March 17, 2018

Less is Less | The User Experience

Aaron SchmidtSpring is HERE! Let’s celebrate this season of rebirth and renewal by thinking about making some changes in the library. Every library is burdened with a sacred cow or two. Some have an entire farm full!

Laws of entropy dictate that once a library program or service starts, there’s a fair chance it will continue, even if it becomes clear at some point that it is no longer serving the purpose it once did. Sacred cows and other ineffective programs use up the valuable resource of staff time. The cost of feeding and maintaining sacred cows oftentimes doesn’t return much benefit to the ­library.

Cost/benefit analysis

Folks in the library should take a hard look at what they’re doing and assess the value they’re adding. Does that Teen Vampire Fiction for Adults book club have the draw that it did last year? Changing things up can be difficult. That’s one reason cows become ­sacred, right?

Instead of emphasizing the negative, however, consider highlighting the benefits of retooling efforts. Staff should be encouraged to think in terms of the best ways the library should be spending its time and effort.ljx150501webSchmidt

I can envision a library programs and services cost/benefit dashboard that displays what the library is focusing on and how much benefit it derives from each item. This could be the basis for an ongoing, healthy, and realistic conversation about what the library is doing, and, perhaps more important, why it is doing it.

Less is not more

As a minimalist, I have always been bothered by the phrase “less is more.” Comparing “less” to “more” implies that less is better because it is actually more. So I prefer “less is less,” and I think it is a positive thing. Semantic quibbles aside, the scale and scope of library operations have a huge impact on the overall user experience.

The more things a library does, the less effort it can spend on any one of them. This applies both on a microlevel (i.e., pages on a website) and a macro­level (i.e., the entire suite of ­library ­services).

It follows, then, that if a library wants not just to do a bunch of things but rather to do some things with excellence, then it must reduce the number of things it does.

What to cut?

The concept is easy enough in theory: do fewer things, and do them better. By following this method you have the opportunity to make a big impression on people and turn some users into rabid fans. These are the folks you want on your side when the local talk radio shock jock spouts off about the library, or when it comes time to pass a bond measure.

The concept of doing fewer thing is dangerous territory, though. The argument can be employed to suggest a limiting and stagnant version of librarianship. After all, if we’re to do fewer things, one could easily claim that libraries should skip learning about new technologies and trends and just focus on pushing books out the door.

Yet focusing on the status quo isn’t a recipe for success either. Without having ever tried anything new, our collections would probably still be chained to the shelves. And forget about OPACs and popular materials, let alone gaming nights and media labs.

Experimentation fund

There’s a very real tension that arrises when it comes to moving forward: libraries must focus on doing the best they can with their most important services. But they also need to learn through experimentation and trying new things. How can we resolve this tension?

My suggestion: cut away the chaff and put the sacred cows out to pasture. Take the resulting available time and effort and create an “experimentation fund” with which library workers can use to learn and play. In my mind, this is a much better exercise of time than perpetuating programs and services that exist only due to historical precedent.

Of course, the pendulum can swing in the other direction, too. There are libraries that devote plenty of energy to experimenting with the latest social networking ploy while their website is in shambles.

Every library should commence a dialog with stakeholders to find their own place of comfort on this spectrum. Whether a library is more experimental or more conservative, it should be so intentionally. Setting the tone of the organization in this way can help set the expectations of both staff and users and prime the library for creating relevant, meaningful experiences.

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2015 issue. 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. Amy Brunvand says:

    Reading this article I was left wondering, what exactly are these “sacred cows” that we are all wasting so much time on? Why are “gaming nights” necessarily a better use of effort than, say, book groups, or for that matter, knitting circles? And why bring up the straw man of books “chained to the shelves?”

    Then I got to the bottom of the page and saw that the author is not actually a working librarian but a “consultant” and a “Mover and Shaker”. Oh.

    • spencer says:

      Sacred cows are thinking that book groups are a better use of effort automatically without actually examining them.

      Sacred cows are also thinking that someone who is not actually a working librarian is something that matters instead of what the person is saying.

  2. Janice Thornton says:

    LJ, how is Amy’s comment “respectful”?

    • Amy Brunvand says:

      OK, let’s run with the sacred cow metaphor.

      According to anthropologist Marvin Harris religious laws that forbid slaughter of cattle in India are essential to to promote the recovery of the agricultural system after periods of drought.

      That is to say, if Hindus took the advice of outsiders and ate their cows there would probably be starvation later due to a shortage of draft animals.

      So just because an outsider fails to understand the role of sacred cows in a culture doesn’t mean that the sacred cows are actually a bad thing. In many ways India’s approach to cows is actually far more functional than America’s approach to cows and Harris says, “Instead of asking the Indians to learn from the American model of industrial agriculture, American farmers might learn energy conservation from the Indians.”

      Likewise, library consultants would do well to ask themselves with far more honesty why the cows are “sacred” because if something is generally held in such high esteem perhaps there is a good reason.

    • spencer says:

      Yep. I’m sure before the green revolution the sacred nature of the cow helping the recovery of the agricultural system after periods of drought comforted the empty bellies of the starving masses.

      this is a massive reach in order to prove a point you were trying to make, but failed.

      The sacred cow is not sacred because of the evils of “big cattle”- this is an unintended side effect. People can’t question the sacred nature of the cow (in the flawed and stereotypical metaphor). It is not that a cow being sacred is silly and bad- it’s that no one can question if the cow SHOULD be sacred that is silly and bad.


  3. Smith34 says:

    Rule of thumb. Everything the current director came up with is a sacred cow. Things the former director backed are not sacred cows.

    I found Amy’s comments illuminating. As were some of the authors.