The User is the Sun

As I write this reflection on Participatory Service, Transparency, & Hyperlinked Communities I am sitting at work on a Sunday. Two things are on my mind. 1) Marketing and 2) The User is Not Broken. I work in the library at a large community college. For the first three weeks, not a single soul entered the building the entire day. In the last two weeks, as many as five people have entered the building on Sunday. It can feel pretty pointless and downright creepy to be in this massive building when it is so empty. During the last three semesters, the doors of the library were closed. College enrollment numbers dropped significantly over the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic calendars as nearly all classes were moved online. So it could be easy to cast blame for this quiet Sunday schedule on to the pandemic. But this low door count number predates the pandemic. While it was not this quiet, our Sunday traffic was always significantly lower than the rest of the week. The complaint often found rattling around in my head was what a colossal waste of resources it is to be open.

Normally visitors only use the study rooms or computers. They do not visit the circulation desk to check out materials, nor they do not stop by the reference desk to consult with a librarian for help on a research question. As enrollment has continued to trend in decline over the course of the last five years, I often point to Sunday as a day to save money by closing the doors. I confess to bemoaning the people are not using the library. The Hyperlinked Library course readings have really helped me reframe my thinking about this. I now hang my head in shame for ever allowing myself to think in these terms.

What college students need most out of their libraries is space. Space to think, study, dream, or even take a nap.

Build it and they will come is not a mindset that is going to cut it in terms of library services. We need to always be connecting, engaging, and evolving.

Today is the first time in quite a while where I am working under a new mindset. We become transparent when we make visibility a priority. But we become invisible if we do not prioritize participatory practices. Frankly, I don’t think anyone knows we are open today.

Build it, and they will come" only works in the movies. Social Media is a "build it, nurture it, engage them, and they may come and stay. - Seth Godin

In Michael Casey’s post Revisiting participatory service in trying times, he makes a call for libraries to engage and integrate the needs of the community into the very structure of library services. Even though his post was written in response to a deluge of budget cuts impacting library services a decade ago, it paves the way for crisis preparedness. How libraries responded to the needs of their communities in the face of these budget crises, may have prepared them for how they were able to adapt and respond to the community’s needs during the pandemic. The libraries were forced to shut their doors, yet remain open and relevant to the community. Providing vital resources not only in the context of a website link to timely information but a mechanism for the communities to remain connected to each other while locked down in isolation. Libraries learned valuable lessons of how to respond and adapt to new technologies by providing remote programming and services. Some of these participatory services are now popular and libraries will need to make room for these services to remain. 

Every word of K. G. Schneider’s User is Not Broken (2006) meme/manifesto resonated with me. I have decided to use it as a personal manifesto for reframing my relationship with librarianship. Rather than focusing on what isn’t working, I am placing the user at the center of everything. I have a special interest in user experience in digital services, so I view the remainder of this post through that lens. And for me, that means marketing. Because a user can’t have the experience if they can’t find us.

Know your user. In Asking the Right Questions, Aaron Schmidt says “Our job is to figure out what problems our libraries can solve for our communities, and we can do this without asking them directly.” Asking people about their lives as Schmidt suggests, is far more impactful. Not only does this make them feel seen, it truly identifies their needs. Dwelling over circulation stats, door count numbers or Google Analytics is not going to inform us of what will serve the community. Look at what is happening outside of the library. What are people interested in, what do they do, where do they go? Use these questions to inform the services, programs, and collection development practices of the library.

Drop the jargon and the organizational structures. Make the user the sun, become obsessed with your community. Pewrainangi explains this most beautifully  “Community members don’t care about rebranding or whether your team is called ‘Collection Management’ or ‘Content Management’. Community members don’t even care whether a staff member has the right qualifications. All a community member cares about is: ‘How can you help me?’ I really identify with this issue. At my workplace, I am discouraged from answering reference questions. It always feels like a tremendous disservice to the customer when I have to redirect instead of helping them. 

Yes! I believe that library web teams (I speak from experience of having been on a few) are too focused on the search box and putting all the information a user might need access to directly on the homepage. In revisiting Schnieder’s manifesto, Bryan Kenny reminds us that library websites are marketing tools. Their role is to push programs and services to the community. I think library websites should take a lesson from current marketing trends and create a series of curated landing pages tailored to services and programs. It is all too common for library websites to be a confusing splash of information.

Users gravitate to that big search box because it is the most recognizable interface on a page. What if we flipped to the entry point to our websites from a link on a Facebook post or an Instagram story? Please don’t dump them onto your homepage. Let’s curate meaningful content relevant to the post that motivated the interaction in the first place. Ted Fons shares some great ideas for boosting library visibility on the web. We need to be playing by the web’s rules. Fons suggests making use of sponsored links and Google’s knowledge cards and maximizing the power of the semantic web. 

A.B.C. – Always be closing connecting – this is another marketing strategy that libraries need to prioritize. Casey mentions shortfalls in not making marketing a priority. That might come in the form of failing to update a blog or keeping the Facebook community active by failing to assign the duty. But it also means we must always be connecting.

Which likely means allocating some of our budgets and staff time to marketing. Imagine the impact on the community if the library is among the first in the search results in information seeking. Having already experienced resistance to a similar suggestion, my response is, how can we NOT AFFORD this?!? This is the key to relevant connections with our community. Our students can’t experience the library if they don’t know we are open.

A.B.C

Today marks the fifth Sunday of the fall semester. It is two hours until we close for the day and our first student just entered the building. They said they didn’t even know we were open on the weekend until their friend mentioned it to them earlier in the week. Well, there it is. We have just been waiting for them to come

My response, I am so happy you are here!