Thoughts on improving library UX

Originally written as classwork for the University of Illinois LIS program.

Think about the statistics — circulation, reference questions, program attendance — that your library records and reports. Which, if any, report on user experience?

The library I have the most experience working at is the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois. While we do report statistics like circulation, reference questions, and library attendance, the librarians working here also seem to recognize that these sort of stats are not the only thing that matter in measuring the success of the library.

What could your library be recording and reporting that are indicators of user experience?

I think libraries in general need a better focus on questions like the 5 Whys that Aaron recently posted. We should be looking less at how many people are coming through the library and more at how they’re experiencing the library, and why. This will open up new ideas about how we can remodel things, like the physical space of the library, to optimize our patrons’ experiences.

The good news is that the new head librarian that started at Ricker a few months ago seems really interested in improving these sorts of things. She’s taken a real initiative to look at the structure of how the library is currently working, and a lot of that includes simply observing — being out in the library at different times of the day and week just to observe what areas and practices could possibly be re-thought.

She also asks a lot of the current staff members (including myself and the other grad assistants), why things are currently being done the way they are, which I think is so crucial for libraries to do. Especially in a scenario where certain practices have been set up for many years, it’s easy to fall into patterns that are explained as “that’s just the way we’ve always done it.” I think libraries need to be working to continually improve themselves, and that includes constant questioning and examining of our procedures and how they are (or aren’t) improving the experience of those using and working at the library.

What are some steps libraries can take to transition from using circulation statistics to using other, perhaps more engaging, methods of reporting what they do?

I think it’s hard to distill user experience down into the sort of quantitative statistics that stakeholders are often very interested in. I completely agree that we need to be moving beyond the current model, to a new one that emphasizes different aspects of value. I think that will require a shift towards perhaps more time-consuming, but hopefully more illuminating and encompassing models of qualitative research and reporting, incorporating many of the practices we’ve looked at in this class.

Ultimately, I think we need to get stakeholders interested in the human value of libraries rather than data and statistics that is purely about numbers. We need stakeholders interested in the quality of the services that the library offers, rather than solely the quantity of people served.

Reflect on the mission of libraries, and how that should impact the future of libraries.

The mission of most libraries, to me, is to provide a space — physical and otherwise — that fosters interactive (whether it be with other people or with the resources we have to offer) learning and experiences for a community. Measuring the quality and success of learning and experiences is inherently more multifaceted than looking at only quantitative statistics, so I think we need to focus on incorporating qualitative methods of evaluation in order to guarantee that we’re measuring the success of libraries on more than circulation stats and headcounts.

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