Infomancy n. 1.The field of magic related to the conjuring of information from the chaos of the universe. 2.The collection of terms, queries, and actions related to the retrieval of information from arcane sources.

Library Policy Theater

April 6th, 2010 by infomancy

Anyone who has travelled by air recently should be quite familiar with the concept of security theater; the complex set of TSA rituals designed to make us feel more safe (or at least to make the TSA feel like they are making us feel safe) while not actually addressing any of the real safety issues. Is your library guilty of this as well? How many of the library policies and procedures that we adopt are created for the actual advancement of our mission, and how many exist simply as policy theater?

The biggest problem with security theater is that often the most basic safety measures that are most susceptible to theatrics. When it is something that has always been done, the safety measure takes on a higher power. Indeed, the measure itself becomes the authority in a recursive, self-supporting loop of justification that is almost impossible to break. Consider that signs on the back of most hotel room doors advising that, for your safety, you should always use the chain lock (or bar lock). Why? Because the chain lock makes you safe. But does it?


This video, linked in a BoingBoing post, got me thinking again about how many policies in libraries are built on the same recursive logic that make locks secure because locks are secure (even if some basic searches for lockpicking will quickly erase that notion). Our policies are established on the basis of their being policy, not on the basis that they are the correct actions for us to take in carrying out our mission. Why can second graders only check out two books? Because that is how many books a second grader is allowed to check out.

Reviewing some of the library policies that pop up from a search is a bit scary. Most of the check out limits are based on a student’s grade level with no opportunity for students to earn trust and increase their check out limit (except through time served). “Because kindergartners are just learning how to take care of books and how to become responsible library users, they may check out one book at a time” states one page. Strip away the recursive self-supporting nature of this statement, and questions start to emerge. If kindergartners are being taught to be responsible library users, then why wouldn’t we provide a scaffold to support their development by providing increasing opportunities for successful borrowing of multiple items at a time? Can a kindergartner somehow show they are a responsible library user with a history of successfully checking out multiple books from the public library? No, policy theater dictates that they can check out one book until they move up to first grade. Then they will be allowed two items.

Even worse are policies that limit not only the number of materials that can be checked out, but also the type of materials and the use of the materials.

“The number of books each student may check out depends on the grade. Students in Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade may check out one book a week. If they return the book sooner, then they may check out another. In Kindergarten and 1st grade, the books will remain in the classroom until the students form the habit of returning them to the library each week. After the winter holidays, small ones may take their book home for the week…Students in 4th and 5th grade may check out 2 books a week…In order to be fair, the student may check out only one book at a time from a series or on a given topic.”

These so-called policies just don’t cut it anymore. As librarians and library programs around the country are being cut, we need to examine our collective practices to make sure that we are providing the highest quality of services free from policy theater. Furthermore, these policies are not consistent with the ALA Library Bill of Rights and the Access to Resources and Materials in the School Library Media Program statement from ALA which call for libraries to remove barriers to access, not create them. So why do so many libraries have them?

Yes, that is rhetorical. I’m not naive, I have heard many of the reasons why libraries have these policies. My point is that any excuse that doesn’t start with “to meet student needs” and end with “bringing about increased student achievement” is self-serving and needs to be removed from a list of possible reasons. I know that we are over-worked and under-staffed. I know that books get lost and damaged. I also know that library positions are being cut at a rather startling rate. If I walked in to your library to try and decide if that was a place that could be cut, would I see barriers or would I see a passionate focus on improving students?

Library policies quoted without attribution to avoid casting negativity on a particular library; my concern is with the policies, not the programs or the librarians. Mean-spirited people who want to figure out where they came from can probably do so, but I won’t be part of it.

2 Responses to “Library Policy Theater”

  1. Anne-Marie Gordon Says:

    One sad little truth is that with cutbacks in library staff, it becomes harder and harder to give the kids the access to books that they need. Kids should be able to visit the library whenever they need a new book. Heck, they should read 100 a week, that would be great! But in districts that are losing aides, or cutting back full time librarians, how does all the support work get done? Books need to be repaired, game pieces checked & replenished, or the smear of pudding on the front has to be cleaned up. Then there’s putting everything back on the shelves so the kids can check it out again–even a moderately sized school library could be looking at thousands of items a week.

    I know this sounds bitter. I’ve had Twitter messages from school librarians losing their jobs. My niece is trying to do her first research project with no school librarian to guide her to appropriate resources or to help her evaluate what she’s found. Some districts are cutting entire library departments. Arrrrgh! I just talked to a school librarian yesterday who will have a half-time aide for the coming school year, instead of a full time aide. Obviously the valuable work done by support staff will now have to be done by the librarian, in addition to her own work. How can a school in this predicament even think about increasing circulation?

    Sigh…I know, the answer is, “Because it’s best for the students.” But I hope when those hypothetical administrators walk in to evaluate the program, they don’t think “Wow, this is the most unorganized mess we’ve ever seen.”

    Now that I’m taking off my Grinch mask…I will say that one of our reading teachers came to me with a brilliant idea. Kids who meet a personal reading (customized for them) can earn a Bulldog Dog Tag. They bring their tag to the library and they can check out 4 books at a time. It’s marvelous to see how proud the kids are of this, and how much they brag to the other kids. And of course, the other kids want to try for a dog tag, too.

    For every school that restricts kids’ access to books, there’s a teacher librarian out there saying, “Let me help you cram just a couple more books into your backpack for tonight! See you tomorrow!”

  2. Christopher Harris Says:

    Anne-Marie,

    I am going to be really blunt. I don’t care. Unless you can bring me research that explicitly shows that this is a valid policy for libraries, then I don’t care what the reason is. And, if you do find this research, then my guess is that it will recommend loan restrictions as an instructional tool with those restrictions being lifted as student ability spirals up (not as their grade slowly ticks over one year at a time).

    I know re-shelving is an issue, but unless the library has truly exhausted every option (students, parents, other volunteers, etc.) then I would suggest going to the principal for some brainstorming. Make sure that the message is “I want students to have access to as many books as they want, but here is the problem. I have tried X, Y, Z, XX, YY, ZZ, XXX (there better be a lot here) but the students are still facing piles of unshelved books. Do you have another idea I can try?”