Nearly everyone who has ever worked in a library or has experience in library work has encountered the following statement: “So, you work in a library. What exactly do you do?”
Personally, It’s one of my favourite questions to answer, not only because I get to express my passion for library work and working with the public, but because the opportunity has presented itself for me to explain that libraries are more than just books — libraries provide so much more than just books. This is definitely still a common misconception that people have about libraries, but as the world evolves technologically, socially, and physically, libraries do so too.
Absolutely, libraries have books! But they also have computer classes, storytime for youngsters, programs that range in topic from travel to cooking — there’s a reason that there’s an “@ your library” campaign: it’s because libraries can provide so much to their community. Even when I’m not actually working at the library, it’s the first place I think to go when I need access to resources.
Modern media loves to distort the picture of the library, adhering to that age-old image that libraries are dark, dusty, and filled with volumes upon volumes of books, but the modern library is so far from that now. Libraries have changed with the world around them, and a huge part is that libraries are embracing how to provide the best service to their patrons. As the world rapidly changes around us, we, as future information professionals and librarians must work with that change and provide our patrons with the best possible user experience.
The specific term ‘user experience’ (UX) wasn’t something I had ever connected with library work. Yeah, libraries are there to provide information, to serve the public or their selected network, to provide access to materials for little or no cost, but what is it about libraries that make them so important to a community, so fundamentally integral to the public? When I enrolled in library school at the University of Washington, I hadn’t even considered a career in user experience, even though it was fundamental to what it is that I want to do in libraries. But as I’m wrapping up my first year as an MLIS candidate, when I consider what I’ve done in the past in libraries (working at the public service desk) and my passion for public service, it’s blatantly obvious that user experience is what I’m passionate about. Libraries are all about the user; and I want to make sure libraries are providing the best possible service to them.
This provoked a curious line of thought: how do libraries best cater to those that use library services? I’ve worked at three different public libraries and visited many, many more — it’s a geeky librarian trait that I embrace. I love seeing how libraries in different geographical locations work and what kind of services they’re eager to provide. When I moved to a new city, one of the first things that I did was check out all of the libraries in the area, because I find the way that libraries serve the same purpose but with different emphases in mind fascinating. There are libraries that put their children’s area near the entrance, to display their emphasis on children’s services; other libraries will put their information or reference desk front and center. Some libraries have private study rooms that patrons can ‘check out’ and use, and these are all integral to patron experience. These libraries did research on their patrons and their community, and updated their services accordingly, all for their patrons. This needs to be emphasized, because it’s one of the pillars of library work: we’re here to help those that use our libraries, the patrons.
A wonderful article by Hattie James titled Libraries May Outlive More Than Just Books expands on this and speaks of the library of the future, detailing the changes that libraries are making to best cater to their patrons. In a world where technology is so prevalent, e-books and e-services are becoming increasingly commonplace. Computers in libraries are almost a given in today’s day and age, but what’s also being added are more plugs for electronics, USB ports for charging, and separate ‘tech-oriented’ study areas, where patrons have access to projectors and smartboards.
User experience encompasses so much and is so public-oriented, which is exactly why I am excited by it. Admittedly, I’m early into my school career and have a ways to go until graduation, but there’s a lot to be learned about user experience, not only in the classroom but also through practice. That’s what excites me about it. Understanding patron needs is just as important as other library functions, and it’s potentially one of the trickiest. As outlined in the book Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library, user experience is a complex but necessary part of library work. A lot of items that are considered to be components of user experience are also just general aspects of library work: providing accurate, friendly service; ensuring that patrons have access to materials; having a functioning website.
Without considering user experience, a library can’t flourish. As the basis of the library is providing a necessary and useful service to the public, that’s what libraries should be striving to do through their internal design, training process, and hiring of new employees. Libraries are a community hub, and the information professionals that work within them should strive to provide the best possible service to their community.