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cover of Behemoth by Scott WesterfeldBelow is a description of a library from a user’s perspective, an excerpt from the most excellent steampunk teen novel Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld.  This book is the second in the series that started with Leviathan.  (Westerfeld’s website is really quite nicely designed incidentally, and properly steampunky of course).

Look to the text below for three negative user experience themes that we hear over and over again in libraries (and sometimes ignore to our detriment):

  • the intimidation factor of libraries
  • closed information systems means no serendipity or independence (and users like these things)
  • privacy concerns about information requests made to staff

An hour later Deryn was standing on a broad marble stair….Before her stood…the newest and largest library in Istanbul. Its huge brass columns gleamed in the sun, and its steam-powered revolving doors gathered and disgorged people without pausing. As she passed through them, Deryn had the same jitters she’d felt in the saloon car of the Orient Express. She didn’t belong in any place so fancy, and the bustle of so many machines made her dizzy.

The ceiling was a tangle of glass tubes, full of small cylinders zooming through them, almost too fast to see. The clicking fingers of calculation engines covered the walls….Clockwork walkers the size of hatboxes scrabbled along the marble floor, stacks of books weighing them down.

A small army of clerks waited behind a row of desks, but Deryn made her way through the vast lobby, headed toward the towering stacks of books. There looked to be millions of them, surely a few were in English.

But she found herself halted by a fancy iron fence that stretched all the way across the room. Every few feet there was a sign that repeated the same message in two dozen languages: CLOSED STACKS–ASK AT INFORMATION DESK.

….Did every wee sliver of knowledge have its own number? The system was probably quicker than wandering through the ceiling-high shelves, but what other books might she have found, doing it herself?

She looked up at the calculating engines that covered the walls, and wondered what they were up to. Did they record every question that the librarians had been asked? And if so, who looked at the results?

Now: here is my task for all of you. Think about your library. Think about how some of these factors might be barriers for your own users. What can you change about the physical environment to lessen these concerns? What about your digital environment? What can you change about policy or procedure? Staff training and instruction? The way-finding and workflow of you users’ experiences?

My guess is that there is a lot you can think of right now that you can change. And despite what you may think, you do have the power to effect change in your organization. Talk to your co-workers. Share this excerpt and think about what would make someone feel this way about your own library services and staff. And then start to change it, one step at a time. Just start. The rest will follow.

“What Steampunk Has to Teach Us about User Experience”

  1. Winnie Says:

    I work in a tiny library and I cannot imagine anyone being intimidated, although anything is possible. Our library is small enough that if you were looking for a book on, say, knitting, you could likely find one after wandering for a few minutes on your own. It’s the last issuse that is a real problem. It’s a small town. We know our patrons personally, that is, we would know them even if we didn’t work in the library. We know who their sister is married to and who their cousins are. We know patron A’s grandad ran off with paron B’s mum, even though both parties are now deaceased. It is really hard for them to ask for materials on personal matters. A friend of mine recently admitted that when she was first diagnoses with cancer she drove four hours to a larger town, stayed over night and spent 10 hours in their library researching where no one knew her. She assured me that it wasn’t that she doubted our ability to keep mum, it was about anyone at all that she knew knowing her diagnosis. There is also the issue of the very small building – you never know who is just behind those stacks who will hear you asking for a book on getting a divorce. It could be your mother-in-law.

  2. Sarah Says:

    @Winnie: You have perfectly outlined the pros and cons of a small library environment! People know each other–good for the friendliness factor, bad for perceived privacy. Same with small towns, small families, small workplaces… The human mind deals with the intimacy of small groups by needing to keep close tabs on every member. We’re just wired that way, and you can certainly see its impact in small libraries. Thank you for sharing your own experiences!

  3. Tweets that mention What Steampunk Has to Teach Us about User Experience | Librarian in Black Blog – Sarah Houghton-Jan -- Says:

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  4. Joan Giannone Says:

    Hi Sara!

    First of all – congrats on the new job! I am also delighted that you are continuing to publish your blog. I lovedthis article, esepcially the “3 negative user experience themes” and absolutely agree. (i also agree that this is not such a HUGE factor in small libraries – although my observation has been that the “regulars” in small Libraries often receive much friendlier service than “newbies” or strangers.) Anyway – I have featured your article in my blog at I feel that the User experience always needs to be considered and this is why pro-active, friendly services (like Roving) are so important for building relationships with Library Users.

  5. Dawn Says:

    First I looked up “Steampunk”… :) Interesting! I don’t know why I hadn’t ever heard of such a cool genre!

    I work in a very small academic library, and although I think it’s true we provide very good, warm, personalized service, I think our patrons are sometimes intimidated anyway. Many of them are adult students who’ve been out of school for a long time and are completely overwhelmed– especially by all of the new technologies they have to learn to nagivate just to GET TO their coursework. I’m sure they are also reluctant to ask questions that can easily be overheard in our little library and risk sounding “stupid” in front of their peers. Luckily, we will be moving into a new, bigger library in a year or so!

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  7. Ms. Yingling Says:

    Perhaps if a librarian had greeted Deryn quickly and happily, she wouldn’t have felt so overwhelmed!

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