Steven Bell recently posted about a retreat he attended with his public service colleagues. In the post he shared a great video of a presentation by Seth Godin called “Why Things are Broken.”
Godin discusses various like road signs, bike racks, or a million dollar laser cutter and they’re all broken. The video got me thinking about things that are broken in libraries. How many paper signs do you have up that explain how something works, or why you have a specific policy? There are plenty of pictures and posts about bad library signs. I know at our library we have some really old signs up that I’m sure us librarians don’t even notice anymore, but probably are unnecessary or could be updated.
How many policies really frustrate the people you are supposed to be serving? A no food in the library policy is one that I think is really broken. Sometimes you have good reasons for policies. We don’t let scissors leave the desk because our magazines keep getting chopped up. Perhaps some libraries don’t allow food because they have some rare materials that are irreplaceable. But articulate WHY these policies are in place, and look for exceptions (e.g. you can eat food on the first floor).
One library recently realized that their classification system was broken and decided to do something about it. [UPDATED: this article was supposed to be humorous, see the comments] The College of Eastern Nevada decided to abandon their outdated classification system in favor of something more familiar to their users…a Netflix categorization model!
Don’t be constrained by the past. Try to see the library with fresh eyes. Take a look around your library and ask yourself what’s broken? You might be surprised at all the improvements you can make.
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?
In Borders the other day I happened upon this display. Glancing at it, I figured “oh, looks like they’re hocking the Twilight books pretty hard still.”
But on closer inspection, that wasn’t the whole story. There was a Twilight book or two in the vicinity, but the books they were hocking were a bit older. In fact, they were classics. Playing on the black and red cover styles of the Twilight books, they had Wuthering Heights with the tagline “Love Never Dies,” and a sticker that lets you know it’s “Bella & Edwards favorite book.” They had Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the tagline, “The Original Forbidden Love…”
They were attempting to fleece young people into reading classic literature. Kind of a good idea. There’s that hackneyed adage about not judging a book by it’s cover, but that’s exactly what everyone does. People who enjoy Twilight have probably read all the books by now, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to read. Repackaging classics into thicker volumes with larger print and a flashy cover just might get young people to read these fine works of art. Most of the time it’s all about appearances.
How can libraries steal this idea? How can we change the appearance of something to make it more appealing or relevant to users. An example might be your library’s website. There’s good content and useful tools on there, but maybe the way they’re displayed isn’t exciting or makes users turn to something easier.
Perhaps by reformatting the website content, making it prettier and more interactive, users might be more inclined to navigate to your website and stick around for a while.
Are there other ways we can change the appearance of something, either physically or online, to increase usage?