Do Library Staff Know What The Users Want?

Perhaps the most basic premise for delivering a great library user experience is knowing what members of the user community want from the library, and being able to articulate their service expectations from the library. Then, using that knowledge, the librarian’s responsibility is to design an experience that delivers on those expectations and exceed them when possible. If successful we should be able to create a loyal base of community members who will support the library and desire to use it repeatedly – and recommend that their friends do so as well.

Much depends on our ability to identify and develop services that meet user expectations. But how well do we know what those expectations are? According to a recent research article, not well enough. This article’s findings should be a cause of concern for librarians hoping to design a better experience for their users. The bottom line: the priorities for the library staff and for the library users are poorly aligned. This is based on a study of Association of Research Libraries (ARL) that participated in the 2006 LibQUAL+ library quality survey. The authors, Damon Jaggars, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Jocelyn Duffy, in their article titled “Comparing Service Priorities Between Staff and Users in ARL Member Libraries” found that a disconnect existed between library staff and their users.[See portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2009, pgs. 441-452]. For library staff, the highest priority was “affect of service”, but for all user groups (undergrad, grad and faculty) the highest priority was “information control”.

For those less familiar with LibQUAL, “affect of service” relates to service interactions between library staff and the users; survey participants are asked if library employees instill confidence, give individual attention, understand user needs and have the knowledge to answer questions. “Information content” refers to the materials and collections made available by the library to its users; respondents are asked about their access to printed and electronic materials, navigation of the library website and ease of use factors associated with finding information provided by the library. We may have a serious problem when what library staff think is most important is not what the users think is most important. If I think that good food is the most important component of a dining out experience, but the staff have as their highest priority something entirely different, such as comfortable seating, that may spell disaster for the quality of the overall experience.

But the more I thought about the findings, the less alarmed I was by it than the authors of the article. While this disconnect does exist, the good news from my perspective is that the staff of the ARL libraries included in the study believe that providing high quality service is a priority. Even if that was not the priority for the respondents, my expectation is that those ARL libraries where staff see affect of service as the highest priority are well positioned to deliver good service. While we can acknowledge that faculty, graduate and undergraduates may care less about the affect of service and more about the content, it should not diminish our desire to create a better user experience for them. I would encourage those who read to article to take from it an understanding that ARL libraries must always deliver high quality content for researchers, but a priority is to create the best relationships with the user community that will encourage them to see that the academic library is more than books, articles and media. The irony is that it is the people who acquire and make accessible the content that is the priority of the users. Now how do we get them to feel the same way about the people?

Author: StevenB

Steven J. Bell - StevenB is the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University. In addition to contributing to ACRLog he maintains Kept-Up Academic Librarian and the Keeping Up Web Site. Steven is also the co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. He is an active member of ACRL's College Library Section. Additional information about Steven can be found on his personal web site.

7 thoughts on “Do Library Staff Know What The Users Want?”

  1. I have to wonder (not, I admit, having read the article) if user priorities may not be so much an expression of users’ highest values but of the things they have experienced as most lacking — and thus might be in an inverse relationship with librarians’ values…That is, if librarians value affective elements highly, perhaps they do such a good job with them that users never really notice a problem with them, so there isn’t an insistent voice in their heads saying “man, I wish librarians were nicer”. Perhaps if these librarians focused more on information and less on affect, we’d find that user priorities shifted in reverse… (Guess this is why baselines and longitudinal studies are nice.)

  2. It’s interesting to see how often we can see parallel issues in different types of libraries. The questions that the LibQUAL survey addressed highlight how our best intentions as library staff can send us on a detour when we try to address user priorities. In the public library world, we have been doing outreach to underserved populations, with the goal of transforming the lives of populations we want to serve. In my own experience, we decided to undertake some research to learn what some immigrant communities thought was most important of the services we had to offer. We used focus groups and interviews with community leaders in three immigrant populations: Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian. What we learned from that research made us totally change the way we purchased materials and planned programs and services. The shift, which took time and also involved hiring bilingual/bicultural staff, resulted in making real connections with these parts of the population of our county.

  3. I had the same response as Andromeda (after reading the article). If the usual is great service, one might take it for granted and not see it as a priority. Look, too, at the library staff “moderately low” priority score to providing “printed library materials” and “electronic information resources.” I can imagine the staffers’ bias, “Collection development? That’s a given — we’re adding value with great service.”

  4. Having conducted many user information forums as part of libraries long range planning efforts I think your responses are on target here. If the disparity were between “user services” and ‘internal functions” that would be a problem; but when the disparity is between focus on creating a good user experience and using the library’s resources that seems only natural to me. Another thing I’ve noticed is that survey respondents often consider what is expected of them-academic library users might feel “smarter” if their focus is on research content access.

  5. This study proves yet again the importance of “true marketing,” which always begins with studying users (and nonusers) and learning what they want and expect from you.

    Libraries that make it a priority to listen to users (as Molly’s and Cheryl’s admirably do) will experience less of a disconnect. I don’t need any more studies to tell me that!

    I have a chart showing the Cycle of True Marketing on my website at librariesareessential.com/library-marketing-resources/cycle-of-true-marketing. It follows standard business-improvement and practices.

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