The Library in the Life of the User

I had the privilege last week of attending the OCLC Research Partners Meeting on  The Library in the Life of the User – We shared reports on the current state of user research, with a particular focus on qualitative methods – interviews about work practice, mapping excercises, observational studies. While these studies are yielding some fascinating insights into how our users are finding and organizing their research, the most provocative talks pushed us to think beyond what users are currently doing and imagining what they could be doing. And how libraries can best share those stories.

Lorcan Dempsey

Dempsey, Chief of Strategy for OCLC Research, provided the opening keynote for the meeting. He reminds us that libraries are not ends in themselves, but serve the research and learning needs of their users. The major long term influence on libraries is how those needs change.  To be effective, libraries need to understand and respond to those changes.

  • Increasingly, schools are defining their mission in particularly ways: land grant institution, career, research university
  • They are moving from operating like a bureaucracy to one of entrepreneurship
  • There is an increasing demand for analytics and assessment to demonstrate impact

As these aspects shift, how do we collaborate differently with the intuition, aligning the libraries vision and objectives to those of the organization?

Paul-Jervis Heath

Heath is not a librarian. His insights into user research come from the perspective of a user experience designer. He is a principal with the company Modern Human, a design practice and innovation consultancy. When librarians look at a service, we must ask,

  • How do the parts of this experience relate to one another?
  • What is the share of this thing?
  • What is the value that this thing will deliver?

The basic expectation for experience is it be understandable, interesting and useful. Exceptional experiences, and Spotify was an example he used, are compelling and indispensable.

Joan Lippincott – Beyond Ethnography

Lippincott is Co-Director of the Coalition for Networked Information. She is well-known as an expert in learning spaces design. She asks us to think beyond what students are doing now, and think about what they could be doing in the future. Are we asking the right questions? She asks, if the user community don’t know what we are doing now, how can they tell us what the future should look like? And the recurrent theme, “Are we aligning our services, spaces, and technology with the university’s teaching & learning and research aspirations? She sums up: “Ask good questions that will yield meaningful, actionable responses.”

Stanley Wilder Mixed Methods and Mixed Impacts What’s Next for Library-based User Needs Research?

Wilder is the Dean of Libraries at Louisiana State University. He had the difficult task of speaking last when the crowd was over-saturated with information and ideas. He was up to the challenge. He spoke from the perspective of the library administrator, requesting that the user research function of the library consider more broadly the kind of data and mixed methods they can draw up. Card swipes, transaction data are examples. He asked us to “follow the money”. If half of our budget is spent on collections, let’s be sure to understand how those collections are used.

I would agree with his assertion that we don’t have the data points to tell the story we want to tell. If we continue to allow “print circulation to serve as a proxy as an indication of our usefulness, we will not survive the scrutiny of campus administrators.” On the other hand, if the library can serve as the “go to” place for our deep understanding of how faculty and students do their work, our essential role within the university is made all the stronger.

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