A Day for Design

Last week I attended the ACRL/NY Symposium here in New York City. It was the first time I’d been to my local chapter’s annual program and a fun day: great speakers and posters and a nice opportunity to catch up with colleagues from libraries in the NYC metro area. The theme of this year’s program was Innovation by Design: Re-Visioning the Library which, as the day’s first speaker reminded us, could not be more timely. Bill Mayer, University Librarian at American University in DC, started us off with his talk “Redesigning Relevance: Creating New Traditions in Library Design.” He noted that in this economic climate renovation is often the new new construction: many of our institutions won’t have the budget for new buildings, so it’s important to make the most of what we have.

Mayer reminded us that the recent Ithaka report reveals that faculty use of our physical spaces is declining. He encouraged us to think about how we can make the library best for students, our primary users. He sees library-as-warehouse as an outdated model, and recommends reducing the collections and materials kept onsite as well as increasing reliance on consortial collections to free up more space for students to use.

Mayer shared some of the ways that this kind of redesign has been implemented at American University. After moving many volumes to offsite storage, they discovered that the additional space available for the books that remained made it easier for students to find books. Students wanted more computer workstations and access to wireless, so they added more space for student work too. Mayer cautioned that of course local conditions matter — there’s no one size fits all approach. He suggests making our process inclusive and asking faculty, students, and administrators for input during the process.

The next speaker was Lauren Pressley, Instructional Design Librarian at Wake Forest University, who presented “Re-Visioning Teaching: Adapting to a Changing Educational Environment.” She began by acknowledging that libraries are changing, as is higher education: there’s more information and technology, and higher expectations and costs. How can academic libraries adapt to these changes? Pressley suggests that instructional design can help. Systematic design can provide structure for our library instruction and produce data we can assess, which is becoming increasingly important for demonstrating the value of our libraries.

Pressley assured us that we are already engaging in instructional design in our libraries, we just might not be aware of the vocabulary that can be used to discuss it. She described the ADDIE model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. Most of us probably follow these steps when creating library and research instruction, whether for in-person one-shots or multiple sessions, or for other forms of student research support like tutorials or research guides. Pressley encouraged us to find the best instructional solutions for our students and situations.

Aaron Schmidt, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the DC Public Library and one half of the consulting team Influx Library User Experience, was up after lunch, with “Librarians as Designers: Making Deliberate Decisions.” He wants librarians to be proud of what we offer, and provide our users with better experiences. Schmidt began by showing us examples of poorly-designed signs and experiences. He emphasized that everything is designed, even if by neglect; design is arranging things for a purpose, and we can choose to have good design in our libraries.

Schmidt thinks that libraries are spread thin trying to be lots of things to lots of people — we could make 50% of people ecstatic about our services rather than 100% lukewarm. He recommends that we practice design and look at the actions of our users more than their motivations. What are people doing in our libraries, and how can that knowledge guide our design? One interesting suggestion is to implement a “work like a student” day in which we use only the resources that students have access to, for example, public workstations and study areas. Schmidt reminds us that ultimately libraries are about solving problems for people, and well-designed experiences can help.

The day’s final speaker was Leah Buley, Experience Designer (with an MLIS) at design firm Adaptive Path, who spoke about “User Research in the Library: How to Understand and Design for Patrons’ Needs.” She noted that user research can help us understand how people really experience information and how we can help them use the tools that are available in our libraries. Buley began by mentioning a few exemplary user studies, for example, the University of Washington’s website redesign revealed confusion over what is available on a library website, which suggests that users may be confused about what is available in the library. In a study at Cal Poly, students led the research to evaluate a federated search product, which helped students broaden their views about library services.

Buley reminded us to “Know Thy User,” and detailed a variety of user research methods we may want to implement. We can examine log files to find out what search terms are being used, which can help us learn what users are looking for. Ethnographic methods like observation, timelines, and diary studies can give us a window into user needs and experience. Paper can be put to good use to prototype design ideas, or we can invite our users to codesign by drawing their ideas. Buley suggests that we ask what we need to know about our users — the answers will guide us in choosing our research methods.

The Symposium gave me lots of library design possibilities to think about and I’ll definitely need some time to digest it all. The program organizers will be adding notes and slides from the speakers to the Symposium website soon, so head over there for more information. And if you’re interested in reading more about design thinking for libraries, our own Steven Bell blogs regularly at Designing Better Libraries. Thanks to everyone involved for a great day!

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

2 thoughts on “A Day for Design

  1. I really love that “work like a student day” idea. In fact, I think it would be very cool to collaborate with other libraries and have a “be like a new student figuring stuff out” event – gathering impressions of what it’s like to use the space, services, and resources. I borrowed an assignment used at Metro State in St. Paul and adapted it for interns at our library that sends them into libraries looking for some of the things they should expect and recording what the experience is like. As I looked it over I wondered how our library would fare. We should probably find out!

    And sometime in the rest of the year I am personally going to try out “work like a student day.” Though I may have to take my laptop with me for part of the day.

  2. I did the “work like a student day” somewhat accidentally last semester when I was doing ethnographic research at another college library at my university. It was *enormously* interesting and useful: I schlepped my laptop, lunch, books, papers, etc. on the subway; searched for available outlets in the library; figured out when was the least crowded time to eat in the cafeteria; etc. My research partner had similar experiences at our other research site, too. I hadn’t expected to have this additional participant observation-style data to include in our analysis, and I think it’ll be a really valuable addition.

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