The “Valar Morghulis” of UX

If you have a few thousand dollars to spare, you can buy a pair of small hand weights made by the fashion designer Louis Vuitton. I know this because someone posted a tongue-in-cheek availability alert about them to a discussion forum earlier in the pandemic, when everyone was scrounging to build up their home gyms while supplies were scarce.

Like many people, for the past two years, I’ve reinvested the money saved from not paying for a fitness center membership by accumulating a small assortment of weights kept in a corner of my basement. Most items were bought used. Reuse is better than buying new, after all. I still keep an eye on third-party marketplaces for bargains, although by now my collection is pretty much complete. Along the way, I’ve learned a bit about restoring rusty iron, improved my spray painting technique, managed to deal with a variety of personalities all looking to get for themselves the best deal, and, of course, had the chance to adapt by making do with what was on hand.

Exercise should be enjoyable in and of itself, but it’s also in many regards a means to an end. Ultimately, and this is a quote I try to keep in mind when browsing the listings of fancier shiny or vintage items, “It makes no difference, because the muscle doesn’t see what you’re holding in your hands.” That was said by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, responding to the rather vapid question, “Dumbbells or kettlebells?

The experience of using a set of dingy weights is, cell fibers notwithstanding, admittedly different than working out with higher-end ones. Think of the analogous distinction between driving a luxury car in comparison to an old beater, both of which will get you where you need to go. Some people likewise spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on their home gyms. Look at this metal paradise of Dwayne Johnson’s, for instance.

And yet, I’m reminded of the parable about how the average power drill is supposedly used for just a few minutes of its lifetime. Anyway, it’s not as if I have a bunch of bottlecaps sitting in a display case collecting dust, but cultivating our home gym was a project that gave me a sense of purpose, and was probably the closest I’ve come to being a collector of anything.

So why am I talking about this on a library blog? Well, a central theme of my writing is that, as a profession (and a species as well), we need to deal a lot better with change, namely by acknowledging that our procedures must evolve along with technological advances. This requires that we jettison attachments to habits which are based on incidental factors beyond their functional value and true purpose.

To those of you who hate discovery layers, I have some good news for you: they’re going away. I’m not sure when, but at some point in time, they’ll join the ranks of by now hopefully your OPAC, itself little more than a GUI version of the first telnet catalogs, as well as physical card catalogs and printed indexes, as an overall inferior method for conducting library research. There will be trade-offs and learning curves and growing pains along the way, but we have to admit to ourselves that what we have in place now is not built to last for an eternity. Circumstantial modifications for the better, in both form and function, to the tools we use must be allowed to occur.

This can be a tough pill to swallow. Our fear of change manifests itself in a rich pathology of defense mechanisms and stages of grief. We’re more prone to enshrine current conditions than to accept the transient nature of the world, of which, not to be overly grim, humans are not exempt.

Moreover, the status quo within libraries is not exactly prone to turn on a dime. This was several years ago, but I recall how I applied for my current position in February. I started the job that August. I was given a work area with no chair, and had to make do with an antique one from the reference room. My request for a desk chair was eventually fulfilled, in November.

Fast forward to 2022 and I am still finding that a good deal of my job is waiting for other people to do theirs. And in particular, the pace of organizational change doesn’t seem to be keeping up with that of the environment around us. We can’t substantially update the website in the middle of the semester, we have to wait until summer to do virtually any other major housekeeping, and so on.

As much as I am a fan of the slow librarianship movement as a call for safeguarding worker rights and our overall well-being, I would also say that libraries themselves still need to be more than a little faster when it comes to how they adapt to evolving user needs and expectations. Another related concept is how our vocational awe—not that we’re not awesome, mind you, especially in the ways that we continue to stand apart from commercial interests which monetize personal data—can make us blind to deficiencies such as these, especially when it is used as an excuse for perpetuating inequitable systems and not acknowledging how things can go wrong with libraries.

I recently switched phone platforms. Although it took me a little while to get up to speed with the different ways of doing things, I can now communicate with friends and check the weather and look at dog photos just as I did on my old device. Is it worth getting hung up on whether a fingerprint or a thumbprint is the best way to unlock a phone? Change happens. And not always for the worse. Problem is, librarians have long and good memories. I recently heard a remark about how, “memory must be the devil.” When fond recollections for how things used to be accomplished trip up our ability to realize how a better means to the same ends can eventually make everyone’s lives a little easier, that assertion definitely rings true.

There’s an art and a science to searching. Hard and fast procedures exist for say plugging in a DOI to the appropriate search box, while yet a more ineffable qualia of individual experiences are also at play. One person’s fondness for musty smells is another’s distracting nuisance, in other words. Not surprisingly, I find it easier to deal with the nuts and bolts of for example fixing broken links than it is to tackle the inherently impossible task of pleasing constituents with a full array of aesthetic preferences about how an interface should look and feel, not to mention operate.

It’s certainly not as challenging to please people with a more logical and less dogmatic mindset about their ideal nature of library services than it is fielding laments that boil down to, “but we’ve always done it another way.” We aren’t entirely rational creatures, however. Indeed, I’m sympathetic to the bumper sticker slogan of how, “Earth without art is just eh.” But I’m also not rushing out to buy music on vinyl records, either.

What makes life worth living, to me, is pursuing progress for the sake of making gains in how we get stuff done. Everyone has a slightly different take on that. We’re not the Borg Collective, after all, although their refrain of, “We wish to improve ourselves” should still apply to every single last one of us. More often than not, that doesn’t mean keeping things exactly as they are.

Further Reading

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