• User Research

Librarianship and User Research – Same Same but a Bit Different?

By Natasha Chowdory9 December 20196 min read

I have recently joined Methods as a user researcher but prior to this, I was working as a librarian. But wait, what?!

Libraries, librarians. The concept itself seems outdated. In a time of Google/Bing/Amazon and everyone having access to the resources whenever they want and how they want, it could be argued that this sort of role is obsolete. But I’m going to ask you to think about what a library represents within a community and the power a library has. When run by good librarians it provides a member of that community with a service, with access to hitherto undiscovered resources and having a specially crafted collection to serve the needs of that community. This community could be the general public, a specific industry or a specific discipline OR ‘user groups’ – each with their own specific needs.

The essence of being a librarian is to curate resources to fit the needs of users (there is much debate on if you call them users, customers, patrons) and then you spend majority of your time figuring out how to create a service that will fulfil the needs of your users now, and in the future. Sound familiar? When we talk about resources, this could mean anything from books, eBooks, physical objects or even just a service designed to provide information. But the key is how to develop good points of access for all levels of users (we know that a teenager’s needs will be vastly different to someone who is retired)!

The uniting factor here, is that user is always at the centre of decision-making (or rather they should be). Like any service, it’s not enough to help someone once with a query, but to ensure that the service is so effective and intuitive that they come back again (and again). How do you do that though? How do you create a service, filled with relevant resources for users, so that you become a trusted point of information? By asking users!

Although, librarians have trendier names these days – ‘information professional’, ‘information scientist – because in the Digital Age, although the resources/services is information, the how of accessing that information still falls to librarians. The ability to develop/build/curate services that fit the needs of a specific user group is one of the cornerstones of user research. A librarian has to have the skills to engage with a user not to find out what they want but rather what they need. Digging into that need enables librarians (and by extension libraries) to fulfil the needs of specific user groups i.e. more story-time for children in public libraries, more sessions on how to do referencing in a university library and so on. And so, you can start to see where the crossover occurs between librarianship and user research.

First of all, what do different types of librarians do?

A law librarian will spend their time collecting, analysing, evaluating, researching, teaching, and disseminating information to facilitate accurate decision-making. Sound familiar? A clinical librarian i.e. a librarian that works in a hospital will focus on research that directly relates to patient care at times that are convenient to their on-call consultant. An information scientist working at the NASA jet propulsion laboratory (JPL) provides research assistance and custom bibliography generation for scientists, engineers, mission or project groups, and other JPL library users. The word to look for here, is ‘custom’. As well as working to develop a standard approach to enterprise content management, and to conduct research on the practical application of institutional metadata. As well as curating JPL’s enterprise search system, and in manually improving the unified search relevancy ranking.

The common theme running through these roles is that they provide a service that enables people/users to do their jobs more effectively, which in turn allows a service to operate more efficiently because people have access to the information they need. Each service described here is complex and manages to touch upon a broad spectrum of other activities that may take place in an organization.

You also have, academic librarians (usually found in a university library), reference librarians, systems librarians – the list goes on depending on the institution, organization that it may exist within. Users are literally anyone – and imagine having to create a service with its requisite resources that have to apply to a child and to a retired person and potentially everyone in between?

(Good) librarians are curious about people’s behaviour and their feelings and reactions towards resources and services. Where have we seen this before? The best part about being a librarian is the people. Talking to people, understanding what they want and how they want and marrying that to practical actions within the service. This is no different to a user researcher working in the ‘field’ collecting stories, creating personas and user journeys to better ascertain how services/products are perceived and utilised.

How is a library managed?

Any library has its own classification system which could be any of the following:

A Universal scheme: This covers all subjects – and usually what comes to mind is the Dewey Decimal System, Universal Decimal Classification and the Library of Congress Classification (American). Or you can have specific classification systems that cover particular types of materials i.e. ACM (Advanced Computer Machinery). Some countries have their own e.g. the Swedish library classification system, SAB (Sveriges Allmänna Biblioteksförening). These classifications form the bedrock of how a library operates. These schemes are a reflection of the culture in which they are created (along with all of the problems that that entails). As an example – when the Dewey Decimal System was created – this was in a time before computers so there was a section ‘000’ (or junk items) that was created. Computer Science belongs in that section now (!!) Highlighting how classification systems need to be flexible enough to allow for societal changes and technical advancements.

Imagine that if you wanted a book on ‘computer science’ from a library that was based on the Dewey Decimal System – these are relegated to the ‘000’ – essentially these systems (rightly or wrongly) construct an entire system of reality based on the culture of that time. Something that is becoming increasingly problematic.

In terms of functionality, classification systems are often described as:

Enumerative: Subject headings are listed alphabetically, with numbers assigned to each heading in alphabetical order. Hierarchical means that subjects are divided hierarchically, from most general to most specific. And perhaps the most complicated is Faceted wherein the classification is based on the core ideas that there are kinds or categories of concepts, and that compound, or non-elemental, concepts, which are supposedly universal in classification and subject annotation, are to be identified as being constructions of concepts of the different kinds.

The next time you go into a library, take a minute to look at how the books are classified/coded/organised and what that actually means. Some users question the integrity of library collections – it is well documented that the actual classification system created by Dewey is racist and homophobic and that library collections themselves are not reflective of the communities they are supposed to serve. Suggesting that only specific types of users have been considered when building libraries, collections and their classification systems.

Aside from this, librarians still have to manage budgets (how are the books paid for?), run events to engage with users and highlight the ‘best bits’ of a collection and constantly be checking if the collection is still relevant to all users – this could be the person that comes in every Wednesday morning without fail OR the person that comes in every 6 months and has an expectation that you will know exactly what they want. As well as managing a team and doing external stakeholder management to develop support and understanding of the work that is being done.

So, while user research is the active systematic investigation of users and their requirements, you could say that being a librarian and running a library is the practical application on a day- to-day basis of user research. Being a librarian is seeing and understanding the context that users operate in, understanding their needs and using that knowledge to develop a responsive service. A bit of user research and design all bundled up together. Not so different after all!