Thursday, January 5, 2017

You've seen it all

Earlier in the week Jacob Berg, friend of the Unified Library Scene, made a point about SciHub as a phenomenon.
I chewed on this idea for a couple of days and yesterday I had a tweet storm that I ended up deciding needed to be a blog post.

The thing that I kept turning over in my mind is that libraries implement a lot of solutions and workflows meant to help their users that were created without actual user input. And while I applaud the impulse that librarians have to implement systems, structures, and tools to help library users, I do think that excluding them from the design, development, and testing phases is a little short-sighted. Especially because our best intentions lead us to crate things that require that we create research guides and tutorials in order for them to be useful to our end users.

I feel like this impulse to exclude the user from the design, development, and testing phases of a library resource or service is a holdover from the time when librarians were both literal and figurative gatekeepers within the library. For many years, we've stood at reference desks and in classrooms as the sage on the stage, teaching people how to access the information that we have acquired and described. And while this was probably never a good idea, it definitely isn't how people interact with information anymore. Regardless of how you feel about the document, one of the things that ACRL's Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education really crystallized for me is that information comes from many places at this point in time--not just the library--and an information literate person knows how to make the most of information in whatever place they find it.

So if being a useful library isn't about being a storehouse full of information kept safe by a gatekeeper, it seems like we should invite our library's users to become co-creators of the systems, structures, and tools meant for their benefit. To do that, though, we have to understand--really understand--what our users need and want. And in order to understand what our users need and want from us, we have to listen to them. And I don't just mean conducting an annual State of the Library survey. Yes, those surveys are good for getting a broad picture of what your user community things you're doing well or doing poorly. But you're wasting your time if you don't use that information as a jumping off point to gather additional, more targeted information.

I think you also have to engage your user communities in more direct ways. Host focus groups with your user communities. Show up at meetings in your community and get to know their actual concerns. Hire an anthropologist to teach you how to conduct effective observational studies to understand the habits of your user communities. And as you engage your user communities, listen more than you talk.

And, yes. When you listen to your user communities they're going to hurt your feelings by telling you about how your tools and processes are hard to use. They're going to tell you that you aren't relevant to their life and you don't meet their needs. You know what? Listen to that feedback and sit with your discomfort, but don't take it personally. Hear what people are telling you about what they actually want, what they actually need.

And yes. When you listen to your user communities, you're going to have the urge to tell teach them something that it would easier to use a particular service or tool. You're going to want to say, 'using [x] would be easier if you only knew [y].' I get it. You want to make things easier for them. But resist this urge, because your user communities aren't broken. What they're telling you is that if you have to tell them [y] in order to effectively use [x], then it isn't a good solution.

True engagement with user communities is hard. But creating structures, systems, and services intended for their use without their input is a waste of everyone's time and resources.

Stay positive,

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