Don’t use “all caps”: Interview with library marketer Mark Aaron Polger

This material first appeared on the Library Portal on September 20, 2022, in Latvian. I interviewed Mark Aaron Polger as an editor of the media, which is run by the Library Development Centre at the National Library of Latvia. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

In the 1986 movie “Labyrinth”, the main character Sarah draws an arrow on the labyrinth tile with red lipstick in order to later know which way she went. When the heroine is already around the corner, a tiny, angry goblin moves up the tile from below and puts it back the wrong way. In order for a library, with its huge amount of information, not to lead the reader to dead ends, not only the invaluable support of the librarian is useful, but also a consistent and comprehensible wayfinding system that leads, not misleads.

In many libraries, the signage system has become part of a thoughtful design. It is also an opportunity for the architect to tell a story. For example, in the National Library of Latvia, the signs (and interior elements) of each floor have their own color, symbolizing Latvia’s earliest banknote, the lats, and its different nominals. The library’s new building – the Castle of Light – was opened in 2014, the same year when Euros became the local currency and lats rolled into history. They are preserved in the signage system as well.

In the Ogre Central Library new building that was opened last year in Latvia, and this year entered the IFLA/Systematic final of the best public libraries in the world, the typeface “Cīrulis” is used for the signage systems. Latvian artist and designer Ansis Cīrulis created paintings in the Ogre sanatorium in the 1920s. The ornamental motifs and typeface inspired by him are echoed in the new library building.

However, good design is more than just a story. Good design first and foremost fulfills its function. It is comfortable to sit on a well-designed chair, and a good signage system allows the library visitor to easily find answers and find the way, thus also relieving the work of the information center and librarians.

An excerpt from Mark Aaron Polger’s book Library Signage and Wayfinding Design (2021), is published in the latest issue of American Libraries magazine. The author of the book is a Canadian academic, library marketer, and editor of the Marketing Libraries Journal.

Latvian Library Portal invited Mark Aaron Polger for a short interview in order to convey to library employees the main points that, in his opinion, should be observed when creating and improving the wayfinding systems.

In fiction and cinema libraries are often portrayed as gloomy labyrinths and places where to easily get lost. Where do you think this preconception comes from?

I think libraries can be intimidating places. Often, they are large and they house knowledge, and that can be intimidating to people. Libraries are often buildings with many floors and I think the books, study tables, chairs, and aisles of materials may threaten people.  Historically, they were sacred places where knowledge was preserved and library workers were also almost “untouchable” almost god-like, because they protected this “sacred” knowledge, and they were often unapproachable and intimidating.

Is the importance of a good signage system connected to more visitors to the library?

A good signage system means less repetitive questions at the circulation and reference desk. Better signage means less anxious and confused library users. It does not necessarily mean more visitors will come to the library, but it may help the current library users stay longer, feel less anxious and confused.

What five main rules would you suggest to libraries to follow if they want to create a better wayfinding system?

  1. Make the signage and wayfinding system user centered. Ensure it answers library users’ questions.
  2. A better wayfinding system should ensure that library users can get from point A to point B, and then exit the library, with ease.
  3. Wayfinding and signage system should be designed based on user feedback (first and foremost).
  4. Use a few words with realistic images. Library users don’t like to read a lot of text.
  5. Only create signs and wayfinding aids that address user questions and concerns. The biggest problem is having too many signs in the library.

What certainly to avoid in creating signs at the library?

Don’t use “all caps” (uppercase letters is a “no-no”); be friendly; be current; use consistent language (words) and consistent visuals so it looks like a signage “system”.

What got you interested in the marketing and promotional aspects of library work?

We can’t “wait” for library users to come into the library. We must be proactive in communicating our value, our services, and our resources, and we must strategically target our offerings to different user groups (segments) in the library. Each user group (segment) uses the library differently, so our marketing will look different, according to the different types of library users.

Five years ago you started a Marketing Libraries Journal. What main changes in the field have you noticed since publishing its first issue?

More library workers use social media for library marketing purposes, and more people are engaging in online (digital) marketing activities, especially after COVID.

Libraries and social media. There’s so much information on users’ feeds. How to get noticed?

Libraries should post often, interact with users, engage in dialogue, post photos, be informal, and post in a different language for each platform. Facebook is different than Twitter and Instagram, so libraries should be mindful that they should post slightly differently on these 3 platforms. Social media should be used for announcements, promotion, spreading information, sharing good news, and sharing current news, and should post consistently and daily!

Thinking about the near future and about libraries as spaces: will the virtual space dominate or will we see the renaissance of the physical space of the libraries?

I think both are equally important. There should be a balance in promoting the library’s physical space, as well as the virtual library services and resources (databases, the library website, online library exhibits, digital library collections, LibGuides, social media presence, online newsletter/blog)

What would you want the libraries to be like after 100 years?

I would like to think that we would still have physical library buildings (spaces) alongside library websites and digital/virtual library services and resources. I still think there is value in having a physical library space. We cannot be completely virtual. Library users need to visit a physical location to study, socialize, do homework, write their papers, and collaborate with other people.

The illustration above is done by Latvian artist Daina Jurķe. Find her work on Instagram @daina.jurke

Interviewed by:
Anna Iltnere
Editor of Library Portal
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia

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