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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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Using Social Media To Demonstrate Value

Higher education is increasingly putting more emphasis on evidence and assessment. Libraries everywhere, whether public, special, school, or academic, are feeling more pressure to demonstrate their value to administrators, boards, politicians, and their constituents. Megan Oakleaf, a professor at the iSchool at Syracuse University, wrote an excellent report entirely on this topic called The Value of Academic Libraries.

One strategy she emphasizes is gathering evidence. But evidence doesn’t just have to be surveys or numbers. It can also be anecdotes and stories. One thing that she said in a workshop I participated in this summer was that “a story is just a story until you write it down.” Once it’s recorded it becomes evidence and you can use it to demonstrate value to a variety of stakeholders.

It occurred to me that there is already data available to libraries that we may not recognize as such. Tweets, Facebook posts, and online reviews can be great tools in demonstrating value.

tweet demonstrating value

One of the great strengths of social media is that it is by nature recorded. It’s not a spoken conversation that disappears into the ether. It is a record of something that happened and can be used as evidence.

The above tweet is just one example. Not only did this tweet demonstrate the value of the library to this person’s followers and any other people who saw it (not to mention was the best kind of free marketing you can get). It can also be used to demonstrate to administrators or professors that the library contributes to academic success.

I’m guessing just one tweet or Facebook post won’t make a difference, but if your library is using social media I am guessing posts like these happen more than once. The key is to watch for them and intentionally collect them. You might have a “Praise” of “Kudos” folder in your email or on your hard drive. When someone says something great you or your library did you save it. The same should be true with social media posts. Don’t just smile at a positive post and then let it pass by. Create a system to save these posts whether it’s favoriting them, bookmarking them or capturing a screenshot. Then you’ll have them collected when it comes time to make your case.

You can then use them in a variety of places: interspersed through your annual report, in presentations to the board or faculty senate, in promotional ads or materials. But in order to do that you first need to recognize that social media posts are evidence and then have a system set up to capture them.

5

Serving Users and The Element of Surprise

Every year we have a library retreat at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. It’s a really relaxing, reflective environment and it’s always productive. This week, one of the conversations that we were having out there centered on our service philosophy and how we go about serving our users. This meant serving them in person, via chat, in the classroom, on our website, etc.

Our team had a lot of great insights, especially in talking about our reference interactions. In reflecting on how I wanted my service to look, I realized that I dont want to simply satisfy them or give them a positive experience. I want to surprise them. I want users to walk away from a reference question thinking “wow, I didn’t realize how much time asking a librarian saved me.” I want students in a class to think “this person is a librarian? This class was actually fun and I learned something useful!”

And sometimes this happens. This semester a student came up to me when I was wandering through the library and we had something resembling the following conversation:

Student: “Can I ask you something?”
Me: “Sure, what do you want to know?”
Student: “Why do you librarians always smile so much? You seem so happy.”
Me: (smiles) “Huh, I guess we just really love what we do. Thanks for saying such a nice thing.”

Surprise is all about doing things that are unexpected. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath state that one of the factors that can contribute to an idea or experience being sticky is if it is unexpected. People may not expect librarians to be smiling all the time. Perhaps they had different experiences other places they’ve been. Students may not expect library instruction sessions to be fun and engaging. Maybe they’ve seen boring lectures before. Students may not expect a librarian to be non-judgmental and amazingly helpful in a reference encounter. When these things do happen it creates a very memorable experience.

Steven Bell did an excellent conference paper presentation at ACRL this year about this. In his paper he outlines strategies to deliver a “WOW user experience.” He points out that student expectations for libraries are actually fairly low. In fact students sometimes even think it will be a painful experience. According to the literature there are students that have library anxiety. It makes surprising students that much easier.

The element of surprise is a powerful weapon. It makes experiences very memorable. If you are able to surprise the people you’re serving, then you’ll likely have people who keep coming back and maybe even tell their friends.