Empathic Problem Solving (The Library as Remedy)

Design Thinking is not about bricks or clicks. It’s not about interior space or web usability, although both of those topics should be addressed. No, Design Thinking is about solving problems. This requires a cultural shift for libraries, since we tend to have a narrow world view. Librarians take pride in critical thinking, narrowing down concepts, whereas Design Thinking is quite the opposite. It’s about generating numerous ideas and building up the possibilities. The most practical solution is not always the best. 10 good ideas are more valuable than 1 great idea.

An approach that I have been exploring over the past year is Empathic Design. I don’t simply ask patrons how we might improve or what they would like to see differently, but instead focus on the problems they encounter not only with the Library, but academically, socially, everything. I want to know where they fail, where things go wrong, as well as what works. I want to understand their total experience. This doesn’t happen through just focus groups or surveys– it comes from being out in the field and gaining trust.

Design Thinking focuses on understanding and defining problems, and then making improvements to address those needs. This requires broad perceptions, which can be a challenge since the concept of libraries is so engrained in our minds and theirs too. People toss the “outside the box” phrase around too much, but it takes great imagination to break-through stereotypes and expectations. Simply asking patrons what they want will only result in them trying to tell us what they think we want to hear. Instead, I want to examine the big picture and then build or reshape services to address actual needs. Let’s target problem areas that we can fix and then promote the value that we are providing: The Library as Remedy.

Author: Brian Mathews

Brian Mathews is a public services librarian at Georgia Tech. Check out: www.brianmathews.com

4 thoughts on “Empathic Problem Solving (The Library as Remedy)”

  1. “since we tend to have a narrow world view. Librarians take pride in critical thinking, narrowing down concepts” – a generalization that does not help your argument. Librarians may narrow down for students doing a paper, but they must think broadly to answer complex reference questions. I would argue that librarians have a broader world view than most people since they are exposed to a very wide range of knowledge every day. Also, libraries have been changing rapidly ever since I started working in them over 25 years ago. Your idea of Library as Remedy is a great one, but don’t make the case for it based on a false assumption about libraries and librarians, in stead look at the great things libraries have already been doing and buld on that.

  2. I didn’t mean narrow world view in the global sense… I meant it more in the context of what libraries are or can be. But thanks for reading the blog and I’ll try and limit my over-generalizations in the future.

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