Diary of a Librarian: On Printers and Signage

About 90% of my job is walking people through the printer instructions. We do have signage up and yes, people do read it. Or, at least, they claim that they do. In reality, many of them either miss the existence of the instructions or barely glance over Step One and then proceed to get themselves kerfuffled. At this point, I swoop in.

This situation with our printer illustrates the weaknesses of signage. There are a few major reasons that patrons don’t pay attention to our lovely written instructions, and they are as follows:

  • The patron can’t read
  • The patron can’t read English
  • The patron is very tired
  • The patron is young
  • The patron is in a rush
  • The patron has an intellectual disability
  • The patron does not have reading glasses with them
  • The patron is taking a medication that inhibits their cognitive or visual abilities
  • The patron is sick
  • The patron has a mental health problem
  • The patron is in the early stages of dementia
  • The patron is used to using a different kind of printing system
  • The patron is lazy
  • The patron is high

It’s important to note that patrons are rarely at fault. Most of the time, when patrons can’t understand the instructions, there’s either a language barrier or an intellectual problem like ADHD. Not that I’m qualified to diagnose, but there are a few clear ringers among my patronage.

Don’t misinterpret me here: signage is still extremely useful when it comes to our printer. During the start of my time at this library, patrons routinely tried to print $25 jobs at a go. Since our bill acceptor can only handle $5 at a time, this meant that the enormous $25 job in question was lost and there were tears and misery all around. Then we changed the default desktop background on all computers to a custom wallpaper. This was simply a banner that read The printer cannot accept jobs of more than $5. Please print in batches of 33 pages at most or see a librarian. Or something like that. We slapped our logo on there, made it a jpeg, and hid the file so that nobody could mess with it once we made it the default background. And it worked! Once in a blue moon someone won’t read the sign, but that’s usually younger patrons and people in a rush.

This particular situation is aided by the fact that most people who come into the library to print just want a couple sheets. If everyone needed to print dissertations, maybe we’d have a bigger problem. Even so, that sign was effective at reducing incidents. Posting the printer instructions next to the release station really has helped too. It just also happens to have highlighted the cases where the patron is having a bad time because their entire day is actually going badly. We have become printer paramedics: we only ever see the emergencies.

There’s an unintended consequence here that professionals need to be aware of. Signage is most useful for patrons who happen to have their shit together on the particular day that they’re using the printer, so you’re never going to interact with that set. Instead, as I mentioned before, you’ll primarily see people who are busy, frustrated, and are generally having a bad day. Over time, this will skew your perception of your patrons. I have days when I need to work hard to remember that I’m here to help people who need help. Of course I’m going to get difficult questions, cranky patrons, and people who just can’t do it. That’s why libraries still need that human touch! As a certain wise professor of mine once said, librarians, man.

It can be tiring to show people how to use the printer again and again. However, I believe that it’s made me a better librarian and a more empathic person. The only thing I’d change is my training. In all my years of grad school, where I built databases, crunched large sets, studied arcane cataloging techniques, and learned how to preserve vellum, I never received the training that would have come in most useful at this gig. Namely, social work training. How to recognize and manage a patron with such severe OCD that a crooked photocopy is cause for a meltdown. How to deal with a teen who’s mad about a printer because he’s just been passed over for adoption…again. The telltale signs of a patron who can’t read and doesn’t want you to know it – and how to help them without humiliating them.

God help me, but I think librarians need yet another degree.



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