by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University
Here’s something upon which we can agree. When someone comes in contact with our libraries, whether it’s in person, by phone, web, chat or whatever touchpoint you can identify, that individual – and you can call that person a patron, user, reader, client, customer or whatever you choose – is going to have a library experience. We may not know exactly what will happen once this person connects with their library and library staff. We do know they will engage at some level with a place, people, objects or technology that constitutes their everyday experience of living. The quality of that experience, for better or worse, is up to the library staff.
Each one of these library experiences, occurring at one or more of our many touchpoints, is going to fall somewhere on the user experience spectrum between “best experience ever” and “worst experience ever”. In my many years of studying and discussing library user experiences, I’ve stressed that it’s neglectful to allow library experiences to occur randomly. Design is all about intent. Library experiences should be the outcome of intent. What is the experience we want people to have at our library and what can be done to best facilitate the delivery of that experience?
Keeping in mind that everyone experiences the world in a somewhat unique way and that it’s impossible to design one experience that satisfies everyone, how might we design our libraries to facilitate the best possible experience for the majority of the people in our communities.
That’s why I was intrigued by the global theme unveiled by OCLC for 2023: Redefining the Library Experience (RLE). My initial thought was that OCLC was returning to a past interest in user experience (UX) design for libraries. At the 2009 American Library Association Conference, in Chicago, OCLC sponsored a seminar that featured UX consultant Joseph Michelli giving a presentation about user experience and how it could help libraries to better meet the needs of community members. I served on a response panel that followed Michelli’s presentation.
Back then, there was limited discussion in the library profession about user experience. Unlike today, the UX librarian was an unknown position in this field. I was intrigued that UX was getting this high profile exposure at an ALA conference. Michelli had written several books about companies and organizations that served as roadmaps for how user experience could be applied to libraries – which was nothing short of a radical idea at the time.
The reaction of most librarians at the time was…meh. They questioned why the library needed to be an “experience”. That UX stuff was for places like Starbucks and the Pike Place Fish Market, not libraries. Afterall, people visited libraries and used its materials for the most mundane of life’s activities and transactions, reading, finding facts and figures, job hunting and occasional research projects. Hardly the stuff of Disney entertainment properties.
Curious about what exactly OCLC intended with RLE, and what exactly this new initiative would have as its focus, I reviewed the webpage and then took the global survey (now closed]) This enabled me to better understand that this was not a return to user experience, but rather an exploration of how libraries were offering new types of services that challenged the traditional user perception of the library as a content provider. This brought to mind OCLC’s 2005 Perception of Libraries research that declared, as far as the public was concerned, the library’s brand was books. Would RLE be different and how so?
To learn more I attended an OCLC webinar that featured a panel of librarians from four different countries sharing how they were redefining the experience at their libraries. I thought that would provide deeper insight into the nature of the RLE theme. Each panelist described an innovative service or resource they offered that could challenge any layperson’s perception of their local library experience. Most would likely diverge from the average individual’s library experience – or their perception of that experience. Were any of the profiled services truly innovative? Watch the recording and judge for yourself.
Many, not all, libraries are making the effort to explore and design new, innovative programs and services. Whether it’s 3D printing, educational or cultural programming for learning new skills and ideas, borrowing objects in addition to books and media, drag story times, writing groups or any of the completely unexpected experiences you can find at libraries these days, will they move the needle away from content and in the direction of experiences? I certainly hope so because what frustrates us librarians is coming up with the great, innovative ideas only to have them underutilized or unrecognized by our communities.
Librarians benefit from having a good sense of what their communities want and need. If we’re designing experiential opportunities that no one cares about or wants, those innovations deserve to fail. On the other hand, we also need to experiment with new possibilities and offer programs and services that could catch on and gain popularity.
Our goal should be to imagine how our libraries, academic and otherwise, can locally accomplish RLE. When we do so, it should be with the library experience in mind. That experience should be more than simply accessing the services and resources. Let’s go beyond just redefining the experience. Let’s commit to making the library a memorable experience at every touchpoint. For those who use libraries that means less pain and more gain.
Creating an experience starts with the library user, patron, customer – or whatever you want to call them – as long as it prioritizes their needs and wants over what is most convenient for the library staff. As a profession, we’ve dabbled in library UX for a fair amount of time now. I’m excited about this OCLC RLE theme. While the focus appears geared more towards library service innovation than expanding UX awareness among librarians, it might just be the motivation we need to move to a stronger commitment to designing libraries around the experience we’d want ourselves if we were everyday library users.
I’m looking forward to the release of the report based on the Redefining the Library Experience global survey. OCLC has announced a June 15, 2023 online session at which the results will be shared. I hope it will establish a call to action for libraries to refocus their efforts to put the user experience as the core of their operations. That’s a start. The exact nature of the experience will differ for each library, but it should result from an intentional design process. Reports are good. Librarians also need tools, techniques and support to help them put into practice those strategies to best facilitate the experience of using the redefined library. Let’s see what RLE has to offer.
About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib