Three Ways Libraries Can Be Different

In a recent post I discussed the importance of differentiation to the process of designing a user experience. So how exactly could a library differentiate itself from other providers of information such as Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and even Twitter – now being touted as a search engine? In the minds of our user communities the library may already be differentiated, but not in a good way. The library is likely perceived, in comparison to these other services, as being mostly about the printed book, less convenient and less technologically sophisticated. While the library is less convenient – quality research does takes time – it certainly is about far more than books and many are innovating with technology. How do we eliminate the negative differential factors and replace them with more positive ones?

In this post I’d like to suggest three things we librarians can do to position the library as substantially different from those other organizations that gather information for retrieval:

* Totality
* Meaning
* Relationships

The good news is that most libraries already have some areas of their operation that deliver a good user experience. It may be a service desk where the customer service is outstanding. Or the experience of getting from the front door to the stack location where a needed book is found is pleasantly unexpected; let’s face it, many people probably look forward to finding books in the library as much as they do a visit to an IRS audit. The challenge in designing a library experience is achieving totality. That means delivering a good experience, one that really exceeds user expectations, at all the points where the user touches the library. That includes using the library website, the online catalog, getting a DVD, finding today’s edition of the local paper, and much more. But think about your library. Do users have a great experience at all of these touchpoints or are many of them broken? Admittedly, with limited resources it’s unlikely any library could eliminate everything that’s broken, but we need to think in terms of a total experience and doing what we can to make sure as much as possible works well and blends together for maximum totality.

Meaning is a vague concept. What exactly does it mean to deliver a meaningful experience, and wouldn’t every person have a different sense of what is meaningful to him or her? As you go about designing a user experience that seeks to deliver meaning to members of your user community I suggest that you first read the book Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences. To help the reader better understand how meaning can be delivered the authors relate a study of thousands of individuals around the globe who were asked what creates meaning for them. Fifteen attributes of meaning were identified. As I read about them I see many types of meaning that libraries and librarians deliver every day: accomplishment; beauty; creation; community; enlightenment; freedom; truth; wonder. We help students accomplish academic success. Libraries help people discover beauty through books about art and nature. We provide information that helps researchers create new knowledge. Libraries are a cornerstone of their communities. In all these ways libraries bring meaning to people. What we need to do better is harness this power and integrate it into a well-designed experience. The current economic crisis, in which individuals are shifting their priorities from materialism to meaning may be a time of great opportunity for libraries.

Creating relationships with members of the user community comes naturally to librarians. I don’t doubt that nearly every library worker has established some great relationships in the course of their careers. The building of relationships intersects with providing meaningful experiences. For many individuals a relationship is a source of meaning. Of the many different resources people might use to acquire information only the library can provide a real relationship. Someone Googling for the population of Switzerland doesn’t get disappointed because he or she has no one to make a personal connection with at Google. The same goes for libraries. Not everyone needs a relationship for every library transaction. But the more often library workers can reach out to the user community and establish even a small personal connection, that can make a difference. Creating relationships requires that we understand our users and their concerns, and identify the commonalities between their issues and our own. For example, both faculty and librarians share the goal of wanting students to achieve academic success, stay matriculated and graduate on time. Shared goals like these can serve as the foundation for building a relationship.

Creating a total user experience, creating meaning for others, and creating new relationships are all hard jobs. It’s easy to camp out in the library waiting for users to come for help. It takes little effort to answer their question propmtly or politely direct them to the microforms section. What does take considerable effort is getting out of the library and into the community in order to better understand the users and their needs. Seeing the library from the user’s perspective and trying to identify and fix what is broken is hard work as well. But I think if we can do these things it will be well worth the effort. In the long run it will help to differentiate the library from all those other information providers, and being different is an important step on the long road to designing a better library user experience.

5 thoughts on “Three Ways Libraries Can Be Different”

  1. Yes. Yes. This is wonderful concepts and themes to implement in the library environment. As you said, what I especially like is that it can be done immediately and without cost.

    What I’d like to know is how you find the time to read such interesting books.

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