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Libraries Are In The Curiosity Business

I was at a conference last month and during a roundtable discussion one of the participants related that his dentist asked him about the future of libraries. The dentist wanted to know if there would be a library at all when his daughter went to college. People wonder if libraries will still be around in 10 or 20 years.

I can’t say I know what the future will be, but I did have an answer to his question. My periodontist’s office burned to the ground in a fire and they were without a home for several months. Finally they were able to set up temporary offices a few miles away. When I went to the new spot it was very different from other dentist offices I had visited. They had a really pleasant waiting room and when I got into the examination room they had massive LCD screens with my information and x-rays all ready to go. They had some really relaxing (non-elevator) music playing. When I sat in the chair I noticed something different there too. They hygienist told me that the chair was softly massaging my back and she could turn it off if it bothered me. It blew me away.

They had changed the experience of going to the dentist from one of annoyance and discomfort (and sometimes even fear) into something pleasant and comfortable. By paying attention to the experience they were able to overcome my  expectations and even surprise and delight me.

My answer to the question about what is the future of libraries was that similar to my new dentist’s office libraries evolve and adapt and improve. The best libraries are the ones that are most aware of and responsive to their community and it’s needs. Those are the libraries are doing amazing things. Libraries will not be the same in 10 or 20 years. If they didn’t change and weren’t responsive they wouldn’t last long.

Dentists are not going to run out of business anytime soon as they are in the mouth business and there are no lack of mouths. They do need to grow, improve, and make use of the latest technology though, to stay competitive. Libraries on the other hand are in the curiosity business. I don’t see human curiosity and desire to learn going away anytime soon. The way people learn is changing, but by paying attention to the experience of users and being responsive to their needs, libraries will be around for a long time.

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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.