UX and Entrepreneurship in Library School

Things I never thought I’d do in library school:

1. Fall in love with a field that’s not LIS (Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience Design)

2. Co-found a tech start-up with a group of unlikely entrepreneurs

I look at this list, my inner critic says “You really drank the [insert my graduate program] Kool-Aid. You’re selling out for the prospects of a higher salary and the cult/myth of startups. I don’t even know you anymore.” I deal with this inner critic a lot, about a lot of things, but I’ve decided that, in regards to these two points of departure from What Librarians Should Do and Be, I will push back.

I’ve consciously chosen to pursue non-traditional library school experiences. HLSer Casey McCoy explains how studying non-traditional library courses in community informatics helped her get to the heart of her interest and impact as a librarian.  I’m with Casey.  I think studying outside of the traditional library courses and venturing into strange and scary territories (full of venture capitalists, MBAs, engineers, and legal folks), will have a profoundly positive effect on my trajectory in librarianship.

What I can take away from studying Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and starting a company in library school:

  • It’s all about uncertainty and change. I’ve put in hundreds of hours as a co-founder for a student-led start-up venture. From concept, to customer discovery, business plans, prototypes, pitches, and incubation from metro sponsors.  Even with all the work, our progress and our product can feel deeply precarious, like any moment, we could stop believe in it, and it could fall apart. How do we work together, when our team is spread out across the country? How do we balance our work on this new venture with our obligations to school, family, and more stable job prospects? How do we even develop a mobile app? Incorporate Negotiate an acquisition?   What I hope to takeaway, in my library work, is the ability to communicate with my team, to forge partnerships with new stakeholders, to explore the unknown with curiosity and a willingness to give and receive support through the process.
  • Let go of functions and concepts that don’t serve your users. It’s hard to let go of something that you’ve created with good intention. It could be an app feature, a library program, or a certain workflow. To see that it isn’t serving your core purpose and to be willing to pull in the necessary information and criticism to make changes is really difficult. It’s a struggle we face at the start-up, and it’s a core value that I’ve picked up from HCI: Iterative and user-centered design.  It’s also a process I hope to ingrain, in my practices as a librarian.
  • Advocate for libraries among non-librarians. In a class of industry-minded designers and developers or in a cohort of MBAs and engineering undergraduates, I’m often the only librarian in the room. It feels weird a lot of the time. I translate library issues into terms and experiences that they can relate to, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I can get outsiders to invest their time and expertise in libraries.
  • Learn how to flip non-library classes into valuable learning experiences. I’ve had the chance to collaborate with non-LIS students to solve library problems, and I’ve earned the critique and support of professors with expertise in artificial intelligence, product design, and marketing. A sample of hacks, from my non-library courses:
  • Graphic Design: Creating a branding package for a library analytics start-up
  • Interaction Design: Creating UI prototypes for a library website
  • Contextual Inquiry: Leading a usability and design investigation of the physical space/navigation of a research university library
  • Web Design: Creating a website for a global consortium of scholars
  • More to come: GIS, Drupal programming, Market Analytics, Project Management, Information Architecture.

Two things worth noting too: It’s no secret to the students that my school offers incredible resources and support to those interested in UX/HCI and entrepreneurship. For example, part of my decision to pursue a start-up venture was the potential to travel to big cities to pitch for big names in libraries, education, and tech. Resources can definitely factor in to the course of your non-traditional pursuits.

Also, at same time that I’m pushing for new experiences, I also have the privilege of building more traditional skills, with my appointment at a university library. And my development as a UX professional is grounded in my nearly ten years of experience in library user services and community outreach. You probably have this foundation too. Library UXer Courtney Greene McDonald articulates it best,”[W]orking in libraries is user experience work, period—all of our work comes together to become how people experience the library.” If you’ve ever worked in customer service or library user services, you have all that you need to start exploring library UX.

One thing I like to remember is that I do these things to become a better librarian, or to become more of a librarian, if that makes sense. Because the heart of my interest in librarianship isn’t becoming an expert of a subject-specific collection, or of a classification system or technology, it’s striving to be an effective and resilient advocate for my library community.

What’s on your Things I Never Thought I’d Do In Library School list and what are your big takeaways from those experiences? Or what out-of-the-box thing do you wish you could do while in library school?


7 replies

  1. Christina, I just wanted to say this is awesome! LIS is all about adaptability and that’s just what you are doing. You’ve reminded my of one of my stagnant goals of building my knowledge of UX. Any tips on building my graphic design skills if my program doesn’t offer those kinds of classes?


  2. The main thing I never thought I’d do was completely lose my idea of what I wanted to do in the field. When I started my program I was certain I wanted to be a digital librarian in an academic library. Now that I am nearing the half way point I have learned about so many appealing options that I don’t even know which way to go anymore. I never would have predicted that happening.

    You piqued my interest about Human-Computer interaction. About to lose a few hours reading up on it. 😀


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