Below 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.