A student from SGA approached our manager of circulation and our director with an idea for a flash mob rave. After some thought and further organization (and realizing it’s a fair amount of work to set up and tear down speakers) it became just a somewhat abbreviated rave. There was some wariness on our part because of concerns about students studying and having to ask one of our circulation managers to stay late, but ultimately we agreed.
The word was spread by mouth and a Facebook event page. At 11:30pm the DJs (curiously named Laserdisk Party Sex) set up their gear and started doing their thing. The event was filmed and edited by one of our digital film-making students. As you can see in the video, there were a lot of people dancing and enjoying themselves. After several encores, it wrapped at around 12:30am.
Overall it seemed like a fun way to de-stress before finals. There were no formal complaints that I know of (though I heard mild complaining on Twitter). I think it helped that they decided to do it close to closing time. The thing I think that is really cool about it is that it was completely student organized and they chose the library for their venue. I like to see students making the library their own and taking it over for something like this.
I just finished the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. I highly recommend it and got a number of great ideas from it. But when I read it, one idea in particular stood out in relation to libraries. The idea is “the Curse of Knowledge.” The Heath brothers discuss the Curse of Knowledge in this example:
“Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.”
Librarians unfortunately are under the spell of this curse. Most of the time we think like librarians. We’re sophisticated searchers, evaluators, collectors, organizers and don’t know how to be any different. We know what a database is and what a catalog is. Often, our patrons don’t. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of our users. And this is exactly what we need. In order to best serve our users we need to be able to see things from their perspective – see the library with fresh eyes.
How can we do this? It’s not always easy but there are a few ways to break out of your rut and lose your librarian perspective for a while:
Use library workers and work study students – library workers and students are valuable assets. They bring a different perspective and often work very closely with patrons. I’m always surprised by the great insights or ideas that these people come up with. Tapping into their perspective can get you closer to what the patron sees.
Use new librarians – people who just enter the field shouldn’t be thought of as greenhorns that need to be trained, they should be treasured as valuable, short term resources. They don’t have years of experience and THAT is what they bring to the table. Their not encumbered by the view that “this is how we’ve always done it.” They see the library with fresh eyes. But they won’t be that way forever. Learn from them while they’re still fresh.
Work like a library patron – Brian Herzog from the Swiss Army Librarian had a great idea of setting up a day when librarians work like a patron. You use public computers, public restrooms and do everything as if you were a patron. This is an great way for empathizing and gaining a more patron-friendly perspective.
Patron feedback – Actually ask patrons what they think! I’m sure most libraries do this, but are you doing it enough? There are lots of ways to get patron feedback: surveys, focus groups, suggestion boxes, email, ethnographic studies, social media, etc. There is no such thing as talking to the patron too much. Continually question them, because the best way to understand our patrons is to ask them what their perspective is.
What ways do you use to see the library with fresh eyes?
Google’s pretty powerful, right? It’s the most popular search engine, owns the second most popular search engine (Youtube), and there’s Gmail, Docs, etc. It’s a conglomeration of a lot of different services into a single massive company. Google can do a lot of amazing stuff because it’s so big and has so much capital.
But Google’s just one company. There is also strength in numbers. One of the main strengths of libraries are their numbers. There are more public libraries in the U.S. than McDonald’s. Libraries may be much smaller than a company like Google, but because of that they can be much more focused. Google is trying to “organize the world’s information.” Libraries aren’t trying to do that. We’re trying to organize and provide access for information that’s relevant to our users.
Because there are a lot of small libraries serving different communities, we can provide resources that’s relevant to them. The Fletcher Free Library here in Burlington lends out gardening tools. This is because they know that there’s a lot of interest in home gardening in this area. Because libraries are small and many we can know our specific communities and deliver value from that knowledge.
Knowing our users is one of our big competitive advantages, so don’t forget to make use of it. In things like implementing new technologies, figure out what YOUR users are using. Are there a lot of smart phones or regular phones? Do they communicate via email, IM, or Facebook. At Champlain College we’re a fairly small school, but I know that a high number of our students are on Twitter (as of today we’re in the top ten on CampusTweet). But this is not true everywhere. Twitter might not be right for every community.
It’s also necessary to continually learn about your users. Don’t always assume that you know them. Do traditional things like suggestion boxes, surveys and old fashioned talking to people. But also, simply be curious about your users. Wander around, observe them, glance at what they’re doing on your computers. Also listen to what users are saying online. I have a post about how to go about that. I find out some of the most interesting things through some of the alerts I have set up.
To succeed at what we’re trying to do we need to realize what our strengths are and leverage them. One of our biggest strengths of libraries is the fact that they are small, many, and know their users.