This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 1, 1992

July 1, 1992 - Signs and signage

In 1979 I took a job as a front desk clerk for the Graduate Library of the University of Illinois-Urbana. The same year, I observed a fascinating study.

Michael Gorman, one of the more popular lecturers for the Library Science Department, had once opined, "You can get a college student to do anything for a Snickers bar."

Based on that premise, some library science students handed out Snickers bars to every student who filled out one of their survey forms. It turned out that Professor Gorman was right: 100 percent of the surveys were completed.

The question of the study was deceptively simple: what kinds of signs do people read? The survey form was distributed to those students who had just walked out of the graduate library -- 10 acres of books encompassing well over 2 million volumes, and quite a large number of signs.

For purposes of the experiment, the students had made pink signs, orange signs, black signs, white signs, green signs, and signs of a good many other shades I cannot now recall. They had placed them throughout the graduate library: high, low, off to the right of an aisle, off to the left, and smack in the center.

Some of the signs were directional, some of them deliberately humorous. Some were obscure. Some were utterly contradictory. All of them were as conspicuous as possible.

The results, carefully tabulated for class credit, were statistically significant and universally accepted. The chief finding was breathtakingly simple.

People don't read signs.

On the one hand, that was surprising news. After all, the students of the University of Illinois Library read everything else.

For instance, each of the Graduate Library's 10 floors had two bathrooms. Not only were the walls of each of these bathrooms covered with extravagantly literate opinions about almost anything, somebody (probably a library science student) had taken on the task of making CROSS-REFERENCES for the graffiti.

You might be in the second floor bathroom, and come across a funny quote from Spinoza. Right under it, in green ink, would be the note, "See men's room, 8th floor, south wall, beginning 'Nietzsche says...'"

On the other hand, this study just proved what you instinctively know already. People will write, read, and even footnote what's written on bathroom walls. But they pay no attention whatsoever to a host of official signs.

How come? I don't have the slightest idea. But it's a shame. Sometimes library signs are hilarious.

For instance, take the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. For the past several months, at least two or three times a day, I walk past the signs we've posted on the ends of the aisles in the adult fiction section. One pair reads "DUM-GLY" -- meaning that books by authors whose last names begin with "DUM" are at the beginning of that aisle, and books by authors whose names begin with "GLY" are at the end of the aisle.

DUMGLY is one of those words that doesn't exist, but ought to. It should mean, "The state of being neither smart nor beautiful."

The very next set of bookstacks is labeled "GOD-HEY." Can you blame me for wanting the next set to read "YEAH-WHAT"? Even though I know that doesn't work out right.

One of the things I'd like to see in Douglas County is a consistent set of signs on highways and main roads that point people to the closest library branch. But you'd be surprised how hard it is to get all that coordinated.

On the highway, it's the responsibility of the state. Off the interstate, but on the paved roads, it's the province of the county. Within town limits, its the responsibility of the local municipality.

No matter how you cut it, it's confusing. But we're working on it.

On the other hand, is it really worth the trouble? Will anybody notice?

If you've got an opinion, stop by your local library and let us know. You say you don't HAVE an opinion?

Suppose we give you a Snickers bar ...

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