Tag Archives: library

the Tao of Library Web Design

As he walked across campus one day the web designer happened upon Laozi. Thinking himself clever, the web designer asked Laozi what he considered to be a challenging question. “Master, who is the library website for?” The web designer knew that the academic library website had many different users – students, faculty, librarians, alumni, community members, and staff. He thought his question would stump old Laozi.

Laozi gestured to the sky, “The library website is for the birds.”

File:Representation of Laozi.PNG

By Maksim [GPL (www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html), via WikiMedia Commons

Affronted, the web designer said, “How rude.  I worked very hard on the library website. How can you say that it is worthless?”

“You misunderstand my meaning. I am not speaking of your library website. I mean that library websites exist for birds.” explained Laozi.

“Oh, I understand.” replied the web designer, even though he didn’t.

“Do you?” Laozi smiled as he looked the web designer in the eye.

Reluctantly, the web designer admitted “Actually. No, not really. Can you help me understand?”

Laozi asked the web designer to consider bird feeders, “For whom are bird feeders designed?”

The web designer threw his hands in the air “Birds, but what does this have to do with websites?”

Laozi answered, “Birds eat the seed from the feeder. But so does the squirrel. Is the bird feeder for the squirrel?”

The web designer shrugged his shoulders, “No, it is a BIRD feeder? But I like the squirrel, so I don’t mind if it eats the seed sometimes too”

“Would you add features to the feeder that make it easier for the squirrel to use?” Laozi asked. “Would you design a bird feeder for the squirrel?”

“No, as I said, it’s a BIRD feeder. If the squirrel happens to eat some of the bird seed I’m O.K. with that, but I won’t design it with features just for the squirrel. If the squirrel dominates the feeder, the birds will no longer come.”

Laozi asked “Now, do you understand?” The web designer looked confused, so Laozi continued, “Do some bird feeder designs help both the birds and the squirrel?”

“Sure, anything that makes it easy to get to the seed will help both the birds and the squirrel?” The web designer thought this much was obvious.

Laozi shook his head, “Some ways of delivering the seed are more suited for birds and some are more suited for the squirrel.”

“I guess you’re right”, admitted the web designer, “For instance a small opening will make it difficult for the squirrel to get at the seed, but small birds will still fit inside.”

“Won’t that frustrate the squirrel?” asked Laozi

“Maybe, but the squirrel will find a way.” The web designer thought he was beginning to understand.  “The squirrel is a very resourceful creature. It saves food all over the place, buried under the ground, hidden in trees. The squirrel will not go hungry.”

“Are birds not resourceful creatures as well?” asked Laozi

“Sure, birds can find food in other places too,” explained the web designer, “but a bird feeder is really for the pleasure of its owner. The bird feeder owner wants to watch the birds, perhaps study them. If the birds find food somewhere else, the owner of the bird feeder will not have the pleasure of watching the birds.”

“So if birds can find food in other places,” Laozi smiled as he asked again, “For whom are bird feeders designed?”

“Ah, I understand.” said the web designer, “Bird feeders are actually designed for the owner of the feeder, the home owner. But I thought you said library websites are for the birds?  I thought the bird feeder was a metaphor for the library website and that birds were students. Now it seems like you are telling me that library websites are for the bird feeder owner.”

“What type of library website do you want?” Laozi asked,  ” Do you want one for the birds or one for the bird feeder owner?

“Aren’t they the same thing?” the web designer was confused again.

“Let’s ask this student. ” Laozi stopped a passerby, “Excuse me, can we ask you a question?”

Though the web designer couldn’t understand what a student could possibly know about web design that he didn’t already, he asked anyway, “What does a bird feeder look like that is designed for birds, not for the bird feeder owner?”

The student thought for moment.  “I’d say that it looks like nature. You know trees with berries, flowers with nectar, and plants which attract insects that birds like to eat.”

The web designer was stunned. He hadn’t been thinking of the simplicity of nature. He was focused on the complexity of designing a bird feeder made by man. “Thank you,” Laozi nodded as the student walked on.

“Now do you understand?” asked Laozi. “The best bird feeder for birds is that which is designed by nature. Man-made designs will always be inferior because the design will be an abstraction of nature. It will suit the bird feeder owner, not the birds.”

File:Ecureuil et mangeoire.jpg

By Cephas [GPL (www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html), via WikiMedia Commons

“So if I want to feed birds, I should plant a tree instead of building a bird feeder.” The web designer felt clever again. “But what if I want to feed the birds things that are not easily found in nature?”

“Perhaps you should not put your own needs before those of the birds,” admonished Laozi, “But if you insist on designing your own feeder, it must be in harmony with nature. Design your bird feeder so that it is similar to how birds finds food naturally in the wild.”

The web designer was beginning to understand. He had more questions, but knew that Tao is unknowable – impossible to be defined. So he thanked Laozi for his time and left, mindful about the natural way of things.

What do you understand the story to be about? Does nature always trump design?  Can design be natural? What philosophical approach guides your library web design? 

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Shameless Research Help: Setting New Expectations for Students

christopher evans is *so* embarrassed

CC Image courtesy of hessiebell on Flickr

In a recent post, Consumers, Learners, and the Reference Transaction in Academic Libraries, I considered student expectations of a typical reference transaction in which the student initiates the interaction. In Revamping Reference, Aaron Schmidt wrote about a different approach in which the librarian initiates the interaction, aka “roving reference”. He observes that despite roving reference being a large part of the literature, you still find librarians tied to “hulking desks peering into computer screens, essentially ignoring what’s going on around them.” As a reminder of the obstacles faced by students in need of assistance, Schimdt points to Constance Mellon’s theory of library anxiety and the shame associated with asking a librarian for help.

Consider the roving librarian model in terms of student expectations. If you buy into my speculation, students approaching a reference desk or other reference service come with a service expectation; and therefore they expect answers and nothing else when they ask a question. But what are the expectations of students who are approached by a roving librarian? They are no longer the initiator of the interaction, but rather the recipient. My guess is they have no expectations, at least initially. This provides a golden opportunity to set new expectations of service, to establish a user experience (UX) like that described by Stephen Bell in Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience?

Bell cites the Ritz Carlton experience in terms of anticipating needs of the guest and creating emotional connections. One point is that the guest’s needs and desires are anticipated and met before they even know they had them. For instance, with a traditional hotel service, when the guest has a bad night of sleep the guest approaches the desk and asks for an extra pillow. However, when staff are empowered to take personal responsibility, they might recognize that the guest is having difficulty sleeping due to the circles under their eyes. The staff member than takes initiative and suggests an extra pillow before the guest even thinks of it on their own. The hotel chain, LaQuinta Inn, calls this clue-scanning – La Quinta studies clues, gets back to basics.

Let’s translate this to a library in which the guest is a student and the hotel staff is a librarian. The request for a pillow (article) might be met with a suggestion that what they really need is not a pillow, but a better approach to sleeping (better approach to research). Although this might be entirely accurate, is it a satisfactory experience for the guest/student? Already feeling shameful for having had to resort to asking for help, they are told their question is wrong and they need to rethink their whole approach. (Not in so many words per se, but the practice of moving from a initially simple inquiry to a broader consideration of their research problem is a standard practice.)

However, what happens if we flip the script? What if the guest/student is approached proactively and offered both the pillow AND the suggestion for a better approach to sleeping? Wouldn’t the guest/student be more receptive to the additional advice? Isn’t it an unexpected service instead of unwelcome advice?

When the student is the initiator, they have expectations and the alternative advice comes off as arrogant, unwelcome, or even demoralizing. However as the beneficiary of an unanticipated service, provided through the roving reference model, students may be pleased that their needs are being anticipated. Additional advice is readily accepted or at worst, treated neutrally.

Whats more, this approach provides perhaps the easiest, least shameful way of signaling a need for help. If the roving librarian is consistently engaging students and expectations have been established, a student need only take a seat at a computer in the library and begin doing something resembling research. As roving librarians, that should be a signal that this student is open to the possibility of help.

Schmidt points out that librarians are afraid this is “bothersome” and “too aggressive”. I’ve been in that camp for years, but have come around to a new way of thinking. Librarians need to set new expectations about what happens in a library. In the name of “meeting the needs of students”, library computing areas have become nothing more than another computer lab. No longer a place reserved for a special function, they are a place where anything goes. Some resisted this transition by locking down computers, outlawing e-mail and Facebook, and setting time limits. Though most have relented and given students free reign. There is no going back now and it would be the wrong thing to do. It is not about controlling behaviors. Its about establishing expectations.

In this model, students who use computing resources in library buildings should come to expect that librarians will want to talk with them about their research. No, librarians should not bother a student who is clearly catching up with friends on Facebook. But, if a student is using Google, a library database or the library catalog, they should expect that a librarian will chat them up, ask them about their research, and offer advice. And if students are bothered they can say “No Thanks”, or they can go somewhere else – and that’s O.K ! “This is a library dammit! And WE shouldn’t feel shameful about that!”

To be sure, adopting this model will require some training (hmm, idea for another post).  It could easily go horrendously wrong. But done well, it could be a wonderful thing.

What about you? Tell me about your “roving” successes and failures. What nightmarish scenarios have you experienced? When have you felt like a hero?

Thanks again to libscenster and pascibrarian too.

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