Category Archives: Libraries and Community

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:

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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:

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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!

Assisting College Military Veterans in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Alejandro Marquez, Undergraduate Outreach and Instruction Librarian at North Dakota State University.

Student retention has been a big issue here on the North Dakota State University (NDSU) campus. My position was recently created within the library to work as a cooperative liaison with other on-campus support services and entities to address this issue, such as the tutoring center, disability services, and the counseling center, among others. This collaborative environment has sparked a positive conversation in our library that is focused on how to redefine the role of libraries on academic campuses and the integration of new and diverse support service roles.

One specific group that the library is actively seeking to form more diverse relationships with is military veterans. Library services for military veterans provide targeted opportunities for outreach and access to information. However, veterans as a user group are difficult to define as they may have served in Vietnam, during peace time, in the post 9/11 era, or in a number of other distinct situations. Each of these groups brings unique and diverse experiences in terms of age, education, life experience, health, and socioeconomic status. Unlike library services to people of color or older adults, there are no identifying social, ethnic, geographic, cultural, or chronological markers for veterans.

There are currently 1,388,028 active personnel in the armed forces and 850,880 reserve personnel. As the United States withdraws forces from around the world, this number should decrease. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides financial support for education and housing to returning veterans and their families and since August 2009, the VA has provided educational benefits to 773,000 veterans and their family members, amounting to more than $20 billion in benefits. Former service members can utilize their educational benefits for up to fifteen years.

Here are a few examples of the ways libraries can assist college military veterans:

  1. Provide training sessions for library staff to increase awareness, as well as the knowledge and skills needed to address and examine the stereotypes and challenges veterans may face.
  2. Develop a social media presence to target veterans groups on Twitter and Facebook through local VA administration offices, campus and community groups.
  3. Develop an outreach strategy to provide educational and vocational workshops and invite veterans to speak about and share their experiences.
  4. Provide classes on financial security. Many veterans may not know the various educational rights and responsibilities available to them under the GI Bill. These benefits may include a housing allowance, vocational/technical training, flight training, correspondence training, licensing and national testing programs, entrepreneurship training, and tutorial assistance. Additionally, many veterans can qualify for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) free of charge. Another topic of interest within financial security is money management. Some individuals may have entered the service quite young and may not have had the opportunity to develop a strong financial management skill set.
  5. Sponsor a career services fair in the library. Veterans come with unique skill sets that many employers find attractive, such as leadership skills and the ability to perform well in difficult situations. Activities can include a resume workshop, career strengths assessment, and an interviewing skills class.
  6. Create displays of books, magazines and DVDs that highlight veteran issues or information that might be of interest such as entrepreneurship, financial literacy, test preparation manuals, and military history.
  7. Libraries can promote other support services that are available on campus and often free of charge such as counseling, disability services, and tutoring
  8. On an institutional level, the campus could develop an initiative to include “veteran classifications” as data points. NDSU currently includes “Veterans Data” within their enrollment census summary statistics. However, demographic data points such as “veteran” do not appear to be included within graduation statistics. Adding this type of demographic data can show the number of veteran students who graduate from NDSU.

One challenge is that some students will choose not to self-identify as former members of the armed forces. Others may also feel that they should know how to do certain educational tasks already. As a result, libraries and on-campus support services need to develop innovative practices that meet the diverse informational needs of this population. No one person or office can address all of veteran students’ needs. Meeting the needs of veterans requires libraries to focus on the whole person while providing services that look after their mental, physical and emotional well-being. Many of the suggestions listed above would require strategic partnerships with other on-campus and community entities to ensure successful implementation.

The NDSU Libraries have found that many of the suggestions on the above list would be difficult to implement at this time. As an institution, we may have the time, manpower, and money to make these ideas a reality. However, the question often raised is “should we?” Should we undertake these efforts with this specific user population? What is the return on investment? Workshops and career services fairs do not fit into our current mission statement of providing reliable academic resources. This type of programming might be better suited to a public library which focuses on broader information needs. Additionally, there are so many other support services on campus that it seems ill advised for the library to invent a program that could be handled more adeptly by others.

These types of “should we” questions are important because they allow us to consider if our ideas and our justifications have merit. However, I think that we also need to ask the question: why shouldn’t we? This alternative question helps us examine the reasons why it could be advantageous to implement these types of suggestions. Librarians are always seeking contact with students and can use this programming as a means of connecting with this often hidden population.

Serendipity’s Not Just for the Stacks

The past week or so has been filled with the rush and excitement of the beginning of the academic year, new and returning faculty and students arriving on campus, a huge change from the quiet days of summer. I’ve just finished up a couple of commitments at my college and university that seem quite different at first glance, but have similarities that I find especially interesting at the beginning of a new semester.

One is a large collegewide grant that focuses on General Education at the college of technology where I work. A core activity of the grant is an annual professional development seminar that draws in full-time and adjunct faculty from across the campus to read, work, and learn together, and ultimately redesign the courses they teach. In the four years of the grant thus far we’ve seen participation from faculty members in nearly every department: from English to Nursing, Hospitality Management to Architectural Technology, and Biology to Computer Systems Technology, just to name a few.

The other commitment is a course that I co-taught last semester at my university’s graduate school in a certificate program in technology and pedagogy. I taught the class with fellow CUNY faculty member Michael Mandiberg, who has a background in art, design, and media culture; my background is anthropology and LIS, and we complemented each other well in teaching the course. Our students were also drawn from a range of disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Most were near the end of their coursework and preparing for their exams and dissertation proposals.

The biggest raves from faculty participants in the grant project at my college were about the opportunity to work with colleagues in other departments. Again and again, faculty have told us that they appreciate having the time and space for interdisciplinary conversations about teaching and learning. And it was fascinating to me to see the same enthusiasm in the graduate students I taught as well, their desire for conversations outside of their disciplinary silos happening before they’d even finished their degrees.

In libraries we often talk about offering opportunities for serendipity in the stacks, recognizing that sometimes browsing can suggest productive tangents or reveal connections that aren’t obvious. Reflecting on the end of my work on the grant and the course I’ve been thinking about serendipity of people, too: human resources, not just information sources. Laura wrote about this a couple of years back when she described a colleague who moved from a crowded building to a new lab, which, while spacious, was no longer in the thick of things, and how much she missed running into colleagues.

Small college libraries like the one where I work are all about students from different majors working and interacting: the library is an inherently interdisciplinary space. Can we encourage the serendipity of interdisciplinary conversations for faculty, too? A dedicated faculty area of the library is one option, though that may be a challenge for smaller libraries where space is at a premium. At my library we’re also thinking about forming a faculty advisory group to encourage regular discussion between librarians and faculty at the college, which may also provide opportunities for interdisciplinary conversations. Partnering with other offices on campus like the Center for Teaching and Learning or the Writing Center to offer workshops or brown bag discussions is another possibility.

Have you found success in fostering interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty in your library? Let us know in the comments!

From Public to Academic: Reflections on a Transition

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Raymond Pun, Research and Reference Services Librarian at New York University, Shanghai, China. Tweet him anything @oboro85 (yes, he can tweet in China!).

As this spring semester is coming to an end, I finally have the opportunity to reflect on my first year working as an academic librarian. This is a unique position, because I also work abroad: New York University Shanghai, a portal campus that is affiliated with New York University. I joined the team on September 2013 and started working in Shanghai on November 2013.

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In the past I worked as a librarian in a public library for three years: The New York Public Library: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. I worked in NYPL for a total of six years or so. It seems very fitting for me to write about my transition from public to academic in this post.

For the most part, I see some very strong connections in terms of similar service philosophies and standards, yet I also see the contrast of the work cultures and expectations. But it’s also true that I worked in two very uniquely situated institutions: a major public research library and a new academic university in China. It isn’t like I am comparing a branch library experience to a state university library one. However, I do want to share some of these insights despite the unique arrangements, to see how both worlds share a deeper affinity than they think.

During the interview process for my current academic position, I was asked about my background as a public librarian and how that background can translate into academic librarianship. It would be very difficult for someone to explain why he/she decided to move into academic librarianship if he/she had only been involved in the public library world. But then again, why apply for an academic library position?

In my case, I argued that I was very active in professional associations such as ALA, ACRL, ACRL-NYC, and I frequently wrote and presented my research. I provided reference services to scholars, students, grad students, and anyone working on a research project in NYPL. I’ve worked with Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Geniuses, HBO documentary filmmakers, New York Times journalists, U.N ambassadors, New Yorker writers, curators from the Huntington Library in California to the American Finance Museum in New York, and of course, undergraduates. I’ve had the opportunity to “embed” myself in academic courses as well, specifically in St. John’s University’s history departments, working along with Dr. Elaine Carey on various grant-funded projects on historical research for undergraduates.

So I felt comfortable with my experiences in NYPL to work in an academic library. However, I soon discovered that there are still many new things to learn once I got into the academic world. But after a while, it wasn’t all that difficult since my public library background did prepare me for this transition too.

First, the patron: the patron comes first. Of course, you want to show the patron how to find the items by him/herself so any teachable moment is an opportunity for any librarian to seize. NYPL and NYU definitely encouraged this behavior. Also if an item is not available, always offer alternative resources or suggestions. I learned that at NYPL: use ILL, METRO passes or any kind of open access resource that can substitute the item for the patron if possible. And finally, follow ups, which are nice either in person or by email. Public or academic patrons love librarians that care about their research progress. This is a sure way to develop rapport with the patron. From an academic side, this person may come back to use the library and may want to ask the librarian to teach their class. For the public side, this person may come back and also write an advocacy letter on behalf of the library when it goes through major budget cuts.

Second, service goals and committees: I think it largely depends on where you work and have worked. I see that my current institution fosters and emphasizes service and personal goals, which can be very useful to measure your progress and development. In the public library world, I had informal conversations about my projects and goals but never anything official. It was different there: I still accomplished a lot as a public librarian but I wasn’t being evaluated based on these service goals, and I was self-motivated to achieve them as well. As for committees, I served and am serving on various committees and I enjoy committee work because it lets me work with new people to collaborate and come up with creative or innovative solutions. Both emphasized collaboration and teamwork to support the library in various ways.

Third, schedules: this is obvious. Academic librarians will have busy moments during the semester such as midterm and finals week but they also have downtime or periods of recess where there are no students or faculty around. Unfortunately public librarians don’t have that luxury and every day is busy but different. For me, sometimes I like that rushed feeling where there’s always something to work on and something new to try, but now I also enjoy these periodic breaks: spring, winter, and summer breaks where I get to plan, reflect and think about new projects, ideas or solutions to work on. I get a chance to utilize that other side of my brain to think of better ways to improve user experiences. In the public library, I had to think on my feet and if there were opportunities for service changes, I reported them right away. There was not as much time to really reflect.

Forth, community partnerships: public libraries are engaged with their communities for the most part. I think academic libraries have the potential to partner with their communities outside the institution and I know some are already doing that. For obvious reasons, the public library needs to foster these community partnerships with schools, prisons, senior centers, etc., but academic libraries don’t really need to. In my current position, I feel like I am doing “community partnerships” where I am closely working with the Career Development Center, Public Affairs, Office of Student Life, Academic Resource Center, and Development. The people that work in these departments are staff of the university, however, they typically aren’t the library’s clientele. I collaborate with these different groups so that I can learn more about their roles in the university and they learn more about the library and most importantly, we learn to enhance our services and support to the students and faculty.

I definitely enjoy my work as an academic librarian now and I also feel grateful that I had the opportunity to work as a public librarian, to share my knowledge with the public and anyone who needed help. The transition wasn’t all that bad after all but I also happen to be an optimistic person when it comes to change! If you have also made the transition from public to academic or from academic to public, I would love to read your comments about your transitioning experiences or insights!

Professional Jurisdiction

One of the many things I love about my position is that I’m one of only 3 librarians.  This means I have a fairly liberal allowance for things I can get away with, professionally speaking.  If I want to create my own outreach events, my boss invariably says “Go for it!”  If I want to create video tutorials to teach students how to retrieve full-text articles from our databases, the idea is met with “How soon can you make it happen?”  In other words, I’m not bound by the same position-specific job roles other librarians in large institutions may have.  I’m the outreach, reference, systems, emerging technologies, and instruction librarian all at once.

One of the challenges of this position, though, is navigating my professional jurisdiction.  My institution is very small (less than 1000 enrolled students) but we pride ourselves on spectacular support services.  We have Master’s-degreed writing and math tutors whose schedules are always full; we librarians spend most of our days meeting one-on-one with students for research consultations or conducting information literacy workshops.  But every so often, we’ll be presented with a unique student need and not know who to defer it to.  Unlike most of my first year librarian counterparts, I typically interact with students much older than myself: the average age of a student at my university is 38.  This means that some of our students are behind the technological curve and need some help catching up with basic computer skills. Is this the job of the academic librarian?

Public, and likely community college, libraries offer several classes a month in basic computer literacy skills.  They offer courses on setting up Email, Internet 101, and basic office software.   In addition to teaching these necessary computer basics, the courses might also cover more “high concept” topics like internet privacy and the politics of the publishing industry.  Typically, though, academic libraries do not offer these types of courses; maybe because the average college student is a digital native, or maybe because the university is in a city with a robust public library where the librarians can refer students with this need.  So when I began noticing a real need for technology support I couldn’t find many academic libraries to use for models.  For some reason, computer literacy workshops just don’t seem to fit in the library’s purview.

The library as a concept and place is in flux.  The needs of our students, the format of our collections, and the media through which we interact with the campus are all changing.  This means that as librarians, we’re always challenged to say one step ahead: to try to figure out how to best utilize our limited budgets and resources to meet the needs of visitors, students, faculty, and colleagues.  In this case of my campus, maybe this means taking on some of the more basic computer training.  Did I get my Master’s to teach classes in Microsoft Word?  No, not really.  But I did get my Master’s to facilitate a love of auto didacticism and self-sufficiency and life-long learning in my community.   However, I don’t want to lose the value of libraries by being a “one-stop-shop” or step on other campus department’s toes.  The question that remains on my mind is, given the changing demographics and needs of campus communities, where do library services begin and end?

Has your library faced a similar challenge?  How do you navigate where the library’s professional jurisdiction begins and ends?  Leave a comment or respond via Twitter, @beccakatharine.