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Future Ready: The Emerging New Library/Librarian Experience

Posted by Stephen Abram on 1/23/2018
Stephen Abram
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future-library.jpgLibraries and librarians are all about experiences. How would you describe the experience of dealing with you? What are the benefits? In this post, I’d like to explore the knowledge experience and how it has changed over the years with respect to the library/librarian value proposition. As we enter an era of new opportunities it’s wise to see how we got to this point.

First, let’s start with an assumption and my bias. I don’t believe that you can call anything a library unless there’s an information professional (librarian, technician, archivist, records manager, etc.) involved. In the old days that would have been merely a book room or warehouse for paper. It wasn’t a library at all and wouldn’t be today. Today, a web presence without the involvement and animation of an information pro is just a website—truly plain and simple. A search box simply doesn’t meet the mark in rising to be a true modern library experience, since there’s not, to my mind and opinion, enough value-added in the experience. In order to define something/somewhere as a library there must be some personal increase in the value received in the experience that results in the transformation of the user. Otherwise we’re just talking transactions—downloads, hits, search results, copies, circulation, etc. The user is merely some bytes or paper copies heavier. And, while transactions are easy to count, these statistics don’t begin to show the amazing impact of interacting with trained information professionals and librarians—and the measurable and transformational alignment with personal, corporate or institutional goals.

The 4 stages in the history of physical and virtual library experiences:

Stage 1: access to library books

Many moons (centuries!) ago, the library thrived by providing access to book collections for free (or at least paid for by others). We made sure they were findable through catalogues and supported circulation. In this era critical advantage came just from having good collections, unfettered use and convenient hours.

When we were challenged by the web we moved our internally-oriented inventory management and circulation systems on to terminals and the web. This continues today with the emergence of huge databases of eBooks and articles for access and download. Commercial systems like Amazon, Overdrive, and Lynda.com have proven that readers and researchers wanted something more—to create metadata, and interact and share with other readers and researchers.

Stage 2: services added to the book foundation

Fairly quickly it was discovered that users had problems and questions that couldn’t be solved easily just by providing access to information contained in books and articles. Services inside libraries rose to the challenge and librarians and information professionals started to improve the quality of questions through more end user research support. Eventually, training in the use of libraries included ‘bibliographic instruction’ and library use—and with the widespread emergence of electronic resources advanced training in searching, filtering, evaluation and use became commonplace. Again, this was a big step, but our share of all questions suffered with the emergence of a consumer web.

Stage 3: library services differentiated based on service design

This is the phase that many libraries find themselves in today. Many special libraries integrate access to both internal and external resources in order to enhance the productivity of their enterprise’s people. Many build or participate in the creation of intranets where content and services combine to ensure that decisions are made in the presence of good quality information. By adding virtual reference services and other means of interaction they ensure that happens, whether the services are provided in person or online. By adding mobile access, librarians and other information professionals are now where the user is, and needn’t be sought out by the person who needs the information. This phase is where many information dependent organizations desire to be well positioned today. Most information professionals focus on just the important questions and align themselves with the mission and strategies of their organizations.

Stage 4: libraries co-create experiences with our users

We are seeing the early emergence of the next phase of what we used to call libraries. Information and information service is ubiquitous in many leading information hungry enterprises. In this phase, information professionals are embedded into strategic teams making progress on institutional goals in research and achieving vision. The bywords of this phase are collaboration and community. Value is driven where everyone on the team, including librarians, is co-creating new ideas, information and insights and applying them to the difficult problems presented in complex organizations. Technology plays a bigger role here but it declines in importance to the relationships among the team and the joint understanding of the main goal(s). Librarians are recognized as team partners and key contributors.

In each stage we can see that there has been a commoditization of the underlying parts of the strategies. Books, articles and content have for most intents and purposes been commoditized. Virtually everyone has access on some level to everything and indeed too much of everything. And the new ocean of information is getting very deep and difficult to navigate. The value-add increases on another factor—the people. And especially the special librarians and information professionals who position themselves as transformational animators rather than mere keepers of the content and efficient managers of transactions.

So, now we have another challenge. If we acknowledge that the experience trumps the content most every time, what are the key factors in building great experiences? What builds on information and creates knowledge and makes it useable? I have some ideas about where to look for this pot-o-gold. I believe there are two key factors that help create great user experiences and relationships. These are:

  1. A deep understanding of user goals on a psychological level
  2. A deep understanding of user intentions on a time scale

If we open ourselves to the psychology of our users we expand the value of the services, products, libraries and experiences we create by focusing on where ‘delight’ happens in the information experience. If we focus too intently on framing our deliverables as records, books, articles, copies, answers, or any other object, we undersell the transformational experience of interacting with a librarian or information pro. Consider this list of valid psychological consequences of a personal or virtual information experience:

  • Confidence to move forward
  • Reduced fear of failure
  • A feeling of respect (for contributions)
  • A feeling of belonging (e.g. the social web)
  • Avoidance of scary consequences (e.g. lawsuits)
  • Increased self esteem
  • Comfort with a decision
  • Happiness and reduced boredom (entertainment)
  • Reduced friction with stakeholders
  • Social and team cohesion
  • Reduced frustration
  • Better time management, less time searching—more time finding
  • A feeling of success (like a learning step tied to life goals)

This list is by no means complete, but gives a sampling that speaks to the real goals of users. It also helps frame the things you must include in your services and libraries to contribute to these psychological needs. For example, what can you do on your intranet that will help increase confidence? Things like easy access to personal help and displaying trusted or authoritative brands can help. How collaborative can your team be with strategic teams in your organization? How can you leverage an understanding of user psychology to underpin marketing and engagement?

None of this is easy, but it’s a big step up from designing services and libraries that deliver the transactions of information efficiently. I think we’ve seen that purely electronic services can be very efficient in delivering content quickly and efficiently, and answering the who, what, where, and when questions that arise. The difficult questions in organizations are the reasons organizations exist and why we work together. These questions deal with how and why. They also deal with tacit knowledge problems—'know-how'—rather than explicit problems with clear answers.

As we progress into the future, we are well advised to position librarians and information professionals as key partners in knowledge creation, who support the strategic issues that affect our host enterprise’s success. As Seth Godin recently noted, “A car is not merely a faster horse, an email is not a faster fax. And online project management is not a bigger whiteboard. And Facebook is not an electronic rolodex. Play a new game, not the older game but faster.”

We have opportunities every day to change the game and be future ready.


Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for his new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians, coming soon!



Topics: Professional Development, Special Libraries