Well into my second semester of library school, I find myself still recovering from a bit of metaphorical whiplash I picked up in the fall.
You see, I’m not sure how to feel about users.
I know it sounds like a no-brainer. Without users, after all, our workplaces would be nothing but big empty information warehouses.
But when it comes to users, it seems like there’s a contrast within MLS programs. In my library classes, there was a good amount of talk about user needs. Meanwhile, in my archive classes, users got little more than a passing mention. And fair enough- as any first year student will tell you, libraries aren’t archives and archives aren’t libraries. They’re two different types of places. But they both have users, and anyone working in the field needs to be able to understand them.
And given my recent internship experience, this got me thinking. Programs are getting more focused and regimented, both online and in classroom settings, and students take fewer classes outside of their specializations. I wondered- are we getting enough user focus?
So I did what any good social science dork would do in this situation. I asked a bunch of complete strangers! Armed with social media, an anonymous Google form, and a plug from Kate at ArchivesNext, I asked students and professionals what they felt their program’s attitude towards users was or had been. A total of 99 good sports took my survey, from all over the professional map (though more than half had an archives background- the dangers of snowball sampling!).
A few expected trends showed in the results- those in the public and academic library fields, as well as information science, the user came first. And archivists generally spoke of having little discussion about users during the course of their programs. However, students and people who had completed their degrees within the past two years showed a tendency to see users as both the reason for our existence AND a bit tedious.
Of course there are outliers. Within both library and archives specialties, there were people who said their programs played against type- either not focusing on users in the library context, or focusing on the importance of users in the archives.
Nearly everyone who responded to the survey reported that their own stance was to put the users first, which is encouraging. And overwhelmingly, respondents said that they learned the most about users through their on the job experience.
What this little survey taught me was that my experience so far isn’t unique. Taken as a whole, there seems to be no standardized approach to users across programs. But should there be? As we move away from more broad-based curricula and into specializations which might de-emphasize skills such as reference and reader’s advisory, should something else fill the void? Or is the best place for education about users truly the workplace?
What do you think? Do you feel like your program emphasizes users enough? Too much?