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Human-Centered Librarianship

More than books...

I found a library marketing button in my drawer the other day that said “More than Books… Our Library has it All!” It depicts a VHS tape, a floppy disk, an audio cassette, and a CD. I’m guessing that button was never a good marketing tool. We keep hearing that libraries are more than just books. It’s true we have books, but we also have ebooks. We have databases, video libraries, and video games. We have collections of scholarly research, reports, and statistics that you just can’t get on Google. We have a physical building and places for people to quietly study and places for groups to meet and hang out. We have computers and technology for people to experiment with and use. We host workshops and events. We have a website and are on various social media sites.

But so what…who cares?

Simon Sinek in an excellent TED Talk says that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The collections, the physical library, our events and websites are all just stuff. But what is the why behind all these things that we have and do? Why do we create collaborative workspaces for our members? Why do host story times or literacy events? Why do we offer access to computers and the web?

In a word: people.

We create workspaces because we believe people should be able connect with one another. We host literacy events because we believe people should be able to improve themselves through learning and knowledge. We offer access to computers because we believe people deserve equal chances and opportunities. We believe that our community members deserve a place to belong, feel safe, explore their curiosity, and have access to knowledge. This is why all that stuff matters.

It’s easy though to get focused on the stuff and not the people. There have been times when I have focused so much on a lesson plan that I forgot about the students and learning in the moment. It’s easy to go through the motions on reference, finding someone a book or article without really understanding the real problem they had. It’s easy to make collection decisions in a vacuum, forgetting about what people actually want and use.

In order to solve the big challenges that face us we need to shift our focus in a different direction than just our stuff, our collections, and our building. I like the idea of adopting a philosophy of Human-Centered Librarianship. This isn’t just doing “customer service,” it’s a mindset shift. People matter first, then stuff. Focusing on people has profound implications. What would a Human-Centered Librarianship look like?

  • We would use user experience and human centered design processes to improve and solve problems
  • We would genuinely and regularly seek out and listen to the opinions or our members because they truly matter to us
  • We would work hard to empower everyone on staff and collaborate as a team since we’re all humans too (to empower our members we need empowered staff)
  • We would be less worried about people messing up our stuff and spilling drinks and more worried when people have complaints or suggestions (and would work hard to address them)

And marketing in Human-Centered librarianship won’t be a button saying “hey we got floppy disks” (or ebooks, or whatever new whizbang technology). Marketing in Human-Centered Librarianship would talk about what they can do with the service or technology and how it improves their life. Our product isn’t books or ebooks or quiet space or databases. Our product is knowledge, connection, acceptance, creativity, and curiosity.

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Lazy Students and Change Resistant Colleagues

student taking a quick nap

image via rofltosh on Flickr

It’s easy to dismiss a co-worker as someone who resists change, or dismiss a student who doesn’t want to put in time and effort on research as lazy. It’s much harder to stop and really try to understand with their position, their motivations, and empathize with them. It’s much harder, but it’s also much more valuable.

Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches-Johnson did an awesome presentation this fall at the Future of the Academic Library Symposium sponsored by Library Journal and Temple University. One of the main points they made was that the reason we have user gaps and a disconnect between patrons and librarians is because of a lack of empathy. We design resources and services that make sense to us, but do not fully take into account our users. This is at the core of user experience design. To be able to best serve our users, we need to really understand them.

This involves talking to them, having conversations with them, and asking for their feedback. In these conversations it’s easy to jump to conclusions and say things in your mind like, “that would never work,” or “they just don’t understand how things work here.” This is exactly why there are gaps in service in the first place. Really understanding someone’s position means not judging it or jumping to conclusions. It means seeing it for what it is. Often problems are much different that what we prematurely judge them to be. Perhaps a student appears lazy because they have no interest in the topic they chose and therefore no motivation. This is a very different problem than laziness.

We also need to bring this level of understanding and empathy into our relationships with colleagues. Whether it’s another librarian who you see as change resistant or a professor who is very particular, instead of writing them off as being set in their ways or being difficult, we should try to really put ourselves in their shoes and understand their position. Perhaps this professor or colleague doesn’t actually get listened to that often. Their ideas, responses, and concerns might be enlightening.

We have our own lenses through which we see the world, and these are very different from other people’s lenses. The next time you find your self getting frustrated at a colleague or a student, try to sincerely understand where their coming from and see things through their lens. That shared understanding will make you less likely to be frustrated and will bring you closer to solving the problem that you’re working on.

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Expect Amazing Things

In a recent OCLC podcast with Roy Tennant and R. David Lankes, Lankes says that lower expectations are going to doom libraries as we know them. He goes on to say that librarians have trained our communities to expect too little of us, and this leads to complacency in librarians. This also leads to a slow fade where people say they love libraries but fewer and fewer people use our services.

I have come across this idea of low expectations in other places as well. Steven Bell, at the ACRL in Philadelphia, presented a paper entitled “Delivering a WOW User Experience: Do Academic Librarians Measure Up.” One of his findings was that students’ expectations for libraries are fairly low. In fact, students sometimes even think it will be a painful experience (library anxiety comes to mind).

This status quo and these low expectations are certainly a challenge, but they’re also a tremendous opportunity. Low expectations mean that when you deliver something above and beyond, people are astonished. We have the potential to surprise, amaze, excite, and delight people on a regular basis.

I know that all librarians have experienced this before. For example, at the reference desk when you’re able to help a student really focus their topic and find some great resources for their project, the student is surprised and continually comes back for help. Another example are the resources that we have. Students here are regularly amazed that we have a language learning software like Mango Languages, or can access thousands of tech/programming books through Safari.

Lankes suggests that in order to overcome these expectations we need to both create a culture where failure is OK and actively engage in conversations with our community. We need to be willing to take risks and we need to be talking to our community, trying to understand them better, and asking them about their problems and projects. This will give us more opportunities to change their expectations of us and our expectations of ourselves.

I would also suggest that we recognize these low expectations and take them into account when creating services, marketing resources, or helping users. At Champlain, we purposely built student expectations into our first year, first semester information literacy session. We recognized that a lot of students would expect a session with a librarian to be boring and not relevant to their life, and we wanted to change that.

Taking that expectation into account, we designed a session in which we told students to take their mobile phones OUT (rather than turn them off) and used them in our lesson for mobile polling. We designed a session in which we focused on things like Google and Facebook as opposed to the library through a TED Talk and exercise on filter bubbles. We designed a session that valued their opinions and was inquiry based rather than us telling them the answers. And in a lot of cases, it changed their expectations of what a library session can be.

 

Amazing our users should be the new normal, but this involves not accepting the status quo, being willing to fail, regularly questioning and talking to your community, and building in expectations into your designs. We need to start changing our users expectations of us and this begins by expecting a lot of ourselves and the work that we do.