March 16, 2018

Focus on People, Not Tools | The User Experience

Librarianship has lost its focus—our professional concern for people has been eclipsed by a pre­occupation with collections and technology. This is understandable. Historically, libraries have been centered on bringing the world to our members through our collections. This problem of access was important to help solve, meeting a vital societal need. Likewise, our focus on information technologies and the web is natural, too. Throughout the years, these tools have presented some outstanding challenges, though generally they have aided tremendously in our mission to expand access to accumulated cultural knowledge and output. But our fixation on collections and technology is no longer serving us—nor our members.

Revealing roles

Let’s take a closer look at our attention to the web. Web technologies are tools, but we’ve been concerned with them as ends in themselves. “We need a responsive library site!” excited web librarians might say. What they mean is that the library needs to deliver information in a convenient way. “The library would benefit from a vibrant Facebook profile,” another librarian might say. This is probably true but only because having a vibrant Facebook profile can create conversation and community connections [for more on this kind of engagement, see “Social Media: Libraries Are Posting, but Is Anyone Listening?”].

Take a look at the debate on what to call the people who come into our institutions—patrons, customers, users, members, etc. I would argue that the rise of the ugly word user in our profession and others is, at least in part, tied to this shift in focus away from people and onto the tools they use, as if their tools define them.

Finally, our spotlight on tools can also be found in the titles of conference sessions and articles. Oftentimes, the technology functions as the subject, while the outcome—if it’s there at all—is the predicate. Our communities, again, if present at all, are unspoken direct objects. Here’s what I mean:

  • Augmented Reality & Next Gen Libraries
  • Top Technology Trends
  • Gamifying Your Library
  • 25 Mobile Apps for Librarians
  • Circulating iPads

This is a subtle but meaningful difference. Focusing on the technologies rather than the outcomes changes the way we talk about these topics and the way we learn about them. When we aim for the outcomes, we’re more likely to think deeply about the problems we’re trying to solve and consider multiple strategies that speed us to our goals.

Let me be clear: I’m not downplaying the importance of technology in libraries or setting up a false dichotomy. As a profession, librarianship has developed many mechanisms to learn about technology and the web. This is important, and we need to keep learning about the broader world of resources that can help us efficiently deliver our services. But let’s shift our collective eye to learning about people first, so everything we know about technology can be put in service of supporting meaningful goals.

Shift the focus

Our collective focus on technology also prevents technology from being as deeply integrated into our libraries as it should be. When we fetishize technology, we can only look at it shallowly. When we depend on emerging technology librarians to be the ambassadors for relevant technologies, we take the rest of the organization off the hook.

In fact, if we put the emphasis on people, library technology will become even more important. Currently, it is all too easy to implement tech solutions halfheartedly, check the box that the project is complete, and more or less be done with it. Think of our websites, catalogs, and self-check machines. There’s plenty of room to improve these things, but since we can check the box of “yes, we have those” we don’t strive to do better. In the future, when we emphasize peoples’ needs and their ideal use of libraries, we’ll spend a lot of time ensuring our technology is useful, usable, and desirable. “What sort of checkout experience are we providing members?” is a much bigger and important question than “Are our self-check machines working?”

Once we shift our focus the right way, we can encourage larger efforts. For instance, in addition to the Library Information Technology Association, we need the Library & Community Knowledge Association. In addition to the conference Computers in Libraries we need the conference People in Libraries. A complement to the American Library Association’s (ALA) TechSource? You guessed it: ALA PeopleSource. When we focus on people, we can acknowledge that technology is an important but subservient tool that helps libraries meet the needs of their communities.

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 ( is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx ( He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at



  1. Stephanie says:

    I agree with you that the medium is often the message where libraries are concerned. The thought process is that if we post to Facebook, develop a library app, and install a makerspace, we will be relevant to the community. I would say that if one doesn’t do these things, though, there’s a good chance you aren’t getting the job done. However, doing them doesn’t ensure the public library is effective. What matters is that librarians are involved in the community, talking to people about what they need, and providing pathways for people to get to what they need. Social networking, library apps, and creative spaces in libraries need to function as a means to this end.

  2. Leigh Anne Focareta says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say. I should like to point out, however, that it was the library profession itself that drove the technology craze, and those who criticized it as “continental drift” were roundly mocked / scorned as being “outdated.” I would argue that most librarians never lost their focus on communities, and what we are seeing is a return to our grassroots values. And I, for one, say huzzah.

  3. Dennis Moser says:

    Stop conflating collections with technology — if you really want to get back to “values” then you need to re-emphasize the long, rich, historical three-way relationship of librarians, users/researchers, and collections.

    It’s always been a tripartite relationship and all the rest is just extra.

  4. This is also in reflected by how we define and report our relevance to our communities. You circulated 5 million items, 2 million people crossed your threshold and what? Defining and measuring outcomes is a wholly different proposition for libraries. It pushes the work of the library beyond transactional to transformational. It changes the nature of the work; who does the work, and how the organization manages it.

  5. MiketheFormerLibrarian says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. In my old system, the director was *really* into circulation statistics, and had little interest in programs. At the same time, she was always pushing us to provide a world-class experience with poorly-trained staff and little-to-no budget.

    I always thought the experience was the more important aspect, but recognize that money is needed to optimize it. I’d like to see people acknowledge the importance of circulations and visits while recognizing that it’s what happens *after* the circulation or entry that makes the difference in lives. Those things are hard to measure, at best, but more valuable.

  6. Suzanne Stauffer says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything that has been said, and in particular second Leigh Anne Focareta. I well remember the shift from “librarian” to “information professional,” from providing “reference services” to providing “information,” and from providing “for the educational, recreational, and informational needs of the community” to providing “access to information.” I would suggest, however, that the ugly term in all of this was “customer,” not “user.” That changed mission from a public service to a commercial transaction. A commercial transaction necessarily involves the marketing and selling of a product or service, so the focus then became the product rather than the person.

  7. I’m elated that someone is proclaiming these truths! Libraries are more than collections and modern hubs of technology. They’re about communities made up of people — taxpaying people. If more Librarians remembered to be advocates for the public they serve, the profession would probably be better understood and respected than it is today. To quote one of my teen volunteers, who wrote this in response to the question what have you learned from your volunteer experience, “The work never ends at the library.” (btw, Aaron, I enjoyed your ALA Webinar “Evaluate and Improve Your Website in 10 Easy Steps”)

  8. Aaron, thank you so much for this article! It’s so refreshing to see there are a few librarians left who still value the patron/user (never a customer to me) and what they mean to the library. They should be our focus, not the gadgets and gizmos.

  9. Victoria says:

    I also agree, it often seems new technologies are adopted just for the sake of doing so. (Such as this Makerspace trend) This article reminds us not to loose sight of the bigger picture and real the needs of patrons