Sometimes I furtively drink coffee at the circulation desk.

I’ve seen students photocopying school textbooks, and I’ve looked the other way.

More than once, I’ve kept the library open well past five o’clock–without kicking any students out or writing the extra minutes on my timesheet.

In short, I’m a library outlaw.

I don’t like being a disciplinarian. I don’t imagine most librarians do–as a former boss once said, we prefer to write everything on tiny signs and then act very put-upon when no one reads the sign. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I’ve yet to meet a librarian who just adores confrontation.

So it’s hard to be a school librarian. Or a public librarian, for that matter. Both are filled with hierarchies and rules, some reasonable, some arcane. When you work with young people, it’s especially hard–how do you teach kids to respect authority and the rules if you’re breaking them yourself?

It’s extremely dangerous to break (or bend) rules because you just don’t like them. You’re not being a team player, you’re making other people look bad, and you’re running the risk of, oh, I don’t know, getting fired. What might be more productive? Talking about the rules. Start a dialogue. Ask why they’re there in the first place. Explain your point of view.

Most of my personal rule-bending has to do more with my non-confrontational nature, but I’m also trying to actively notice what does and doesn’t work with my students. Some clearly respond poorly to being disciplined in front of their peers, so I make an effort to have more private discussions. Some balk whenever they’re approached by an authority figure, so I try to change my language and get them to see things from a different point of view.

And, as always, it’s crucial to pick your battles. Should I be more concerned with the student who’s answering a quick call from her mother, or the student whose phone is blasting the entire library with hip-hop? It’s important to not play favorites, but it’s also important to be able to have relationships with individual students. Let them know that trust and respect are a two-way street.

For me, rule-bending is mostly about finding alternatives to the Ms. Trunchbull approach. If I can get teens to think about their behavior and understand the library rules without making them hate me, why wouldn’t I?

So how do you walk the rules tightrope in your library?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.

3 Thoughts on “Bending the Rules

  1. This is interesting. I think those of us who work with teens spend so much time fighting the rules in order to defend/benefit them that the tightrope walk becomes second nature. For a long time I was all about “act first, ask questions later”. What management doesn’t know can’t hurt ’em, right? Now I’ve become one of the dreaded *others*–an administrative type–who, when asked by a colleague, must uphold library policy. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to change things on a daily basis, but when pressed by other librarians if doing something is ok I usually have to toe the line. Now I must change rules I don’t like rather than ignoring them, which I suppose serves its purpose too. However, I still maintain that in some instances, ignorance is bliss.

  2. Sometimes, the rule itself is the problem – not the youth breaking the rule. Why do we get so uptight about food, for example? What’s the worst thing that will happen: we might stain the ugly institutional carpet (or our facility might show signs of wear); or we might need to replace a $10 keyboard.We really need to distinguish between behaviors that are annoying (but normal) and disruptive, dangerous and/or illegal.

    My public library experience was that teens got yelled at for all sorts of things that staff let slide with adults, like, talking in a normal tone of voice. Or, librarians persecuted teens to the letter of the law: no cell rules are usually put in to curb disruptions from conversations and ringtones, not to stop teens from playing games (in silent mode) or texting (also silent!).

    Consistency is really important. If patrons can’t use their cell phones or drink coffee on the public floor, neither should staff.

  3. I agree that consistency is key. I find it Extremely frustrating when adults in the building exempt themselves from the rules (particularly the no food or drink rule–how much sense does it make to yell at students for food in the library when they can see teachers setting out a massive spread for a meeting after school?!)–and then come running to the librarians asking us to discipline the kids.

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