Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

There is a romantic notion attached to wandering the stacks of the library, aimlessly lost in a sea of books for hours on end.

But for a portion of our community, efficiency is the name of the game. They’re hoping to pop into your branch, find what they need, and get out as quickly as possible.

This is especially true in the Next Normal. Some community members just don’t feel comfortable spending a lot of time inside our buildings.

That’s where wayfaring signage comes into play.

Wayfaring signs help direct human traffic, making it easy for people to navigate our buildings. But the signs can do more than move bodies.

Wayfaring signage is a key marketing opportunity for libraries. An efficient and well-planned system of directional signs will make it easier for visitors to discover new or underused portions of your collection or services.

Unfortunately, for many libraries, wayfaring signage is an afterthought. Creating the best signage seems intimidating.

But now, when library buildings are just reopening for full service, we have an opportune time to reimagine and reshape the way the public moves through and uses our physical libraries. And this work doesn’t have to be complicated.

Here are six tips to help you create the traffic flow that is best for your community, your staff, and your library statistics.

Start with a signage audit.

Your first step will be to go through your library and make a list of all the wayfaring signs you currently have. Take photos to go with your list so that you can have an accurate record of your current signage situation.

Next, study how people are using your space. Pick an hour each day for three days and sketch a “heat map” of people entering and exiting your library. You’ll use a blueprint or map of your library. Watch how people enter the building, move through the space, and exit. As they move, trace a line on your map to indicate where they’ve been.

Using your heat map, you’ll be able to see how your current signage is affecting the way people move through your branch. This will help you identify which parts of the building are underused. You can start to imagine how to configure your new signage to move people into those key areas.

For instance, if you have a heat map that shows people are drawn to your computers and your holds shelf but are missing your Makerspace or your fiction collection, you’ll want to consider how you can use wayfaring signage to change the traffic pattern and draw people to those underused spaces.

Less is more. 

It seems counterintuitive, but you don’t want to label every single shelf in every single section of your library. Too many signs are a distraction–the eye doesn’t know where to look and the brain gets overloaded.

Use your signs to point customers to underused areas. And consider leaving the other spaces blank. If a space is already popular and your customers know how to reach it, it likely doesn’t need any wayfaring signage.

Rely on a simple, consistent design.

Your library’s brand is your starting point for great wayfaring signage. Your logo use, color selection, font style, and wording should all be within brand guidelines.

Next, decide whether you’ll incorporate symbols, arrows, words, or a mix of all three. Moderation is key, but a well-placed arrow can help ease confusion and build confidence in your timid customers. 

If your library has more than one branch, standardize wayfaring signs and signage terminology for all locations. Your customers will know exactly what to look for, no matter which branch they visit.

If your library doesn’t have clear branding, remember this: good signage isn’t fancy. It’s functional. Use a simple, accessible font in a neutral color like white or black with a plain background to make the sign pop. A clean, simple design will also add longevity to your signs and keep them from looking outdated.

You’ll also want to ask yourself whether your signs convey friendliness and helpfulness. Exclamation points, capitalized letters, and red font or a red background may come off as angry or unfriendly.

Ditch the library jargon.  

In 2012, a reference librarian at the University of Berkley reviewed more than fifty library usability studies to pinpoint library terms that are generally not understood by the customer. His review uncovered problems with terms like “database”, “e-journals”, “periodical”, “serial”, and “reference.”

Whenever possible, we should be clear when we create our wayfaring signs. Instead of saying “reference”, you can use the word “research.” Instead of “periodicals”, say “magazines.” 

Change the sign above your reference desk to say, “Ask us a question here!” The sign at your circulation might read “Check out your books here!”

Train staff to help with wayfaring.

Staff who know to look for signs of confusion in a community member are providing good customer service.

If an employee spots a customer who walks around directionless for a long time or who keeps looking around, staff can delight and surprise the cardholder by gently approaching them and offering to help find what they need.

It sounds simple but there is such an emphasis in our society on self-sufficiency that we often forget, sometimes our customers just need a little extra help.

Be flexible.

Good signage is always a work in progress. Wayfaring signage can be updated, taken down, or added to as your community needs change.

Re-evaluate your signage every 2-3 years. If you find that you need to make some changes, and you began with a simple, consistent design, it will be easy to correct any issues and create new traffic patterns that benefit your library and your community.


You May Also Want to Read These Posts

Five Excellent Ways To Improve Every Sign in Your Library

What I Learned About Library Marketing From an Amusement Park

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