User Experience Librarian – The Next Bandwagon?

Over at Ubiquitous Librarian, Brian pointed to a few academic libraries, including his own, that have created new positions that are being described as “User Experience Librarian.” I’m not sure what to make of this, and I wonder if it is the start of a fad that will attract some bandwagon jumpers. It certainly does sound like a cool job that would likely attract some attention.

But based on the descriptions I’ve read it seems the tendency is to take a traditional public service job with traditional responsibilities, such as reference and instruction, add a dash of assessment or usability testing and then slap the title “User Experience” on it. For example, one of the position descriptions says “a User Experience Librarian to provide leadership for digital initiatives and services in the user, reference, and instructional programs of the library”. Hmm, nothing in there about taking leadership for understanding users, developing empathic-driven services or creating a library environment that provides memorable experiences.

I also detect a significant Web 2.0 and usability testing component to these positions. Web 2.0 does not equal creating good user experiences in libraries. An Emerging Technologies Librarian does not equal a UX Librarian. A Usability/Interface Design Librarian does not equal a UX Librarian. I wonder if the library administrators creating these positions really understand the concept of the user experience and if these positions will really be geared to developing great user experiences or designing better libraries. Or is this just a case of “they did it so we should do it too” thinking.

So what exactly should a position description for a UX Librarian read like. Well, I’m not entirely sure and I’ve been doing a good amount of reading and studying on this topic. I also examined some non-library UX job descriptions and the description for a Usability/User Experience Specialist that U.S. News & World Report profiled in their recent special report on “best careers for 2008”. But let me take a crack at developing a UX Librarian position description:

Library seeks an individual who understands and is able to articulate what a great library user experience should be, and who has the desire and ability to translate that knowledge into practice. Our ideal candidate will engage colleagues to develop innovative ideas that will turn our library into the campus destination where students WANT to be and create passionate library users who WANT to use our resources. As our user experience specialist this librarian makes sure our services and instructional products are both easy and pleasurable to use. The UX Librarian has demonstrated experience in observing and interviewing both current and potential library users to developing an inventory of user needs and preferences. Shifting library services and products from the mundane to the unexpected and memorable is a core responsibility of this position. The UX Librarian also brings to the library a perspective of totality in developing a user experience; the library experience must be consistent across all library services points, non-public operations and extend out into the user community. Past experience with a variety of survey and assessment methods, including user satisfaction surveys, focus groups, one-on-one interviewing and anthropological research techniques is highly desirable. Other desirable qualities include knowledge of design thinking methods, demonstrated knowledge of the user experience literature, and degrees or demonstrated experience in fields such as computer science, cognitive pyschology, anthropology, human factors research or marketing.

If this was the type of job description we were seeing for UX Librarians I think one problem becomes obvious. There probably aren’t too many librarians, maybe no one with an MLS degree, who has the right experience to do this job. Perhaps developing UX Librarians is going to be an “on-the-job” development exercise for this specialty. Just as we’ve been exploring what a great library user experience means here at DBL, we should also start thinking about what it means to be a UX Librarian. And it may be that the right individuals for these positions shouldn’t even be librarians, but professionals from other fields who have the necessary training and experience.

Perhaps the good thing about libraries developing UX Librarian positions is that their early experience will help to define the job. Though the tone of my post may at times sound skeptical or critical, I’m taking the appearance of these new positions as a positive sign that librarians are beginning to recognize the value of UX and intend to take it seriously as a path to designing a better library. It’s exciting to see libraries creating both Blended Librarian and UX Librarian positions; it’s truly encouraging that these ideas and practices are moving into the mainstream of librarianship. Now what we need to do is to further our knowledge and understanding of what makes a great library user experience – it’s more than just excellent customer service – so that we can begin to create positions that will have a serious shot at achieving UX success in the library.

10 thoughts on “User Experience Librarian – The Next Bandwagon?”

  1. Fantastic post. I’ve also been tracking this new trend because I’m one of those Usability/Interface Design Librarians for a digital library. Even though my job description isn’t as explicit as your description, I do consider UX to be one of my responsibilities.

    I hire a few interns every semester from the UM School of Information to work on various library usability projects. The majority of them are specializing in HCI (human-computer interaction) and very few are LIS students. My impression is that LIS students don’t feel they have the technical background to tackle the HCI topics or even that they don’t realize this type of job in a library is even an option. And most HCI students aren’t particularly interested in working for the library (beyond a semester internship). Even though these students get the same degree (MSI) they are pursuing drastically different career paths.

  2. My worry: If you get a UX librarian, then maybe everybody else in the library feels like they are off the hook when it comes to improving service.

    My hope: That the UX job duties include training and empowering everybody else in the library for improving service. Everybody in the library should know how their work impacts the user, how to assess if the desired impacts are achieved or not, and how to make needed improvements. The UX librarian should be mostly in a consulting and leadership role.

  3. I suppose my library might be jumping on the bandwagon, but my Director and I have had a lot of discussions about re-titling my current position (which is simply Librarian at this time) to better reflect what it is I do in my library. What I do is develop services that will encourage our students to actually use the library and its resources. I’ve implemented everything from chat reference and embedded librarian programs to drop-in workshops and book club discussions. It isn’t so much about the tools as it is about the experience.

    When my Director and I first discussed my title, we thought about Outreach Librarian, but I’m also responsible for technology. Then we thought of Digital Services Librarian, but I don’t rely on technology for everything. When we heard of other libraries having UX Librarians, it seemed like a perfect fit. So while I agree that the UX Librarian title might be the current fad and incorrectly used at many libraries, in my case it does a great job of actually telling someone what it is that I do everyday.

    Of course, coming up with a new title is one thing. Getting our administration to officially change it is another. 🙂

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