Are We Learning Enough About Users?

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.

The reference desk at Bucknell's Learning Commons. via

The reference desk at Bucknell’s Learning Commons. via

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?

9 replies

  1. After getting a rather sour view of users in Intro to Archives during my first semester, this semester’s Reference Access Services class is offering a much friendlier perspective. As an archivist-to-be, I don’t often find the library classes to be directly relate-able. In the case with this semester’s class, even if I am not getting direct practice in developing a referencing skill set, I feel that I am getting a better perspective on user needs and problems. I also have to say that I find myself putting a value on the 5 years I spent working in the retail environment! Go figure.


  2. I find that the courses I took at Florida State University in LIS definitely focused on the needs of the user. Many of my professors argued that the survival of our profession rested on the happiness & engagement of the user, and that therefore librarians should make them our foremost priority.
    I also recently had the opportunity to complete an internship at one of the Smithsonian’s archives; my specific tasks were processing manuscripts and writing Finding Aids. Interestingly enough, my internship supervisor also put a strong emphasis on the user. She made it clear that the needs of the user come first when organizing and describing archive collections; everything should be processed in a way that further facilitates patron research.
    I guess in the end it depends on the culture of the university/ organization in regards to “patron appreciation.”


  3. You raise a really important aspect about libraries/archives. Users are essentially what these institutions were created for…providing equitable access to information to patrons. From my experience in library school, most of the library-oriented classes focused more on users such as access, reference, customer service, how to get more users etc. In comparison, the archive classes focused more on how to not only cater to the new types of users that the digital age has engendered, but how to adopt to the changing ways archival collections are created (digital).

    I agree with Jackie about her internship experiences at the Smithsonian. Archivists must use a processing approach which can facilitate access/research for not only the elite scholar, but also the average person seeking information.

    Either way, I think focusing too much on users in library school may be a costly mistake. There is so much to learn in the information science field that students should focus more on learning concepts, theories, systems, standards, etc…This will prove more valuable in such a competitive job market. On the issue of users, it should be more apparent that librarians/archivists should be exercise common sense when providing service.


  4. Interesting topic, I hadn’t thought much about it until this post. I am on the school library tract at URI, so our user is different and much of the program is focused on the students. Thinking back to the “generic” library classes I would say Reference was the only one that was focused on the user.


  5. I do think that experience is the best teacher, in this as it is in most things. Ideally, interwoven into all classes in library school should be the idea that making things easier/better/more helpful for your users should be your number one goal and the underlying principle for all your decisions, but maybe that’s more a series of small discussions in the course of other things, rather than a discrete topic to be studied?

    You know what would be really useful? Some info on how to systematically study the users at your own institution. I don’t think I’ve seen something like this yet, but I could see a lot of use for it.


  6. Users are not getting enough focus in Library Science/Archival programs, but this is an accurate reflection of how much attention users generally get in libraries and archives.

    Consider the retail environment: in the U.S., you can walk into almost any store in any town and immediately know what they sell and where to find any specific item within the building. Contrast this with the town’s public library, local historical society, or town archives; each of these are unique. They share many characteristics, but the building layouts and institutional rules change from location to location. That is the opposite of a user-focused institution; it puts the onus on the user to figure out the layout and rules of each specific location – this is difficult and unpleasant for people. No wonder so many choose to conduct research exclusively with materials accessible via the web!

    Given the situation, it makes sense that our education about users takes place on the job; each library and archives is unique, so you need to know how users behave in your specific environment, not how they behave in the library/archives across town.

    So, yes, there is a big problem in the profession; our mission statements focus on our users, but our actions (choosing unique buildings, adhering to different rules from location to location, and being generally confusing to the public) conflict with those missions. However, I do not know if Library Science/Archival programs are capable of instigating change on their own. Instead, practicing professionals must come together and make a sustained and coordinated effort to focus on and meet user needs.


  7. From an archives perspective I feel that we have to consider the two tracks possible — the reference desk/reading room and the conservation/collection management tracks. There probably has been an overemphasis on the latter due to the processing and care needs of special collections (and and underlying mistrust of users getting their grubby hands over everything) — perhaps changing now with a greater focus on minimal processing –, but archives are risking (even greater) irrelevancy if they are not thinking about how to support users/access better. @JackieSaav , that’s great to hear about how your supervisor underscored the importance of the user in processing and arrangement, but I also wonder if the Finding Aid is also something being overemphasized. In the audiovisual and media field there is an extra step prior to description for enabling access, and as I’ve discussed on our website regarding processing a/v collections the focus on materials/conservation is needed to support users better.


Leave a Reply to Meridith Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s