What We’ve Always Done? User Experience and the Library

Editor’s Note: We welcome Sarah Crissinger to the ACRLog blog team. Sarah is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, completing her second year as a GSLIS student. She holds assistantships in the Reference, Research, and Scholarly Services (RRSS) and Office of Information Literacy and Instruction departments within UIUC’s library system. Her research interests include serving underrepresented populations, new forms of scholarly communication and measuring impact, and user experience in academic libraries. Sarah hopes to provide the ACRLog with a LIS graduate student’s (and current job seeker’s!) perspective.

As a second-year LIS graduate student quickly approaching the job market, I decided that this fall was an opportune time to add more practical experience to my resume. What better way to accomplish this than a practicum? I also found myself hoping to use the practicum as a space to push my boundaries and comfort zone. I have years of experience doing reference and instruction in different settings, but I have never thought of myself as particularly technical person. Thus, I approached a connection I had at a local web design and technology solution business, Pixo, about the prospect of completing the one hundred hour project within their User Experience (UX) department. I was thrilled when they agreed.

At the same time, some level of anxiety often overshadowed my excitement. I worried that not being fluent in programming languages or not being an experienced graphic designer would inhibit my ability to make the best product for the user. While this might be true in some situations, I have learned that UX is much more intuitive and approachable than we—as librarians—might think.

As I finished my practicum, I was asked to write a short reflection on what I learned from my supervisors, what surprised me, what was most challenging, etc. Here’s a snippet of that response:

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how well equipped I was to do this practicum. I came in being nervous about only having a humanities/ classic library science background. I told myself that I didn’t have the technical skills to do such complicated tasks.

But in essence, Pixo’s UX team relies on critical thinking and organization significantly more than advanced technical skills. Many of the tasks I completed and learned about—using analytics, creating personas, card sorting, making changes based on feedback, thinking strategically, communicating with clients—relied more heavily on my ability to think analytically and have empathy for the user. Yet these tasks still informed technical and programming decisions in important and significant ways. One of the greatest accomplishments of my practicum is that I now think of user experience as being much less intimidating.

I’d like to reflect more closely on UX in the context of the library. In doing so, I’d also like to make somewhat of a provocative claim: the library, as an institution, has always inherently done UX. Now I know what your reaction is. You’re thinking, “but, Sarah, look at all of the unintuitive library websites we have” and “what about the 40 hand-written signs that my library uses which hinder patrons instead of helping them?!” Those are perfectly legitimate responses. But I think that we have to dig a little deeper to truly understand them.

A few months ago, I attended a SELFIN virtual conference entitled “User Experience: Seeing the Library Through the User’s Eyes”. The conference went well beyond library website design by tackling issues of library space and organization, service points, and content considerations. I hope to borrow a few salient examples from this unique (and in many ways, groundbreaking) conference to illustrate a few of my points.

Even though we might not (and many would argue should not) think of the library as a business, we need to recognize that our patrons go through many touchpoints in their quest for information from the library. Every interaction we have with a patron matters. And I’m not just referring to interactions at the reference desk or other service points. Our library’s interactions with patrons often happen through our website, library entrance, stacks, instructional sessions, terminals, and other equipment—even if we aren’t present. All of these interactions count because they impact the patron’s overall experience. Many UX experts have started mapping users’ journeys through a business or organization. Check out this insightful journey map Aaron Schmidt made specifically for libraries:


I think that librarians are constantly considering the user, especially within public service departments like reference and instruction. It’s just what we do. But I think that it’s rare for us to think of the user’s entire experience in this holistic way. Moreover, we have a difficult time going back in time to relate to our patrons more authentically. Even as a graduate student, it is challenging for me to remember what was confusing or daunting about the library at my undergraduate institution. By not recognizing that what might be easy for us isn’t easy for our patrons, we do them a great disservice. That’s why Schmidt (and many other UXers) constantly remind us that we are not our users.

An example might help solidify this claim. In Schmidt’s presentation on UX in libraries he told a story about a very confusing library website, filled with jargon that only the librarians could understand. When faced with feedback about the difficulties that this created for patrons, the library implemented a glossary for patrons to better understand the jargon and thus more effectively use the site. This is counterproductive! As librarians we often want to give our patrons all of the information we can. As an educational institution, we want them to leave with a lot more knowhow than they came with. We might even believe that patrons have a similar interest and dedication to the library as our own. To make it more complicated, as academic librarians we often deal with patrons at all different skill and interest levels. We have to create products, applications, spaces, instructional sessions, and reference interactions that appeal to tenured faculty and undergraduate freshmen as well as everyone in between. That’s no small feat!

But if we are going to move forward with wholeheartedly incorporating UX techniques into the library setting and making the library more effective for the user—regardless of what they means for us—then we have to acknowledge that users inherently have different goals, motivations, time constraints, work habits, and stressors than we do. For better or worse, it’s the reality that we live with.

So we have established that we are not our patrons. How do we really get to know them then? That gets precisely to my point. In many ways, we are already trying! Librarians are doing great work to make evidence-based decisions that rely on the user’s perspective. Library research often utilizes interviews and focus groups. Ethnographers like Andrew Asher and Donna Lanclos have taken that research to the next level by studying users in even more detail (for another great example of ethnography used  in libraries, see Andy Priestner’s recent presentation). As vendors and consortiums create new discovery systems and OPACs, usability testing and other UX tools are being utilized. A conference I recently attended, the Indiana Online Users Group (or IOLUG), featured two librarians from Northwestern that did extensive usability testing on the LibGuides 2.0 interface before making documentation to guide consistent layout and information architecture across their library. At my institution, UIUC, we recently implemented a new library gateway. The web team made content decisions based on user stories, which act as less fully formed personas that convey users’ informational needs to developers and stakeholders. The list goes on and on. Some academic libraries are studying users in order to provide more accessible service points, liked a single-service point for reference and circulation. Others are asking users directly what works and what doesn’t work for them in chat reference transactions.

While I believe that libraries are already practicing some great UX techniques, I think that we have a lot to learn from the UX community. Kathryn Whitenton also presented at the SELFIN conference. She had this graphic to share:


It’s obvious that libraries are currently implementing many of the more basic UX techniques. But there’s so much more we could be incorporating. Many library websites have no clear information architecture and even have pages that only exist within the CMS but can’t be discovered by using the navigation. They could benefit from a content inventory. We don’t think of library service as being competitive yet we could still definitely learn from similar library’s strengths, whether we do it through conferences or simply exploring their website. We could implement user feedback to make small changes to a service or website and then utilize analytics to determine the outcome.

More simply, we should incorporate usability testing in every facet of our service. (If you can’t tell, it’s probably my favorite technique in the UX suite of tools). Usability testing relies on the statistic that 5 users can find 80% of the problems on a website. What a great thing for libraries! By simply following five users through your stacks (service point, website, etc.) as they complete a task, you can find up to 80% of the challenges they face.

UX is simply about making intuitive, satisfying, and useful experiences. It’s a natural fit in the library community and I can’t wait to see it grow within our profession.

This post is only possible because of the support, mentoring, and leadership of Cate Kompare and Melinda Miller. Thanks for being such inspiring practicum supervisors!

Transition: Making it as a librarian

When do you become a librarian? When you get your MLIS? When you start your first professional librarian job? Debates can rage over this, but I didn’t start calling myself a librarian until I started my current position.

I earned my MLIS in May 2011 and was hired into my first paid library staff position mid-2012. As a paraprofessional with an MLIS, I had a coworker refer to me periodically as a “librarian” but I didn’t see myself as such, especially when about half of the staff at that library held library degrees, and most MLIS-holders I knew were unemployed or underemployed.

Takes an MLIS to be library staff

Of course, without my MLIS I never would have been hired even as library staff. Too many library school graduates and too few librarian (and related) jobs equals a glut of library degree holders struggling to make a living. Ironically, even finding unpaid internships was difficult – in an era of library cutbacks it seemed like a lot of libraries just didn’t (don’t?) have the time to supervise interns. I did manage to find and serve three internships, though, and I credit those experiences and resulting networking for helping move my career forward. I am ever so grateful to the librarians that I met through my internships that continue to mentor me.

In my first library job as a staff person, I was delighted to finally hold a paid library job and to take on resume-building responsibilities that used to fall solely on librarians’ shoulders: reference, instruction, and outreach. I did reference for the specialized collection in which I worked: government documents. I also did a regular hour or two at the main library reference desk, a regular chat reference hour, scattered library instruction sessions for English classes, and I volunteered an occasional evening or Saturday to work the library table at a library or university special event. As an employee with a regular 8 to 5 schedule, I didn’t get paid for any work outside that schedule.  Nor did I get comp time. And as a library staff person, I was certainly not getting paid extra for MLIS-level work.

Anyone that works in a library knows how large the stacks of applications are for library pages and assistants, and how generally overqualified the applicants. I once drove 300 miles back to my home town to take one of those public service tests for a library assistant job only to discover a room filled with over a hundred people taking the same test, all applying for a single opening (I didn’t even make it into the interview pool!). I’m sure you’ve got horror stories, too!

For me to become a librarian, an actual librarian with title and salary, it took a couple hundred job applications, three internships, a second master’s degree, and a willingness to move (luckily back to my home state). Basically, the quest to become a librarian was like having a second job. Mid-2014: here I am at Cal State Fullerton, finally, a full-fledged librarian. Now I call myself a librarian.

Librarians: “Don’t complain, you’ve got it easy”

However, when I was a library staff-person, librarians (actual librarians) told me I should be grateful to be staff and work a regular 8 to 5 schedule, because being a salaried librarian meant that they worked some long days.

Little did they know, I have a history of working long days! I spent years loading trucks, waiting tables, and one extra wet winter shoveling snow. I spent years in the hospitality industry refining my customer service smile and people skills. There’s no exhaustion like when you sit down after being on your feet for ten to twelve hours and discover that standing up again just isn’t going to happen.

Three months into this job I’ve come in weekends and worked long days. I work hard and predict the work will get harder. But I will tell you now – I will work any number of long days for this salary, and for this job, and for the ability to come in late if I worked late the night before, because I am SO happy to be a librarian doing the work that I am.

Transition from staff to librarian

Of course being a librarian is certainly a big change from being a staff person. I was dubious how different it could be no matter how many librarians told me so – but it is quite and very different. As a new tenure-track librarian, my day-to-day schedule is now packed, and publish-or-perish is now a real threat. I was hired as an instructional design librarian, but I’ve got so much work besides, I feel like I hardly have time to design! Don’t even mention the professional development, the scholarly and creative activities, and the various categories of service I’m supposed to be performing. Oh, and I also have liaison duties with a few academic departments.

The biggest challenge for me when I started here was figuring out how the library worked and where I fit into it. And then, how the tenure process works (the six year clock is ticking!) and figuring out areas of research interest and how I can start writing articles to hopefully publish in peer-reviewed journals. Currently I’m still working on time and project management – I’ve got limited hours each week to work on instructional design and research projects – so I’ve got to make every minute count.

But this job is AWESOME. I’m independent – but collaborative projects abound. I get my own office (with a view!). I get to set my own schedule, and I get to be all kinds of creative. Since my position is also a brand new position, I get to shape what it’s going to be, and decide how I can best spend my time to contribute to my library and to the academic library community. I like the workplace culture at my library – there’s a lot of encouragement to come up with big ideas and go after them. This campus is diverse in just about every way and I feel like I fit right in. I love going to work every day!

The hustle of internships, volunteering, and endless job applications was the real preparation for becoming a librarian. My background in hospitality prepared me for working with colleagues with strong personalities, panicking grad students, and demanding faculty. Attending school for two master’s degrees while working full-time was my study in time management, essential to being a good librarian. The MLIS? Perhaps just a theoretical study in librarianship.

On Working and Not-working

What’d you do this past weekend? Though I’m in NYC I was unfortunately unable to attend the Digital Labor conference at the New School, which looked like a terrific and interesting event. Instead I planned to follow along on Twitter, but that ended up not happening because I had a bunch of things to catch up on: a peer review, a revise & resubmit, some conference organizing tasks, drafting this post. You know, work. The irony that I didn’t have time to check in on a digital labor conference on Twitter in part because of the digital labor I was doing is not lost on me.

How many of us work on weekends even after we’ve worked the whole week? How many of us are carrying lots of vacation days because we haven’t felt that we could take them? This might be due in part to the having-a-job-that-you-love problem: many of us do truly love our jobs and our work, and feel fortunate to have them. And since academic librarianship often requires or encourages us to do research and scholarship, it can be all too easy to let that work spill over into evenings and weekends. I’m most definitely prone to this, and I do find myself working during non-worktimes.

Also, as I learned recently when our HR department sent out their biannual reminder of leave time accrued, I have a balance of vacation days that are beginning to pile up (though not enough to lose them, thankfully). This semester I’ve been perhaps more guilty of non-worktime work and not taking leave than in the past, in part because coming up to speed on my new management responsibilities at work haven’t left me with much room to spare during the week, especially for research and writing. Different folks have different tolerances for and interests in working during off hours, and that’s okay. There may be other reasons for extra work besides the feeling that there’s work to catch up on: maybe you’re working on another degree, or writing a book.

We all deserve to use the leave time we’ve earned, and there are demonstrable benefits for workers (and workplaces) in taking time off. But in my new position I’ve been thinking about extra work in an additional way, and realizing that there are impacts on the library, too. How can we have a complete, realistic picture of the work of the library when there’s unused leave time? Some folks may feel overworked, some just right, and hopefully no one feels like they have too little work to do. It’s difficult to balance workloads or to plan to add new services and projects if we carry over our leave time rather than use it.

I’m thinking of this as a pre-New Year’s resolution: I’m going to try and be better about using my time off, and invite you to join me.

Bit of a Steep Learning Curve

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Erin Miller, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of North Texas.

Having worked as a librarian for more than a decade I feel fairly confident in my ability to navigate the various paths through my chosen profession. Before attending the School of Library & Information Science at the University of Kentucky I worked part time in Circulation at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. During grad school I was a student assistant in the Appalachian Archives, creating finding aids and organizing collections. My first job with an MLS was as a Content Manager for SirsiDynix, working with a team to design and develop a totally new research tool and content management system. Next stop was the library of a private high school in Cincinnati where I managed every aspect of the library, from circulation to database instruction, from supervising volunteers to collection and budget management. I also organized a small library in Peru – in Spanish­ – as a service-oriented project during several weeks I spent in the Andes. Luckily, I like learning new things and adapting to new situations because in each of these library settings there has been a learning curve…but none quite so steep as there has been here at the University of North Texas.


Some of the learning curve is to be expected at any new job and mostly involves both unfamiliar technological and unfamiliar geographic landscapes. For example, here at UNT our ILS is Sierra from Integrated Interfaces, Inc. while both the public library and the high school library ran on SirsiDynix. Similarly, we use a different content management system for web content. Being extremely directionally challenged, for me any new job (much less new city) results in what can be a very frustrating process of wrong turns and time consuming, usually useless, conversations with Siri about where on campus is that d@#! building in which my meeting starts in five minutes, etc. These are all part of the expected learning curve and, as such, do not cause me much stress. I ask lots of questions and have made it to almost every meeting on time (except the ones that happened during my first month – pretty sure I was late to every single on-campus meeting for the first few weeks).


However, some things here at UNT are so new to me that I find myself looking not only for directions but also re-evaluating the ways that I have worked successfully for the past ten years. For one thing, librarians at UNT are faculty-equivalent which means we are expected not only to be responsible for keeping the library running smoothly, but are also expected to publish in peer-reviewed journals, to present at conferences and to serve in various ways at various levels, from within the library to university wide to national organizations. While none of these things are inherently difficult on their own, I do find it challenging to have so many more balls in the air at any one time. I can easily fill up a 40-hour-and-then-some week with just day-to-day tasks…how in the world do I find time to write a proposal for a conference or to meet with the students I’m mentoring, etc.? This pressure has already forced me to evaluate my time management skills and to reassess how well I use tools like Outlook to improve my own efficiency. Additionally, because of the intensive tenure-track evaluation process I’m also spending valuable work time keeping track of what I do on an ongoing basis. Other than the brief time I spent as a consultant with billable hours while I was at SirsiDynix I have never had to be so concerned with the minute-by-minute flow of each workday. Let’s just say that keeping track involves multiple spreadsheets, a Word document and a very detailed Outlook task list.

Then there is the new-to-me challenge of having to figure out where I fit in to the department workflow. With all of my previously-held library positions there were specific and easily visible responsibilities. At my last job it was very clear – if I didn’t do it, nobody did! Here we have a fairly good-sized collection management department and people tend to work collaboratively – which is great, even though sometimes I’m not sure if I am responsible for something or if somebody else is already working on it. For example, the process for ordering a new electronic resource involves different people being involved at different stages of the process, from decision-making to order records to contracts to invoicing to cataloging. When it comes to a straightforward new order I think I’ve gotten my role figured out…but if the order is for something a bit different – say, for converting a standing print order to a series of ongoing firm ebook orders – well, it can be confusing. Thankfully, I have colleagues that are willing to work together to figure out how to move forward in such situations!

I just don’t have time to list everything I’ve learned so far at UNT. I haven’t even gotten to the part about what it’s like being an Electronic Resources Librarian, a position relatively new to the library and lacking a universal job description (the ERLs I know all have widely disparate responsibilities). I will save that discussion for the presentation called ‘Fake it Til you Make It’ that I’m hoping to do at the ER&L Conference in Austin. Just to be clear, I am not complaining! I am very grateful for these new opportunities, enjoying the challenges, loving the personal growth I’m experiencing…and I even like Texas, especially the great big Texas skies.


Digging Into Institutional Data

I have both a professional and scholarly interest in how the students at the college where I work do their academic work, and (of course) whether and how they use the library. In my own research I’m much more likely to use qualitative than quantitative methods. I prefer interviews and other qualitative methods because they offer so much more depth and detail than surveys, though of course that comes at the expense of breadth of respondents. Still, I appreciate learning more about our students’ lives; these compelling narratives can be used to augment what we learn from surveys and other broad but shallow methods of data collection.

Not *that* kind of survey
Not *that* kind of survey

But even though I love a good interview, I can also be a part-time numbers nerd: I admit to enjoying browsing through survey results occasionally. Recently I was working on a presentation for a symposium on teaching and technology at one of the other colleges in my university system and found myself hunting around the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website for some survey data to help contextualize students’ use of technology. My university runs a student experience survey every 2 years, and until last week I hadn’t realized that the data collected this past Spring had just been released.

Reader, I nearly missed dinnertime as I fell down the rabbit hole of the survey results. It’s a fascinating look at student data points at the 19 undergraduate institutions that make up the university. There’s the usual info you’d expect from the institutional research folks — how many students are enrolled at each college, part-time vs. full-time students, race and ethnicity, and age, to name a few examples. But this survey asks students lots of other questions, too. How long is their commute? Are they the first in their family to attend college? How many people live in their household? Do they work at a job and, if so, how many hours per week? How often do they use campus computer labs? Do they have access to broadband wifi off-campus? If they transferred to their current college, why? How do they prefer to communicate with faculty and administrators?

My university isn’t the only one that collects this data, of course. I imagine there are homegrown and locally-administered surveys at many colleges and universities. There’s also the National Survey of Student Engagement, abbreviated NSSE (pronounced “Nessie” like the mythical water beast), which collects data from 1,500+ American and Canadian colleges and universities. The NSSE website offers access to the data via a query tool, as well as annual reports that summarize notable findings (fair warning: the NSSE website can be another rabbit hole for the numbers nerds among us). There’s also the very local data that my own college’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Research collects. This includes the number of students enrolled in each of the college’s degree programs, as well as changes through time. Retention and graduation rates are there for browsing on our college website, too.

What does all of this student data collected by offices of institutional research have to do with academic libraries? Plenty! We might use the number of students enrolled in a particular major to help us plan how to work with faculty in that department around information literacy instruction, for example. The 2012 annual NSSE report revealed that students often don’t buy their course textbooks because of the expense (as have other studies), findings that librarians might use to justify programs for faculty to create or curate open educational resources, as librarians at Temple University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have done. And at my library we’re using data on how and where students do their academic work outside of the library, both the university-collected survey results as well as qualitative data collected by me and my colleagues, to consider changes to the physical layout to better support students doing their academic work.

Have you ever found yourself captivated by institutional research data? How have you used college or university-wide survey results in your own library practice? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Farrukh.