It's Not About Us: Un-Sucky Design and the 21st Century Library

My User Interface and Web Site Design class this past semester allowed me to get reacquainted with an old web design site I'd lost touch with: Web Pages That Suck. And then when the updated, "Biggest Mistakes in Web Design 1995-2015" article came out, I had a minor epiphany. Take a look at mistake number one:

These ladies are laughing at you. Why? You designed your web site for your needs, not their needs. It gets worse. After they stop laughing, they’re going to one of your competitors’ sites and buy something. ...

  1. The only reason my web site exists is to solve my customers’ problems.
  2. What problems does the page I’m looking at solve?

Too many organizations believe that a web site is about opening a new marketing channel or getting donations or to promote a brand or to increase company sales by 15%. No. It’s about solving your customers’ problems. Have I said that phrase enough?

Now, this is definitely something that's important to keep in mind when you're designing the web page or online catalog for your library, but how about expanding the idea just a bit and applying it to the library as a whole?

  1. The only reason my library exists is to solve my customers’ problems.
  2. What problems does the library service I’m looking at solve?

How many library services and/or programs exist to solve library customer's problems, and how many of them exist to solve the librarian's problems? And how many of those services that we think exist only to solve our customer's problems are designed in a way to make the service easier for the customer to use (not easier for the librarian, easier for the customer)?

  • Is your signage written in library jargon, or is it written in language the average human is able to understand?
  • Is your self-service holds pick-up section arranged by something your average customer is likely to instantly understand, like the customer's last name, or have you just used your library's standard classification system? (I'm looking at you, University of Arizona Library)
  • Is your self-checkout system easy enough for the average person to figure out, or does it require some not-readily apparent "magic gesture"? (I'm looking at you, Pima County Public Library)
  • Is your nifty new WiFi service public, or is it only available to library card holders (and then only after they've entered their 15-digit, impossible to remember library card number)?
  • Are your online databases directly available to folks who are logged into your WiFi network, or do they still have to enter their 15-digit impossible to remember library card number (again)? (Even if they wouldn't have to do this if they were using one of the library computers.)

I could go on, but I think those examples make my point.

Oh, and for the folks who dispute that the library exists solely to solve our customer's problems, and say that it also exists to preserve the information, knowledge, and wisdom of the world, I will say this:

Why is it so important to preserve all this information, knowledge, and wisdom?

Oh, that's right. It's because somebody will need to use that information, knowledge, and wisdom someday....

My Thoughts on Library and Information Science Education

It's weird sometimes how one topic can pop up in a bunch of different places at once. There's been a debate going on in my library management class right now about library education, and the real value of the MLS degree. A few of my fellow students (and I'll admit, I include myself in this group) are frustrated that our classes are focused a lot on theory and that we're not getting very much practical experience (or that any practical experience we might have is discounted because we don't yet have our degrees). Then I come across two very thoughtful blog posts from folks about the current state of library education and the value of the MLS degree, and some of the issues that arise from a degree that's focused more on theory than practice. So, please, before you read on and hear my thoughts, go read this post by Josh Neff and this post by Nicole Engard. I'll wait. Josh made the point that as the new grad, his more experienced colleagues are fond of joking whenever some sticky situation comes up, that "I bet you didn't learn about this in library school." To which I only have one thing to say: Why in the name of God aren't we learning how to handle real-life situations in library school?!?!?! We're getting a degree that is to prepare us for professional practice, so why on Earth is it assumed that we don't need anything more than a theoretical background to enter professional practice?

Nicole mentioned, "We need to require on the job training like they do for teachers (student teaching). The professors instructing us (most of the time) haven’t been in a library in a while and don’t know about the real changes that are going on - by making students work while they go to school we can hope that they’ll get more out of their education." To which I say I absolutely agree!

To make my point a little clearer, let me offer a couple of other examples from still other professions. When you go to Medical school you have to learn theory, but to get your MD, you also have to get practical experience with, you know, real patients. When you get your nursing degree, you have to learn theory, but you are also required to to get practical, clinical experience. In my opinion, this does a lot to engender my respect for those professions. I know that even if my doctor is just out of med school or the nurse assisting with some medical procedure is just out of nursing school, I am *not* the first patient they have ever interacted with. This gives me some confidence that even if they're new, they have some experience behind them and they know what they're doing.

So, why do we send MLS grads out into the world thinking that the theoretical background we get in library school is enough? I do *not* (I emphatically do *NOT*) dispute the need for MLS grads to have the theoretical background we get - part of the point of getting an advanced degree is that it's supposed to give you that deeper, advanced theoretical background. But I think we do ourselves a disservice as a profession that we don't also see the need to give people entering the profession the same kind of practical experience that is part and parcel of the training in other professions.

It's not that we don't need the theory and the understanding of the role of librarianship that we're getting in our library education programs. We do. But if the point of being a professional, is the ability to apply theory to practice, then we're getting only half an education if all we're learning is the theory. Medicine, nursing, and education are three professions that understand the value of practical training as an integral part of the educational experience. I sincerely hope that librarianship will learn this same lesson soon and start beefing up their requirements for practical training (making internships a requirement of graduation, instead of just an optional course would be a good start) as part of library science education.