and lead people to not look at any of them but if there is just one they might actually walk up to it and read it)

  6. I have pretty much given up on using signs for anything in our library save for the hours on the door. Even then you get people who walk through the open door only to ask “Are you open?”. How many of you work with some yutz whose solution to every problem on earth is “Oh let’s put up a sign” Somehow that will magically every problem we ever had. You really do have to question the sanity of someone who puts signs on tables limiting how many people can sit there.

  7. Lol. We have a sign that says no food in the library, yet we leave out bagels and candy for patrons at the circ desk, and coffee and snacks in the comp lab during finals.
    Sometimes you just gotta laugh. I’m glad we don’t enforce this rule. Hungry students = disaster. The joys of being a librarian.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE