May 24, 2017

A Better Site Visit | The User Experience + Office Hours Joint Column

If there is a library school in the vicinity, your library probably gets the occasional visit from a student on assignment. With the popularity of distance LIS programs, your library may play host even if there’s not a program nearby. These students come to do coursework, but they’re not just using your tables and chairs—they’re learning by observing.

These assignments ask students to visit a library and spend time recording and analyzing something that interests them. Sometimes they require students to pose as library users and ask reference or RA questions. They can examine things such as how items are displayed, the building’s layout, a reference transaction, or the setup of the youth services department. Reports from these visits usually include a narrative description and some critical thinking about what worked well and what could be improved. In this way, they are effectively user experience reports, though they’re not often thought of in this way.

Real-world learning

Historically, site visit assignments have focused on observing reference transactions or interviewing a practitioner and reflecting on the insights shared. Most require the student to observe and evaluate interactions as patrons use library services. Assessing instruction sessions, for example, can enhance a student’s understanding of the training or education function that so many professional librarians perform. In Stephens’s courses, students have performed “kindness audits” on a library’s signage, policies, and online presence as a means to understand how best to interact with users.

A wasted resource

As useful as these assignments are for students to illuminate certain narrow sets of principles, they could be made more valuable. Currently, findings from these observation exercises are trapped in the classroom or within closed learning management systems. They’re discussed over one or two class periods during which—with any luck—the students learn about how different libraries operate and the tensions of theory versus practice.

What about the libraries that are being observed? They’re left in the dark. Every library, even if it is well funded and award-winning, can benefit from having an outsider’s set of eyes examining the user experience it is providing. Fortunately, it wouldn’t be that difficult to augment the usual field report assignment to involve the unsuspecting libraries.

While a degree of anonymity during the observation ensures that students see what really goes on in a library, there’s no reason that LIS educators can’t find willing library management interested in collaborating. Library administrators would be foolish not to jump at the chance of having a UX review from an enthusiastic student. Soliciting feedback from seasoned librarians can be quite helpful, but receiving feedback from a student not yet saddled with years of librarythink baggage could be even more enlightening. This perspective could enable them to ask fresh questions that entrenched librarians can’t see. (For a full description of what the criteria and requirements of this assignment might look like, see sidebar, right.)

The debrief meeting

After completing their observations, students would attend a meeting at the hosting library either in person or virtually via Skype. They’d tell folks about the assignment and what they observed during their time at the library. Results shared would emphasize positive areas as well as areas that might need improvement. Negative findings or observations would be presented factually and with respect. Presenting results in this manner would assure a transparent report for the participating library as well as a beneficial experience in using communication skills for the student performing the analysis.

Students would also be required to offer suggestions for improvement of the issues identified, with citations to other libraries’ practice and scholarly studies from coursework and research. Using evidence to create solutions will help inform these future graduates’ practice.

The most responsive libraries would aim to make a change based on the suggestion of the student. The reports and other data would be shared with the staff and the recommendations for improvements evaluated and implemented. The findings might also be shared externally or with the library’s governing body to promote not only transparency but the positive aspects of the library partnering with a library school. These partnerships should be encouraged and leveraged as much as possible.

Adding this very real-world component to the assignment would benefit students, too. Requiring them to give an in-person report to the library they observe would likely bring an additional level of rigor to the assignment that goes way beyond passive one-hour observation of a reference librarian on the desk. Combining observation, critical thinking, and research-based evidence to create solutions would prepare these students to do real work after graduation. Likewise, such an assignment would give them practical experience with future colleagues as part of a library team. In the end, this assignment would not only sharpen their observational skills but also shape their communication skills. The resulting classroom discussion would be richer. Not only would the particulars of the observations be on the table but reactions to the debrief meetings would be as well.

Beyond local

Why stop the sharing here? Many libraries across the country are similar in size and demographics and have similar services. They could learn a lot from one another, and a centralized database of these reports could serve as the ­mechanism.

We propose a site online for openly sharing these type of reports. The clearinghouse of user experience evaluations—culled from assignments described above—would be similar to the Learning 2.0 archive that Stephens launched for his course on transformative learning (see The reports could be shared as written with the support of participating libraries or anonymized for those that might wish it.

Too often, the work of our LIS students is based around fictional settings and “making stuff up” in response to readings about the field. We urge LIS educators to adapt the assignment above into your coursework and contact us to share it. Imagine a globally focused site indexed and accessible for others to learn and repurpose in their own settings. Such a site could enable libraries to recognize problems in their user experience more easily and prototype more rapidly potential solutions. Equally important, it would give LIS students the skills they need to improve libraries and, in the process, turn them into contributing members of the profession.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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