The Mitigation-Prevention Dynamic


There’s something about John’s tweet here that struck me as having broader implications. How much time is spent in libraries working on preventative measures as opposed to mitigating ones?

By preventative measures, I mean the policies and practices that seek to regulate as much as possible for both the patron and the staff. Everyone has seen some variation of signs that are full of “NO” statements; no eating, no drinking, no cell phone use, no loud voices, no moving the furniture, no horseplay, no running, and so forth and so on. Everyone has also seen signs that are full of declaratives such as “Patrons must have your library card to do [X, where x can equal anything]”, “Patrons must return materials here”, or “Computers are for adult patrons only.” There is a point where having such things make sense; you want to show that there are basic rules to using the library.

But there are moments when I really wonder about it. Most of the time, these moments happen in the few seconds after a staff member has related a story about an incident within the library and finishes with the sentence, “I think we need to make a sign for that.” Inwardly, I cringe because the one of the Great Ironic Truths™ of the library (an ancient institution dedicated to reading) is that people generally do not read our signs. Even then, when I ask whether this has happened before or if it is part of a series of incidents, most of the time the answer is no.

So, in summary, something bad has happened once, there is no indication whether it is part of a future pattern, and now we need to take a dramatic step in ensure that it never happens again. I’m sure that there are some situations in which this applies, but to use it as the ‘one size fits all’ reaction to every potential negative event in the library is absurd.

It’s a bit hard to tell at times whether the pendulum between mitigation and prevention has swung too far in the latter direction. There are photo groups on Flickr dedicated to documenting library signs that are borderline infantilizing the patron. There are also a good number of stories that get passed around by rules and policies that are drafted or modified in order to address very specific incidents. On the other hand, there are individuals like Stephen Bell, Michael Stephens, and the source of inspiration for this post John Blyberg that are working towards the mitigation end of the spectrum. In keeping up with their efforts, I think it might create a bit of a blind spot to the overall issue. In other words, I can’t tell whether prevention is as big a monster as it comes across as or whether the negative prevention stories resonate more with people than positive mitigation ones. My instincts are telling me to lean towards the “monster” idea, for what it is worth.

What do you think about the mitigation-prevention dynamic? Has it gone too far to the prevention end? Where can mitigation be substituted for prevention? And where do we mitigate when we really should prevent?

5 thoughts on “The Mitigation-Prevention Dynamic

    • Aaron, what I mean is an attitude shift from creating rules and policies to stop behaviors (such as no eating in the library) to those that temper them (such as eating, but within certain spaces).

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  2. Some preventative signs need to be posted for backup. “You didn’t TELL me I couldn’t bring in 14 kids with chili dogs and mustard!” On the other hand, “No fighting in the library” is just a ‘DUH”. Often situations can be dealt with in a mitigating fashion. “I’m sorry, but we cannot be responsible for watching your kindergartner outside of Story Hour.” “I’m sorry, but I am the only person available for half an hour and cannot leave the desk to go upstairs and see why the computer won’t print.” “No, ma’am, we cannot laminate your deceased husband’s handkerchief.” (Seriously.) I agree that patrons don’t read the signs, but I also know that in our library we will cut some slack on some things that are posted, like paying for every page you print. Some people need a lesson in printing, don’t ask for it, don’t get it, and have problems. We teach them and move on.

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