The Library in the Life of the User part 1 – destination Chicago

Hancock Tower

Hancock Tower opposite the conference hotel

I am looking forward to attending the LibUX in a day event this week.  In anticipation of that here are some posts lightly edited from ones I wrote for work…

As part of my work getting interested in LibUX I found myself dispatched on short notice to the other side of the Atlantic to attend the OCLC event “The Library in the Life of the user” in Chicago (a number of the talks were recorded and I will link these as appropriate). This is the first of three posts talking about what I heard and found while I was there.  Subsequent posts will talk through the second half of the event and detail a visit I made to an interesting local library.

I flew out to Chicago the day before the event and spent a happy few hours reading a range of books on ethnographic approaches that I had downloaded from EBL before departure (my user experience was the pages of one book turning black on me when the loan expired).  My favourites were User experience (UX) design for libraries which is a great short read on designing better websites for library services.  I also read the ERIAL toolkit – a practical guide to ethnographic research in libraries where I felt the information on coding data was particularly clear.  Alongside this I watched More than usable – library services for humans which was the closing keynote from the UXLibs conference in 2015 – a great broader discussion of why usability and user experience matter (with fun space travel anecdote).

I managed to find my hotel and meet up for a bite to eat with a mate from Library School who happened to be in town for the giant Society for Neuroscience Conference.



The next day I woke up bright and early (Chicago is GMT-6) answered a load of email and went for an early morning wander when it finally got light.  I then managed to talk my way into the Galter Health Sciences Library at the Feinberg School of Medicine – blog post to follow on this.

The conference kicked off after lunch with an opening talk by Lorcan Dempsey from OCLC.  This was an informative run through to set the context.  He was quite pleased with the title of the conference as a shift from the traditional model of considering the user in the life of the library to one where we are interested in the library in the life of the user – until two people sent him a 1973 PhD that used the same phrase.

He described shifts taking places in education models and the technological environment.  In a digital world the library needs to organize itself around the workflow of researchers and learners. We have been about outcomes but increasingly need to be about the process (reuse, data, copyright, revision and discussion).  He made use of some great infographics from to illustrate the players in the research flow.  For him there needs to be a big shift towards engagement.  This will involve innovation and increased collaboration.  He illustrated this with work that has happened around collections where discoverability has redefined collection boundaries and moved the focus from ownership to access. It is a hard to summarise the talk but I recommend it for people who want to better understand how changes to academic working practice will influence our future plans.

Next was a talk on what we can learn from research about online communities – specifically Wikipedia editors.  Aaron Shaw suggests that free culture communities have a two part mission – access to knowledge and empowerment that chimes well with library culture.  His research has shown that while access has been improving empowerment has not.  The marker for this is a decreasing number of active Wikipedia editors.  One very clear finding is that the introduction of login being required to edit was a big disincentive – it reduced the need to revert vandalism but saw a larger drop in content creation.  The discouraging effects of logins are a familiar story for libraries!  There is also a significant gender gap in the editing community.  I wonder to what extent we have tried to consider variations in usage in this way?  Do some demographics make additional use of our services?  Do they use them in different ways?

We were encouraged to learn from parallel worlds and to create user centric strategies.

After a quick break we heard from Andrew Asher (of the Erial project above) on Why Ethnography?  He explained how a library is like a tropical island

What are libraries?

Libraries are social institutions

Libraries are social relations. Social relations embedded in those of other social institutions

Libraries are technologies

Libraries are symbols and symbolic systems

Libraries are beliefs

Libraries are practices (people doing things)

Which all add up to what anthropologists call culture.

He went on to discuss three ethnographic approaches so watch the talk if you want to learn more about observing, mapping and interview approaches.  You will hear about what people include on their personal maps of libraries (in short – computers and social areas – never the librarians) and you can see how we might consider where students spend their time and how it influences the collections they need.

Last up for the day was Paul Jervis Heath from the Modern Human Design Agency with his talk on work at the University of Cambridge. For him design is more than the visual. Other parts of iceberg – information, interaction, structure, concept, proposition. The Microsoft Zune MP3 player – worked well as a piece of kit but had no itunes software equivalent so managing the music was basically your problem and it failed accordingly. He talks about some of the cool projects that Cambridge have been working on – like an appstore and theSpacefinder.  His point was that only by observing closely and then reimagining what we can do will we invent the future.

The day ended with a reception at theNewberry Library where sadly we only saw a function room and a temporary display on theatre in Chicago.  I popped off after for a drink on the 96th floor of the Hancock Tower with some nice Canadian Librarians.

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