Qualia of the Library User Experience

John Hubbard
5 min readMar 30, 2018

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”
Mostly Harmless

If everybody knew how to use a library as well as a librarian, a good many librarians would find themselves out of a job. The same could be said of several professions: personal accountants, auto mechanics, and so on. We’re a bit different, however. What I would argue, and this is something worth striving for, is that it shouldn’t require a graduate degree in library science to get the most out of your library.

As with just about any service point nowadays, we have a variation of the 80/20 rule going on, wherein the, I wouldn’t necessarily say “stupidest” few percent of our patron base, but certainly the more naïve sort of clientele, when it comes to possessing knowledge about modern research methods, are responsible for a sizeable bulk of our support incidents, compared to a relatively silent proportion of library users, namely the thousands of individuals who search for, connect to, and download materials, all without a need to call upon our expertise for assistance.

And that’s the paradox of practicing good customer relationship management. If you ignore the people who don’t complain about what you’re providing, because it works perfectly fine for them, you run the risk of ending up with a worse product overall by only making changes based on negative feedback. When a colleague tells me something along the lines of, “I’m hearing a lot of complaints about the website,” it almost always ends up being traced back to a single individual, and maybe even a hypothetical one at that — as in, another librarian is worried that people will misinterpret a particular design element or function of an interface, so it must be changed.

Every major library vendor out there regularly conducts user and usability testing on their own products, and their development process is far more extensive and rigorous than we have the resources to undertake. It should therefore set the bar pretty darn high as to what proof we would need for adequately demonstrating that deviating from the default look and feel or any other initial settings is at all justified. These are complex, delicate, and frequently updated systems. We should avoid any customizations which may be technically possible yet aren’t warranted. It’s definitely proven best to focus our assessment efforts on broken functionality and new features, rather than inherently subjective aesthetics such as font choices and page layout.

You simply can’t please everyone, yet a library is for all. That’s qualified in the case of school libraries and whatnot, but even specialized libraries must cater to members from a broad range of demographic backgrounds. Problem patrons, super patrons, and each person in between are all over the map when it comes to their experiences, needs, and expectations of your library’s services. There are also the infrequent and non-users to consider as well.

The admittedly left-leaning media I read and listen to has made some obvious attempts in the past year to offer up profiles of Trump supporters in the red states, perhaps as a way to burst some filter bubbles about the 46.09% of voters who elected our president. To call upon the classics, it is worth remembering that not all of the people in this world have had the advantages that you’ve had. To know and think like someone else, be they a friend or an enemy, we need to climb inside of their skin and walk around in it for a few miles.

Fortunately, some fairly rigorous ethnographic studies of library users and their behaviors have already been conducted. When it comes to identifying where services are and are not needed, that’s all well and good, but some librarians still think they know best how a library should have to be used. There is a place for some tough love when it comes to refusing to accommodate outlandish requests, not to mention nudging people towards more efficient practices, but we don’t need to needlessly antagonize our users, either.

For example, an upcoming feature in the library management system we use will allow us to forbid someone from checking out a book twice in a row. This new circulation option was created by the vendor based on its customers’ demands, apparently as a remedy for perceived situations where there wasn’t equitable access to popular titles. Nevertheless, the desire to have books sit on a shelf instead of being used, albeit repeatedly, is to me a curious interpretation of the adage about “to every reader their book.”

Moreover, no matter how much we study library users, there’s an element of subjectivity which curtails our awareness of their private mental states. I can be mindful of, appreciate, and emphasize with the background of a novice library user, and also position myself as a means to which such patrons may become more empowered researchers, but I will never again understand what it’s like to not know how to read a call number, or clear browser cookies, or what it’s like to look at web-based applications from the perspective of a digital native, for that matter.

Early anthropologists likely observed what they may have called backwards cultures with an air of disdain. As someone whose job it is to understand how libraries work, it is at times similarly a challenge not to judge those people who need my help as therefore inferior due to their lack of esoteric knowledge. However, just as antagonizing Trump voters is no way to win them over, serving library users with different skill sets entails meeting them, at least to start, on their preferred playing field.

That’s why I’m extremely wary of internal feedback about our interfaces, because they’re not built for librarians. Or so I would hope. In business, giving customers what they want isn’t totally practical, since what people really want is better products for free. Libraries can actually deliver on that desire, but only if we first accept that the best library services are made to meet real patron needs, not idealized conceptions of how librarians want things to be.

Further Reading