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.
Just had my mind blown about filter bubbles online by Andrew Burkhardt from @champlib. This is all too much for 11am.
— Casey Reagan (@cereags) September 30, 2011
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.