Unless you’ve been hiding under the last print copy of Encyclopedia Britannica, I’m sure you’re aware of the problems libraries are having with electronic content. Never fear. I have a solution to help us address the price hikes, unusable interfaces, and ever-decreasing amount of content we’re able to license: Let’s stop worrying about commercial content in electronic formats.
Why are we obsessed with libraries as places of access to commercially published material? It’s traditional, it’s easy, and it makes for easily measurable circulation. But the publishing industry—an integral part of our ability to provide commercial content—is experiencing upheaval. For the most part, we’ve taken the bait, responding with complaints and, in some cases, boycotts. Something else is going on though. We’re really so upset because we see in publishers’ erratic behavior a reminder that we’ve built libraries on a now shaky foundation.
Unfortunately, this focus is distracting us from the realization that we don’t need to treat access to commercial content as our primary mission. Yes, we’ve put a lot of effort into it in the past, and we’ve done it well. But it’s time to take a step back. Previously, we had the force of law on our side; now, though, the problem of access to digital content is being solved without us. More important, our insistence on competing with (or even just complementing) Amazon and Apple—not to mention all of the free content available online—is an insistence that we define ourselves by something we are not good at anymore.
Does this mean it’s time to shut our doors and go home? No way. Here’s where user experience (UX) comes into play. Remember, UX is concerned with designing products and services that are easy to use, desirable to use, and genuinely useful.
UX design can help us optimize the services currently in our libraries, but we can do even more. We can use it to design completely new services and innovate. I’m not talking about a shallow buzzword sort of innovation as when a library employs the technology or social media flavor of the month. What I’m talking about is a systematic approach to learning about our communities so that we can find other ways to offer essential support.
What they need
UX research techniques like user interviews (“Learn by Asking”) can lead libraries to implement not what people say they need but what they actually need. Granted, realigning libraries better to meet community needs might be scary. After all, we’ll have to ask some serious and fundamental questions. But it is crucial that we do this work—not so that we can stay in business but so that we can continue to improve the lives of our constituents.
Fortunately, there are examples of libraries creating new and valuable services that may just serve as a template for fresh, more community- responsive services than the current “free bookstore” long-term gamble we’re making.
Baltimarket is a collaboration among Enoch Pratt Free Library, the city of Baltimore, and other organizations to bring healthy food to food deserts. People can order groceries online and pick them up at library locations. No ebooks required.
In January, Pima County Public Library, Tucson, AZ, hired a nurse. She leads programs and is also available to answer questions and make referrals. Combine this with expert help searching databases, and there’s near endless potential to assist people.
LibraryYOU is a project from the Escondido Public Library, CA, that helps its community create and publish videos and podcasts “to collect and share local knowledge.”
The Free Library of Philadelphia hosts the H.O.M.E Page Cafe, a coffee shop that provides jobs for formerly homeless folks.
These are just a few examples of responsive community programs, and each bears much more examination. The important element to glean, however, is that each is based on specific needs and places the library at the center of satisfying those needs.
Pushing for libraries to make a concerted move away from commercial e-content is admittedly a bit radical. It will take some serious effort to initiate new services and inform our communities about them. There’s risk involved, yes, but it isn’t any riskier than staking our claim on a content access model that’s crumbling beneath us.
Libraries want to move beyond being a place for print books. This is good, but ebooks aren’t the solution. There are other, more meaningful ways to create essential services that benefit our membership.