I broke the rules.
Rules create boundaries. Rules give parameters for acceptable behaviour. Rules teach us how to be part of a community. Rules make it fair for everyone in the community to participate. Rules exist for genuine reasons.
And yet, rules in libraries get broken all the time, by customers, by staff, by communities.
Not everyone obeys rules. Not everyone deliberately breaks rules. But do we really want to encourage the adage, rules are made to be broken?
Accepting the consequences of rules is part of the engagement with rules. If I break a rule, then I accept the punishment. I make a choice to deliberately break the rule, then I have chosen that consequences outweigh the risk of breaking the rule. If I don’t understand why a rule exists, then I might not understand why I should obey the rule and I might not understand what the punishment is.
And yet, if so many of us are breaking the same rules, then perhaps it is time to revisit the rules and review why they exist.
I broke the rules.
Explain the rules to me. If I return a book late, it means that I have deliberately blocked access for another person. Explain the consequences to me. I will be charged overdue fees and my future access to resources might be blocked until that fee is paid. That is my punishment for breaking the rules.
However, increasing my understanding of the fairness and equity to resources may be more of an incentive than overdue fees. Allow me to understand the consequences of my actions in relation to others. Remind me that I am part of a community. What I choose to do does have an impact on other community members. I can then think of how I would feel if the rules were reversed and someone broke a rule that impacted on me in the same way.
Encourage me to find alternatives to deliberately breaking the rules. Instead of punishing me, teach me how to extend my loan period through renewals, teach me how to access the e-copy, teach me how to use inter-library loans, teach me how to find free resources, teach me how to better manage my account.
I broke the rules.
Change the rules.
If you did an audit of the most commonly broken rules in you library, what do you think you would find? Would it point to your borrowing rules – loan periods, renewals, overdue charges, total number of items, maximum number of holds – or would it point to your physical space rules – too noisy, no sleeping, no eating, no cellphones?
If you asked your customers which rules they disliked the most, which rules they least understood, which rules they would most like to be change, what do you think they would say? Print out a list of your “Top 10 rules”, because I am assuming that there is likely to be more than ten, and take the time to ask your community to comment on them.
How many chances do we give our customers to make amends when they break the rules? How many chances do we give our customers to be involved in re-writing the rules? How many chances do we give our staff to question the rules? How many chances do we give our staff to understand the rules?
You could flip it around and open up the conversation. Ask your community what they think the rules should be and ask them if they’d like to re-write the rules. You could ask them what a fair punishment should be for existing rules: If I return a book late, should I pay an overdue fine, or should I be blocked from borrowing for a week, or should I have the number of items I can borrow reduced?
In your library, how willing are you to engage directly with your customers – do they need to come to you to discuss overdues, claims returned, non-delivery of items, or do you pro-actively contact them at a given point in the overdue cycle, to check that they are okay, and is there anything you can do to help? Are you kind in your interactions with rule-breakers?
Does kindness and empathy make an appearance in your rules of engagement with customers across the whole borrowing cycle? Take a look at your website messages. Take a look at your notices in your physical space. Take a look at your instructions on your self-check machines. Take a look at your checkout slips. Take a look at the text of your overdue notices. Take a look at your text and email notifications. Find ways to engage with kindness with your customers.
If I continually bring items back late, and constantly incur overdue charges, find another way to manage my account. Ask me what makes it so hard to get things back on time. It might be that a lack of regular access to transport means I get items back when I can, not when the due date is. It might be that I can only able to visit the library once every four or five weeks, and the loan period is three weeks. I really want access to the items, and I accept the cost of returning things late because that is the rule. But I would really like it if you could find another way to make me feel less like a rule-breaker. Find another way for me to be a productive and active member of the library community.
Could you create a new patron type for four-weekly borrowers? Could you change the loan period to five weeks for everyone? Can you introduce automatic renewals for all items not requested by other borrowers?
For every item I return late, instead of a fine, reduce the number of things I can borrow on my next visit. Clearly overdue fees isn’t a deterrent for me, so why not find incentives instead? Reward my positive behaviour by reducing my overdue fees for every item that I do return on time.
Find out where the pain points are with rules being broken. It might not be where you think it is. Use the data as evidence. Use the personal interactions as evidence. Use customer feedback as evidence. Changing your borrowing length might be a key place to ease customer reaction to paying for overdue fees. One critical shift might be to change your thinking, don’t treat overdue fees as an annual income stream. If you aren’t reliant on that income to add to your operational budget, then it might change the way you enforce that rule.
Make it clear that you are changing your rules, based on customer and staff feedback. Make it clear that you will listen, you will accept suggestions, and you will change the rules. It’s a partnership between you and your community. Fewer rules creates less barriers. Fewer rules, and fewer exceptions to the rules, are clearer for customers and staff. Less time spent policing the rules mean more time working alongside your community.