February 17, 2018

Services More Meaningful Than Ebooks | The User Experience

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.

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

Aaron Schmidt About Aaron Schmidt

Aaron Schmidt (librarian@gmail.com) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (influx.us). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org

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  1. Alred Franks says:


    So the solution to being locked out of the future of publishing is to run off and start a grocery store.


  2. Alred,

    Nope, that’s not the future for libraries. Let me refer you to a bit from the article:

    “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.”

    The example from Baltimore is just one way that a library took a look at the bigger picture and did something of value for its community.

    • None of which have anything to do with what a library is chartered to provide. And to reduce the history and mission of “‘free bookstore’ long term gamble” is asinine. Look, all of these services may be worthwhile. I suggest started an agency chartered to provide them if you feel strongly enough.

  3. Libraries are already beyond just “being a place for print books”, and not in the ways mentioned above. E-books can be an integral part of collection and services but, as we’ve seen with the Rockford (IL) PL, jumping into the deep end without proper thought isn’t the way to do it.

    But discussion is valuable, even if many of the suggestions aren’t implemented.

  4. You’re right that thinking outside the box is so important. Hanging onto the warehouse concept is not going to sustain us in the long run.

    However, a scattershot approach with no integrating model is just as bad. A library has a unique identity that grants it an important place in its community. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, nails it when he says our mission is to promote “The Life of the Mind.” A gym is for the life of the body. A church is for the life of the soul. A library is for the life of the mind.

    Can you imagine moving into a community with no library? I can’t. And not because of the ink on paper codices, or the e-books, or the computers. It’s because a library is a place where the life of the mind is shared. Authors share with readers. Speakers share with audiences. Students share with other students collaborating on projects. None of this depends on any particular kind of object. It depends on people in a community communicating with each other.

    Also, a library is a specific place where people gather. Let’s imagine a future where everyone has the Internet on a brain implant. OK, so we’re all telepathic. Still, we’ll want to gather together in a physical location face to face for hands-on personal interaction. As long as we have localized bodies, we’ll want to rub shoulders with others. A library is such a place.

    The emphasis of the library of the future will shift from the codex to the computer, and even more from paper to people. It will still be a place for contemplation, but even more a place for conversation. It won’t look like a warehouse. It will look like a clubhouse. Where there used to be shelving there will be tables and chairs and couches. There’ll be more specialized rooms – for viewing, listening, and creating media to look at and listen to.

    There’ll be innovations galore. But the center of it all is what a library is all about – The Life of the Mind.

  5. Aaron – I was just visiting Skokie Public Library. Mick Jacobsen told me on a brief tour that the library hires social work students as security guards instead of “rent a cop” types to. I was intrigued by this idea.

    • To clarify, one of our three current security guards is now a social work student, but he was in the job for several years before starting the social work program. One is a retired school teacher, and the third a pre-med student we are about to lose to medical school. We look for good communication and people skills in our security guards, not any particular background.

  6. Libraries are about information, not social services. The death of public libraries will not be in pursuing our true mission, free access to information to all, but rather in trying to do something that others can do better — provide social services for the underdogs in our society.