“I came to the library to get some information, not to have a conversation with the librarian” or, “The user experience in the library”

I found the website for the Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction while looking around for some information on usability.  The site is about “human-centred aspects of technology” (from the About page) and I thought at first that allot of the information in here might be of use for librarians interested in Web and Library 2.0 issues.  However, I have come across a few interesting articles recently which sort of tied in with this topic, so here are a few rambling thoughts on the topic of the user experience as it relates to libraries, and a few (amateurish) ideas about how to improve user experience.

How do users of the library experience the library, it’s services, and interactions with staff?

The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (or ERIAL) findings to be published soon, found that students generally were fairly wasteful when it came to using information resources – they knew where the information was, but did not have the skills to access it properly, or understand the results of searches.  In an article about the ERIAL findings in InsideHigherEd.com (22.08.2011), titled What students don’t know,

Only seven out of 30 students whom anthropologists observed at Illinois Wesleyan “conducted what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search,” wrote Duke and Andrew Asher, an anthropologist at Bucknell University…  Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times — more than twice as many times as any other database…  but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results.

What students don’t know / Steve Kolowich, 22.08.2011, viewed 25.08.2011, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/08/22/erial_study_of_student_research_habits_at_illinois_university_libraries_reveals_alarmingly_poor_information_literacy_and_skills

This isn’t really a new finding and shouldn’t surprise anyone.  The fact that it does surprise anyone might have something to do with the fact that librarians are looking at information behaviour from the perspective of what librarians believe should be happening, rather than from what is happening.  As an example, while studying LIS I wanted to find information about how people actually looked for information, rather than just look at what my reference and research textbooks suggested was the way it should be done.  I knew I didn’t follow a clear path to writing essays or putting information together, and I suspected I wasn’t the only one.

Finally I came across an article The paradoxical world of young people’s information behaviour  by Andrew K. Shenton (School Libraries Worldwide, vol 13, no 2, July 2007).  I suggest you read it.  One of the mind-blowing statements of Shenton’s is contained just a few paragraphs into the article where he suggests that many of the things librarians are implementing in the library to help the facilitation of information retrieval and utilisation are actually acting as “barriers” to ordinary people, especially students, when using the library.  Reading something like that for the first time when you are half way through your library studies course can be a bit worrying.

There is a tendency to think students use Google because they are lazy.  Maybe they are using Google because it works, and because other sources of information aren’t working for them?  For instance, one of the problems Shenton suggests in his article relates to the Rumsfeldian idea of “unknown unknowns” – Shenton puts it like this “in order to access information within a source, the user must often apply knowledge that he or she does not yet possess.”  Books don’t hyperlink : websites do.  Sounds obvious, but when you are time poor and expected to know everything by tomorrow to finish your late essay, nothing beats hyperlinks.  A major reason people use Google is not just that it is Google, but because it finds things on the net which hyperlink to things the searcher needs.  Researchers, students, the average person, and yes, even librarians, appreciate the incredible importance of hyperlinked info on the net, yet every time this discussion about “How do we stop students Googling everything?” comes up, everyone seems to forget the bounty of indexing available from internet resources, and frankly, the lack of indexing in the library.  Cue the librarians “well, the students should ask us, we know where everything is!”  But the students don’t.  Why?

I don’t know, but it is worth speculating – infact all I hear is speculation on this topic – so here is my two bob’s worth.

Unfortunately the answer might be that although many people who come to the library associate the library with librarians, as well as associating libraries with information, they don’t associate information with librarians.  “Information comes from books, from TV, from friends, from Google – but that person sitting in the corner behind a desk who I’ve never met, who just seems to scan my books when I leave the library, why would they know any more than me about this topic I am researching?” seems to be what some people who visit the library are thinking.

Shakespeare wrote “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”  Some people have good experiences with the library, and we rightly like to promote those ones.  But not all experiences are good – and even some of the ones that librarians think are good are not good.  For instance, often, when I’ve asked for help in the library it was a last resort, and I had already tried four or five other sources to find what I want.  But when I went to the librarian, they would start at the beginning, and ask if I’d already tried all the places I already had.  Librarians tend to oversell the reference section of the library.  Now, after studying LIS, I can see there are reasons for this – the reference section is the most reliable source, the reference section has been developed to be the best source of information, the reference section is full of some of the most expensive items…  and librarians tend to be proud, or maybe over impressed, with the reference section of their libraries.  But if I don’t want reference information, and I’ve already looked there anyway, it is frustrating when it is pushed on you.  A bad experience will last forever, and people regularly don’t remember the many good ones.

This begs the question…

How can librarians increase the good experiences in the library?

In answer, maybe it is worth looking at an example.

I recently came across several blogs referencing a speech by Vermont librarian, Jessamyn West (Goddard commencement speech – text and citations / Jessamyn West, Librarian.net, 07.08.2011).  One of the blogs referencing the speech stood out for me.

In Re: What I love doing  (Agnostic, Maybe, 08.08.2011), Andy Woodworth looks at something I am also very interested in, computer/database literacy.  There is a general assumption that most people can sit in front of a computer and know how to use it.  The assumption is especially prevalent when it comes to the young (‘digital natives’ as Marc Prensky called them).  But the evidence is clearly different.  Andy Woodworth teaches people how to use computers and makes a good point that

It’s not that people who didn’t grow up with the technology or some other age/generation based explanation; these are people who just never made it a priority in their lives to have a computer or use one.

Computer programs are made by experts in their field, and I sometimes wonder if they know that non-experts will use them.  I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me “How do you change the language settings in this word processing program?” (NB: changing the language settings may not be a problem for Americans, where most programs originate, but it is an issue for the other 6 billion people in the world for whom Americanish isn’t the default).  I encountered an interesting problem when studying MS Excel in an accounting course, namely, students get together after the lessons to talk about what they don’t understand, being too intimidated during the class to speak up because it looks like everyone in the class knows how to do what is required.  It seems like every other day a new program is released which the average person has to master for study or work, and teaching the basics is essential – unlike my car, which I take to an expert to fix, when it comes to computers and databases, I am the one expected to fix problems, and making assumptions that everyone else knows how things work when I certainly don’t, in an increasingly complicated world, is counter intuitive.  It is useful, for instance, to tell people not to let the computer, or internet, make them do things they don’t want to do – no one has to always click “yes” when the computer prompts you.  Someone I know has an email account which I asked her about and she said “Oh, one day this thing just took over my computer and I can’t get rid of it, and now all my email goes through this website.”  These little things leave people demoralised, and not just the so-called ‘digital immigrants’ – imagine how much more intimidating it is for young people who find computers ‘another country’?  I have several times heard or read where library staff have complained that new students can hardly use the computer, let alone do proper searches of databases.  The complaint is that it is someone else’s job to fix this problem – perhaps every problem is someone else’s problem, until someone starts to do something about it, and then it turns out that it wasn’t that difficult to solve anyway once we got stuck into it.

Solving problems for members of the library creates good experiences.  In answer to one response on his blog, Andy Woodworth says

I never leave anyone behind. I’ll stop the class to get people back together on the same page, even if it takes a few minutes.

I’d add that it if one person is having the problem, you can bet a few others are too, they just don’t want to speak up.  So, in the spirit of the confessional, I went to a library website homepage just two days ago to do a search and it took me over a minute to work out where the link was to the catalogue search function…  I am sure there are people who visit that site every day and look at it in despair, but is that the library staff’s problem, or the users?

(Andy Woodworth followed up this post with one titled Why your library should do one on one appointments [10.08.2011]).

How to tie some of these ideas together?

It worries me that librarians still seem to think that the problem facing librarianship is that people aren’t visiting the librarians at the library.  I haven’t read a really great world altering story anywhere about how a library has suddenly implemented a new program to get all the students rushing in to talk to the librarians, and basing future experience on past, I have to say no such program is about to fly in through the window to save the profession.   I don’t have the answer, but I know it isn’t anything the students are doing wrong.  They are turning up at the library in droves to access the services, they are getting their coursework done, and in on time.  So there it isn’t a fault there.  Maybe the fault is with the user experience at the library – clearly, users are having experiences in the library which appear to be different to what librarians are expecting they will have.  Are users associating librarians with information?  Maybe I am wrong, but if that’s at least part of the problem, how can it be solved?  Here are a few rambling ideas…

  1. Prove to the library users that you, the librarians and library staff, know more about what they are looking for than they will ever know.  Have stories on the website about past successes in finding information, and put up great big advertisements in the library (not the ones that cost hundreds and say “Library” – don’t people already know they are in the library?) that say “Mr Soandso was looking for information on… and Sue Whatshername found it for him – ask Sue what she can do for you!”
  2. If students are obviously afraid to come and speak to the librarians, and their course work forces them to live online, then there is nothing for it, librarians must invade that territory.  Is the library website indispensible?  Does it reflect what librarians do for the library users, or does it reflect what librarians think about the library?  Is it a knowledge base of previous questions and answers the librarians have dealt with?  Two to look at include the Creekview High School and The Grove.
  3. Improve the library’s Subject Guides and give them more prominence.  I regularly find the link to subject guides at the bottom of the page somewhere, almost lost in clutter on homepages.  Library users are going elsewhere for information because the information isn’t on the library website or in the guides.  Have a look around the LibGuides site at what can be achieved.  A site which impressed me when I saw it because it integrates print and web resources, is the US Air University Library Bibliographies - this is an interesting way to index the library resources, but saved searches of the catalogue using subject headings are also useful.  The concept that if you make Subject Guides too informative it means librarians are doing the work of students for the students, is ridiculous.  The librarian is not going to do someone’s work for them – this is a spurious pointless argument not least because they don’t have the time – however if librarians have answers to questions but are keeping the answers to themselves, what point is the librarian in the education mix?
  4. Make it easier to find information in the library databases.  As short tutorials, add real life examples of how people found things in the databases, and use the ‘saved search’ EVERYWHERE to provide examples of how search terms can be utilised.  Don’t think that if you use those circles with the word ‘Boolean’ underneath that anyone is going to remember what on earth that means!
  5. No one is interested in library news – even very few librarians are interested in library news, so if you went to your mechanic’s website you don’t expect to find a list of the latest mechanic news, what you want to know is what will it cost to use the service (and to state the obvious, you are going to use the service that costs the least).
  6. When I go to the hardware store, they sometimes run classes for people to find out how to build pergolas and lay tiled floors.  They also have flyers on the topics I can pick up and which give pointers and lead me to ask the staff questions.  Don’t run workshops at the beginning of the semester before anyone knows what problems they will have and then sit behind a desk waiting for people ask questions.  Instead run open classes daily for students, and teachers, to attend and ask all the stupid questions.

Who am I to say that these things will work?  I am nobody, just a LIS student.  So please ignore this if someone has something more interesting to say.

Please do have a look around the Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction.  In the video below (which unfortunately won’t embed), Marc Hassenzahl discusses how a persons’ experience of a product will determine how they interact with it.  You should also see his article on the Encyclopedia website titled “User experience and experience design.”

Introduction to user experience and experience design / InteractionDesign.org, 06.12.2010, viewed 26.08.2011, http://www.youtube.com/user/InteractionDesignOrg#p/u/29/lEvhxJKTQK8



Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIALproject.org) - Information For Librarians (includes a toolkit on how to do your own research titled So you want to do anthropolgy in your library, or a practical guide to ethnographic research in academic libraries / Andrew Asher and Susan Miller).

Jessamyn West’s book “Without a net : Librarians bridging the digital divide” from Libraries Unlimited (listing at Trove)

Marc HassenzahlHassenzahl.wordpress ; Google Blogs search ; Marc Hassenzahl : Shaping Experiences

DeliciousUX ; Experience+Design ; ExperienceDesign ; InformationBehaviour ; Information+Behaviour ; Library+Website+Design ; DigitalExperience ; Digital+Experience ; Computer+Literacy

UX Magazine

WikipediaUser experience ; Interaction design ; Information seeking behaviour

LibGuides – saved search User Experience ; Guide Community Best Of

Deeperweb saved searches - best library websites

User experience - UX / Dirk Knemeyer & Eric Svoboda, InteractionDesign.org, 07.05.2008, viewed 27.08.2011, http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/user_experience_or_ux.html

Best practices in school library website design / David Walbert, University of North Carolina, http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/969.

How to design library websites to maximise usability / Chris Jasek, Elsvier User Centred Design Group, Pamphlet 5, 2nd Edition, 2007, http://libraryconnect.elsevier.com/lcp/0502/lcp0502.pdf (1st edition http://www.elsevier.com/framework_librarians/LibraryConnect/lcpamphlet5.pdf)

Making research guides more useful and more well-used / Michal Strutin, Santa Clara University Library, 2008,  http://www.istl.org/08-fall/article5.html

10 most common misconceptions about user experience design / Whitney Hess, Mashable.com, 09.01.2010, viewed 30.08.2011, http://mashable.com/2009/01/09/user-experience-design/

UX Myth #24 : People always use your product the way you imagined they would / Zoltan Gocza, UXMyths.com,  http://uxmyths.com/post/1048425031/myth-24-people-always-use-your-product-the-way-you-imagi

Library user experience : SPEC Kit 322 / Association of Research Libraries, viewed 31.08.2011, http://www.arl.org/news/pr/spec322-26july11.shtml (also, saved search “user experience”)

Three questions every webpage should answer – conclusion / David Lee King, DavidLeeKing.com, 29.08.2011, viewed 31.08.2011, http://www.davidleeking.com/2011/08/29/three-questions-every-webpage-should-answer-conclusion/

Project Information Literacy : a large scale study about early adults and their research habits - http://projectinfolit.org/

In praise of the internet : shifting focus and engaging critical thinking skills / Ellie Collier, InThe LibraryWithTheLeadPipe.org, 07.01.2009, viewed 31.08.2011, http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2009/in-praise-of-the-internet-shifting-focus-and-engaging-critical-thinking-skills/

21st Century Fluency Project : The Fluencies http://www.fluency21.com/fluencies.cfm (also, Links http://www.fluency21.com/links.cfm)

US study shows Google has changed the way students research – and not for the better / Sunandra Creagh, TheConversation.edu.au, 29.08.2011, http://theconversation.edu.au/us-study-shows-google-has-changed-the-way-students-research-and-not-for-the-better-3087


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9 Responses to ““I came to the library to get some information, not to have a conversation with the librarian” or, “The user experience in the library””

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post. We are always working towards providing what our clients need and have now moved to LibGuides to try to focus on better subject guides for our students. Early days yet but both student and staff reaction is positive. Guides at http://trinity.nsw.libguides.com
    A focus on providing positive interactions with clients always needs to be at the forefront of service whether it be coaching a student with database skills or assisting with document layout and referencing or printing issues. Teacher librarians are well placed to integrate database searching into a variety of subject areas. With so many tools available for information retrieval it is our responsibilty to guide students and faculty to the best resources available and make them aware of the tools available to simplify the process.

    • Thanks for your reply, I appreciate it. And your comment about the number of database tools and the need for guidance is right. The average person, school kid, or teacher just doesn’t really have the time or interest to learn everything about how to search each database, but they still need to use the databases. Library staff need to find a way to be there to guide, but not sort of crowd people out or make them feel stupid. It helps if the staff have already created good experiences, and the library has a good reputation with the library users. Helping with the little things like printing (NB: if only librarians got paid commission every time they had to fix problems with printers!) does leave a good impression.

  2. excellent article – you are right on the mark! Have you ever read “Don’t Make Me Think!” by Steve Krug or “Why We Buy” by Paco Underhill? These are two of my favorite books with regards to thinking about the user and their approach while looking for information or products…

  3. I’m surprised that you completely missed Designing Better Libraries. I’ve been offering ideas and solutions to the problems of the disenfranchised and unengaged college student. If you are interested in user experience and how to apply that to the library environment, please go to the UX category and re-read my posts on this important topic. We know what the problem is, now what do we do about it? That’s where I’m exploring and developing solutions for library professionals. Go to http://dbl.lishost.org

  4. People skills are so important for Librarians. The ability to size up another human being – assessing what state of annoyance, frustration, curiosity, helplessness, loneliness or whatever other impulse has driven them to a reference desk is, in my opinion, one of the most important reference skills a librarian can have! Then being able to adjust your approach and ref interview accordingly is the second most important!

    Also it is amazing how many people wander around confused and yet how well they respond when approached with a simple “Can I help you find something?.” I strongly believe librarians shouldn’t always be behind the desk, interacting with patrons in the stacks is often more helpful to them and can make approaching the desk in the future less intimidating – if they don’t come to you go to them!

    Krug did write an amazing usability book – and it could so easily be translated to the real world as your ideas begin to suggest. Sounds like you are well on your way to being an excellent librarian!


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