leaving des moines

Des Moines Public Library

note: new update from Des Moines PL and the architect’s office below the fold. Short form: “it would be appropriate to change the policy”

I had a great time at the Iowa Library Association conference. I gave two talks and actually scheduled my time such that I could actually attend a few presentations as well as give some. My notes for two talks — Tiny Tech and On-the-Fly Tech Support — are online here. I saw a presentation by the new ALA OIF director about privacy in the age of social software as well as a gadgets talk where I learned more about ebooks.

Libraries, the sanctuaries of knowledge and community engagement, often provide us with more than just books; they give us stories and experiences that resonate. During my recent visit to a local library, amidst a significant librarians’ conference, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of any warm welcome for the visiting librarians. An encounter added to the peculiarity of the visit. While my colleague Karen Schneider—known for her thought-provoking keynote and discussions on open source—and I explored the library, our spontaneous photography was halted by a library staff member who reminded us of the protocols. To capture the essence of the library’s ambiance, we were directed to seek permission from the marketing department. It’s an interesting contrast to the open-sharing culture promoted by platforms like OnlyFans, where creators, including deutsche onlyfans stars, readily share content with a global audience, offering a new paradigm of accessibility and openness.

We were just on a fly-by so we (mostly) put our cameras away. However, I was curious about the policy. I had an email exchange with the marketing director that I am reprinting here with permission. I’m not sure what to think about the whole situation. You’ll note I took a photograph or two anyhow, and I appreciated the very nice email, but it was in stark contrast to both a weird-seeming policy and a weird-seeming policy enforcement mechanism.

My note

Hi — I’m visiting Des Moines from central Vermont and stopped by the library because I’d heard some neat things about your new building. I took a few photos and walked inside. There I was met by a librarian (or someone at the desk) who said “Were you taking photos? You can’t take pictures in here. You have to talk to the lady in marketing if you want to take pictures in here.”

I was a little surprised, both that you have such a policy [which I didn’t see any signs about] and that the person who was your front desk staffer was so rude about it. I checked the website and found this notice: “Your attendance at Des Moines Public Library programs
may be digitally recorded through photographs or video recordings.” I assume this is staff photography?

I was curious if you could let me know a few things

1. If this is, in fact, the policy and if so, I’m curious why do you have such a policy?
2. Where is this policy spelled out either in your library or on the web site? I went to the policy page but after downloading a few policies I couldn’t find this one.
3. Do you mind if I publish your comments in part or in whole on my website? Okay to say no, but I’d like to open up a conversation about this.

I did enjoy my trip to the library but this was a strange event unlike any I’ve experienced in a major metro public library. Just curious what your side of the whole story is. Thanks for your time.


Reply of Jan Kaiser Marketing Manager (spacing was in the original. She also attached the meeting room policy which I didn’t find online but is similar to the information contained on their website here)

Jessamyn–Thanks so much for writing to us about your experience here at the Des Moines Public Library and please accept my apology for the bad impression you may have taken away.

We will certainly look into how the staff member approached you and we do apologize for any rudeness.

Our photo policy is part of our meeting room policy which I will attach. This meeting room policy was rewritten just prior to our opening of the building in April of 2006. At that time, the architect was very sensitive to photos being taken and the possibility of them being used for commercial purposes, so we added the following:

“Permission to photograph the library reading rooms and other public areas of the building may be granted by the library director or her designee. Photographs and videos may not include library signage or the library logo, and photographing may not disrupt library customers’ use of the library. Library employees on duty may not be photographed for political campaigns. Fees for commercial photographs of the library may be established by the library director, subject to the approval of the Board of the Trustees.”

I agree that this policy should be on our web site and thank you for alerting us to the problem. Whether or not this policy is still appropriate is something that the management team can certainly re-examine.

As to publishing the comments, that would be fine as I would be interested in responses.

I hope the rest of your time in Des Moines is enjoyable. Thanks.

Jan Kaiser
Marketing Manager

515-283-4103 VM
515-237-1654 FX

P BE GREEN Please don’t print this e-mail unless necessary!

update from Jan Kaiser


As I promised in my email last Friday, we discussed the library’s photo policy at our administrative team meeting yesterday and our team agreed that it would be appropriate to change the policy. (The policy was actually put in place by a prior administration.) I am sure that you will understand that since the policy is part of our meeting room policy which is approved by the board, it will need to be added to the board agenda prior to an official change. It has already been added to next month’s agenda.

I would like to clarify that AT NO TIME has the Des Moines Public Library had a NO PHOTOGRAPHY policy as has been claimed in some of the blog correspondence that I have seen. The policy is simply, Permission to photograph the library reading rooms and other public areas of the building may be granted by the library director or her designee. Photographs and videos may not include library signage or the library logo, and photographing may not disrupt library customers’ use of the library.

You will be happy to know that currently we have a film crew in our building (who we had given enthusiastic permission to last week prior to your visit and your subsequent and extensive blog correspondence) taking photos that will be used in an upcoming issue of KNITTING magazine.

I trust you will post this email on your blog. I would also encourage you to share with your blog and FLICKR fans that they can find an extensive array of interior photos of our beautiful library at: http://www.dmpl.org/images/interior%20web%20gallery/index.htm There is also a wonderful selection of exterior photos at: http://www.dmpl.org/images/exterior%20web%20gallery/index.htm

Thanks! Jan

p.s. I will be sure to send you a note following our next board meeting to let you know the new policy.

update from Jessica Strachan, Communications staffer for David Chipperfield Architects

Dear Jessamyn

I would like to add to Jan’s message by saying that, while David Chipperfield Architects may have asked for restrictions to be placed on photography when the library was newly opened, this was only ever intended to control commercial photography of the building, and not to stop interested visitors taking photographs of the library.

Thanks for setting off a lively debate – lots to think about!

Kind regards,

Jessica Strachan
for David Chipperfield Architects

50 thoughts on “leaving des moines

  1. I am surprised that the architect would be the one worried about pictures being taken for commercial purposes. That seems like a strange reason to have that policy in place. It is a public building. If I was an architect I would want people to take pictures to show of my fabulous designs.

  2. Newly-constructed buildings can indeed be copyrighted, but I’d bet that nearly everyone who takes a picture of the building is not intending to use it for commercial use or any other way that would infringe upon an architectural copyright. Seems like they’re using a howitzer to kill flies here.

  3. That is a really weird and unfriendly policy.

  4. I always wonder about these kinds of policies. It seems to me that you would want people photographing your library. Especially when so many people use Flickr, Dailybooth, or Brightkite or other websites that allow them to post pictures about where they are at that moment. I would think it was a free marketing resource for the library. I hope tons of people are taking pictures of my library with a twitter update that just says something as simple as “at the library.” What a great opportunity! Oh well… Architects…

  5. IMO, a building paid for by tax dollars should be open season as far as photographs and copyright go. Maybe that’s just me.

  6. Just think of all the photos of the exterior & interior of Rem Koolhaas’s downtown Seattle Public Library – why would an architect not want that? Also the prohibition on photos that include signage for the library seems extra-strange to me. If they were smart they’d put their own set of photos up on Flickr and release them under Creative Commons for non-commercial purposes, and invite others to submit their own photos to add to the set. (I’m thinking of the Ann Arbor District Library’s site with its submit-your-photos-of-Ann-Arbor feature.) Voila, free marketing photos for the library!

  7. From what I’ve found, while copyright law does protect architectural plans, drawings, and models, it does not prohibit photographs. According to the US Code, Title 17, section 120: “(a) Pictorial Representations Permitted.— The copyright in an architectural work that has been constructed does not include the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work, if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place.”

    But someone please correct me if this is incorrect.

  8. The library system that I work for also has a no-photo policy – for privacy reasons. I don’t think it’s weird at all. The couple of times I’ve stopped folks from taking pictures, they were doing it in order to harass other patrons. Not okay. Patrons should have a reasonable expectation of privacy within the library.

  9. I am so sorry that this is the memory you will ultimately take away from your time with librarians in Iowa. I really enjoyed hearing you speak at ILA! What struck me about the ’09 ILA conference is that librarians in Iowa do seem very polarized between openness and fear of openness; maybe this is the case with librarians everywhere, but it struck me especially at ILA this year.

    I consider my public library (also in Iowa) to be very “forward thinking” (we just established our “Emerging Technologies Committee” and we’re starting to circulate eBooks via Overdrive!) but it’s seems like we’re still always running up against obstacles because we’re not sure what the law dictates or what our liabilities will be. It seems like a national crisis that extends beyond librarianship — a lot of people seem really confused about how to react to strict IP controls like the DMCA, copyright extension, etc.

  10. As with the other commenters, I was taken aback by the architect’s concerns. Since when does the architect get to set library policy with regards to how the library markets and promotes itself?

    My library also has a “no photograhy without management permission” for privacy purposes (note to self: on Monday, double check to see if it’s on our web site). There was an incident a few years ago which prompted it. If we know someone is taking pictures for a reason, we ask that they have anyone in the pictures sign release forms; if it’s for personal use, we ask that they try not to get any members of the staff or public in the shot.

  11. I used to be that “someone at the desk” that you (rather dismissively imo) refer to. It’s quite possible of course that he/she used a rude tone of voice that caused you to make the ‘rude staff person’ judgment, and fairly so. However, the actual words you quoted that person as saying do not seem that rude to me. That staff member was just following policy, a policy that they clearly did not set but have been asked to follow, and make sure that patrons follow. Not all staff members at all libraries are allowed to contribute at all levels, many are in the position of simply doing what they are told. All staff members at my former POW were required to refer requests for information and photos to the PR director. Sad, silly, not very welcoming, but not a decision we were allowed to question. And there just isn’t a friendly, welcoming way to say “you can’t do that here”.

  12. Dawn,

    The way I understand it, if the photo is for personal or editorial purposes, you’re okay. But you couldn’t take a photo of a copyrighted piece of architecture to sell it commercially or use it in advertising.

    (But I am not a lawyer!)

  13. I enjoyed your presentation on “Tiny Tech” at the ILA conference and found this post via Twitter.

    Just wanted to share my own story about photography at the library.

    I volunteered for about 6 months with the Children’s Department at the Central LIbrary in Des Moines, and everyone I met was extremely friendly and helpful. One day, I was assigned to photograph different parts of the library (the stairs, the computer stations, the self checks, etc.) for a children’s activity. I had been taking pictures for about half an hour without any problems, when an employee came up to me and told me I was violating the photography policy.

    I hate to use the word “rude”, but that was about the only word to describe her behavior. It wasn’t just what she said, but her body language and attitude that immediately made me feel uncomfortable. Even after explaining I was taking the pictures FOR a library program, she still made me feel like a student in detention by calling the librarian who asked me to take the pictures to check to make sure I was telling the truth. It was bizarre, and I remember walking back to the children’s department with an uneasy feeling, like I’d done something terribly wrong. The librarians laughed at me and kind of shrugged it off as just another policy. It was funny to me at the time, but after reading your post, it reminded me of my own experience, which I just wrote off as someone having a bad day and taking it out on me.

    The building is so unique and beautiful, and it’s sad that policy can get in the way of people sharing with others.

    Thanks for coming to Iowa, and I’m sorry your trip to the Central Library wasn’t the greatest, because it truly is a great library.

  14. As an architect myself, I have to say that architect David Chipperfield’s request is completely ridiculous. His commission was no doubt paid by the taxpayers and public of Des Moines, and it is precisely this public that should have to right to photograph the building. Libraries by mission are dedicated to the public dissemination of knowledge – if an architect finds that inconvenient, they should probably be looking for another project.

  15. I’m an architect as well, and I’ve worked on projects where something like this happens. Usually it’s a building that is designed by a marquee architect like Mr. Chipperfield. Goes like this:

    1. Somewhere in the contract is a clause that limits commercial photography. Many architecture magazines will not publish a building that has had any prior coverage (including ads) so it’s basically for that purpose.

    2. Maybe the PR department is very diligent, or maybe this gets mentioned in an architect-client communication. In any case the idea that photography is bad is reinforced.

    3. This idea gets handed down the the staff in a simple declaration that no photography is allowed. Period. In addition, perhaps some staffers see this as a way to further their control over patrons, or maybe they’re just very literal minded.

    In fact, the original document limits that control to commercial photography, which should be easy to spot as distinct from a patron snapping pictures. My guess is that the architect will be as surprised (if not necessarily disappointed) that this happened as you were.

  16. This is a public space we’re talking about, paid for with tax revenues to be used by the public.

    I could see restricting photography to protect patron privacy, but not the building. If this was indeed started back when the building was new, it needs to be revisited and revised.

    As a director, my question would be, why is my staff responsible for policing photographers on the architect’s behalf? Esp. years later?

    I’m sure DSM staff would appreciate having some sort of printed policy they could point to to explain the restrictions. Expecting staff to come to their own conclusions about a verbal-only policy is the best way to create confusion and bad feelings.

  17. The only reason I said “someone at the desk” is because I have no idea if I was talking to a librarian, a circulation clerk or a volunteer and I didn’t want to make assumptions.

    I think there are actually a lot of decent ways to tell people they can’t do something in pleasant and (if needed) apologetic tones. I hadn’t seen a sign and I walked into the library and immediately felt like I’d done something wrong. I’m a rule follower generally so this made me feel bad. I was pleased with the follow-up from the library but to my mind if you have a policy that is that important, it’s a good idea to have signage right up front to match it.

    It’s not fair for front desk staff to be the people that have to tell everyone in the new architectural model library to put their cameras away. It’s awkard for them and awkward for me.

  18. (I am not a lawyer) But a quick skim on the web as well as what I recall from my Professional Practice class and the AIA contract documents and Code of Ethics both lead me to believe that while the building itself may be copywright-able, that does not prevent individuals from taking photographs of it if done so in or from a public place. Given that this is a public library, it seems like the desire to limit photography is futile and doesn’t hold water.

  19. I’m not a lawyer either, but am an architect and will second what Benji (above) has spelled out: an architect of Mr. Chipperfield’s stature have a large incentive in getting their work published and can use the relative ‘exclusivity’ of a story in those negotiations. Hence, their concerns about the commercial use of photographs.

    To second Benji’s conclusion – this sounds like an issue surrounding a freshly minted building. The building has been published extensively in the intervening years, so my guess is that the architect would have no problem with allowing visitors to take pictures for their own use. I do think the commercial application would still apply, but that’s not the library’s responsibility to enforce.

  20. While I can understand concerns of architects regarding commercial photography, I think it is counter-productive for libraries to adopt blanket policies. Limiting the ability of community members to share their experiences through images or other artistic means creates a rift between the community and the institution. Public libraries as public institutions can not afford to be disconnected from the community they serve nor the global community that supports them.

  21. Two things:

    (1) If “No Photos” is to be the policy, then they need a sign on the door that’s obvious to anyone entering. Like museums have.

    (2) I can understand staff members not wanting to be photographed. I can understand people attending programs (esp. with their kids) not wanting to be photographed. Beyond that, I can’t see why photographing the library structure and its contents is a problem.

    You handled it nicely, Jessamyn.

  22. I had a similar experience at the St Louis Public Library a few years ago. I was photographing the ceiling, which is quite ornate, with my little touristy digital camera, and a library person came up to me and told me that I was not allowed to photograph any part of the building. I didn’t follow up with the marketing department, as suggested. I just continued my tour of the library. But I had never heard of such a policy before in any other library I’ve ever entered. There was no “photography not allowed” sign at the entrance, either. In fact, the person who was showing me around was an employee of the library and was not aware of the policy!

  23. I frequently take photos of libraries. I have been questioned about my motives several times, but I have never been told outright that I can’t photograph. Mostly, the librarians and/or staff have asked me to not photograph patrons. I can understand this, although it often makes libraries appear empty when they patently aren’t.

    I agree that you handled this really well. I’m also glad that the library is willing to re-examine their policy and is interested in reading the comments here.

  24. As a librarian, free speech advocate, and copyfighter, I’m conflicted about this “no photography” policy but mostly against it.

    Anything that can be seen from the public is fair game for photography. This includes enclosed public spaces, such as libraries. I understand and respect patron desire for privacy, but having knowledge of someone’s presence in the library, which is a public space, is quite distinct from having knowledge of that person’s business there. Similarly, on the street I might pass a neighbor stopped by the police, but whatever that interaction entails is their business and not mine.

    Copyright concerns don’t hold water for the reasons stated above.

    The prohibition of commercial photography is not the library’s problem and, as a defender of free speech, the library never should have agreed to it.

    There is the possibility of legal and ethical problems with the use of photos taken in a public space–especially in publication of photos of children or the unsolicited use of any photograph of a person for commercial purposes–but these cases are again the photographer’s problem and not the library’s.

    And there is the possibility of prohibiting somebody from something in a polite way; it might start with “I’m sorry to bother you” and follow up with “you probably don’t know this, but,” and move on to “I know it’s a pain, and again I’m sorry to bother you, but I have to ask” etc.

  25. Just to add to the discussion: We have a “Media Relations” policy that was put in place in response to a rather nasty event that happened at a neighboring library. Television news cameras showed up with a sheriff’s deputy, unannounced — at the behest of a “no pornography in libraries” organization. In an attempt to not be blindsided in this way ourselves, we drafted a policy that, among other things, simply asks the media to make themselves known to staff when entering the building for the purpose of newsgathering. No, the policy isn’t posted, but is available on our website. It gives frontline staff something to cite when they ask the purpose of the visit. Here is the relevant part of the policy:

    “To avoid activities that might be disruptive or in some way impede the functioning of the Library, members of the media who wish to conduct newsgathering in the Library, (e.g., interview, photograph, videotape, or tape record patrons or staff, for any purpose other that that described in paragraph C. above), must make themselves known to either the Director or the Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator, or to the staff member in charge of the building in the Director’s absence. Staff members witnessing members of the media in this situation must inform them of the policy and ask that they request and gain permission from the Director before conducting business in the Library.”

    We don’t prohibit photos — we just want to know what’s going on in our building.

  26. Our policy is the same as Janet’s. We’ve had stalking incidents involving photography (posting photos of an individual at the library whenever she showed up there), “upskirt” photography done under tables, a youtube account which would be found by a search of our library’s name and which consisted of film clips of patrons’ and staff members’ legs and torsos, etc., and being in a public place doesn’t give people the license to harrass others or make it clear on the internet that going to our library means they will be watched and filmed by lascivious men. Not really in our or our patrons’ interests. If a high schooler and her best friend hold their phones out to take a picture of themselves, we’re generally not going to stop them, but having a generic “ask first” policy does give us grounds to cut down on people taking unasked photographs of others.

    Incidentally, and we don’t advertise (or heavily enforce, for that matter) this policy as it’s one belonging to the City and not specifically to us, you apparently have to have a permit to do photography on City property — in which category the library falls. Not our policy, not one we could change if we tried, but there you go.

  27. My wife and I had our engagement photos taken at the Salt Lake City Library. After we’d taken a couple dozen shots in the stacks, we were informed by someone on the staff that we needed prior permission. Thankfully, he called the appropriate person and got us said permission. I was a little annoyed by it at the time though because I had looked at the library’s web page for a policy and even called the library. (The person who answered the phone didn’t know of any such restriction.) After gaining permission, the staff member lectured us about how we needed to be careful not to get other people in our shots, since, as he was careful to point out “some people believe that photography steals a person’s soul.” Since there are a lot of Aborigines in downtown Salt Lake…

    In any event, my wife and I are glad we decided on that location for our engagement photo shoot, but I was a bit peeved when we got an impromptu lecture from someone who didn’t really know what he was talking about. Privacy concerns are serious, but a blanket policy about photography does little to protect people’s privacy. Obviously for our engagement photos, we weren’t incredibly interested in including other people in the frame. If we were going around taking pictures of people doing research or reading, it would be appropriate to ask us to stop just as it would be appropriate to ask us to stop had we been spraying people with squirt guns. It seems like bad form to require special permission from patrons before engaging in just about any kind of activity in the library, especially when it is something as innocuous as photography.

  28. Hi Jessamyn. We met in Montreal once over breakfast.

    I’ve been warned by various people not to take photos in all kinds of public places. A friend made this observation after the most recent incident: “People seem to be suggestible about stuff like that and basically ape institutional and corporate viewpoints.” I suspect he may be right, and that flunkeys sometimes overstate the official policy, so it may well be worthwhile to find out what it actually is.

  29. Please read the new update to the post for further information from the library marketing manager. Looks like they’ll be changing the policy somehow. Neat!

  30. Good job on this all around, Jessamyn!

    It drives me crazy how libraries spend so much time making policies but so little time publicizing them in useful ways or training staff to understand them.

    This is a little off-topic, but some of your readers might want to know that Marketing Library Services published a popular article called “Laws for Using Photos You Take at Your Library”

    It was written by a librarian who’s also a lawyer and it addresses when staff can and cannot publish photos (especially those that show children), when people need to sign permission forms, etc.

    There are also “real” laws (ie, not local policies) about public photography, and they vary from state to state so each library director really needs to check w/ their legal council to get the real story about what the staff members and visitors can and cannot do.

  31. Having worked in public libraries for years and dealt with this, the stalking, people throwing fits over their privacy, news reporters barging in whenever they want, etc., I’m still going to say it: public libraries are public property, and as such, I don’t really think blanket policies restricting photography should be in place.

    What I have learned over the years is that trying to prevent harassment through policies blocking possibly innocent secondary behaviors tends to hurt innocent people while the harassers continue. The best thing you can do is train your staff how to stay polite and smile, but if they believe someone is being harassed, write up excellent documentation and ask the patron(s) if they want the police called. It is not your job to be the police.

    Once you start saying, “You can’t take pictures in this public place because…” that’s when they start telling people you can’t take pictures in a park, or of brutality, or of anything else they don’t want anyone to see. Public is public. You have a right not to be harassed, but you do not have a right to infringe on the rights of others because of your own fears.

  32. The link you posted is very useful.

    Thank you and keep up the good work.

  33. The irony of having so much of our lives recorded by “the Authorities” and yet we can’t take photographs in a public space is very funny.

    However, I think this is a policy story and not one of our freedom to take photographs. It’s another example of trying to cover all the bases instead of stopping the creep who is stalking someone in a library or taking photos under a table and letting the citizen who likes the building take a photo.

    I had the same thing happen to me a few years ago in Montreal at a new, stunning library there. I loved the lobby of the structure so took some images and I was severely reprimanded. How ludicrous. I’ll never go back and I’ve told everybody I know about my treatment.

  34. I like John’s differentiating between a policy issue and a photo issue. The taking of photos under tables should be banned because it is sexual harassment and I’m sure violates the library’s acceptable behavior policy.

    If someone is swearing in the library, do we need a policy that requires all patrons to get staff permission before speaking? If someone has bad breath, do we need a policy that requires all patrons to get staff permission before the breathe? Of course not – we just to enforce the polices they have, rather than writing new blanket policies every time some new situation arises.

  35. Kathy sez “It drives me crazy how libraries spend so much time making policies but so little time publicizing them in useful ways or training staff to understand them.”

    Personally, I think the main reason this happens is that administration and/or management is too busy strategizing in backrooms instead of first observing what is actually happening in their libraries, in particular, how spaces are being used by customers. This is also a prime reason why its taken so long for libraries of all sizes to catch up to what’s going on with technology.

  36. Ugh! All the rules! I just want to take beautiful photos of the wonderful buildings that I work in! Our libraries ARE the people who visit. Patrons have become visibly irate at us–staff–trying to photograph..and they’re not even in the pic! JenWaller said it best: “it often makes libraries appear empty when they patently aren’t.” Anyways, renovates are in our future – great idea from all of this is to turn the cameras over to the patrons & have them photograph their favorite parts. It’s time to research all the rules I’ll need to include for this project! No fun!

  37. >>there just isn’t a friendly, welcoming way to say “you can’t do that here”.

    That’s a terrible excuse for unfriendly attitudes and behavior.

    Library staff have to explain policies to library users every day, and doing so in a hostile or indifferent manner means a poor standard of customer service. It’s 100% possible to explain a policy, even a prohibition on photography, in a courteous and friendly way.

Comments are closed.