The Library Retreat Experience: Explaining What You Mean By Meaning
When you put the words “library” and “retreat” together that can be an off-putting combination for many library workers. It conjures images of boring presentations, a good day wasted, and lots of talk and no action. Fortunately, the public services retreat held recently at MPOW was none of those. It had its share of high and low moments, but overall it was a productive day that mixed interactive exercises with brief presentations from academic librarians via Skype. I was amazed at how quickly the hours passed. Not only was it a great opportunity for co-workers from different departments to work collaboratively, but we had a much anticipated (by me) conversation about user experience. The retreat planning team did an amazing job, and for the most part the designated retreat outcomes were accomplished.
The day began with a simple icebreaker. With everyone in a circle the first person threw a beach ball to any other staff member – but not someone in their own unit. That gave each person a chance to share a few insights about their job, and the help he or she provides to other staff and community members. Our first learning activity gave everyone an opportunity to share past experiences (the retail/service type), both good and bad, and that lead to a conversation about understanding how our user community might perceive the experience they get at our library. That was followed by viewing the bulk of Seth Godin’s “Why Things are Broken” video, followed by a discussion of what’s broken in our library. We finished up our morning focus on customer service and UX with the “seven questions” exercise. At each table participants found a single question they needed to answer (and add the answer to a running list left by other groups). Questions included the following: “Choose a value from our mission/values/vision statement – how can that value contribute to a positive user experience in the library?” and “What’s the one thing you would fix/change about the library’s user experience?”
The afternoon segment focused on new models for service delivery, and it offered some great activities as well. One fun and challenging exercise called “Bad Ideas” required us to take a bad idea – based on something that doesn’t work well in our library (e.g., a problematic procedure for computer printing) and then come up with outrageous ideas for how to make the bad idea even worse. It was a creative way to actually brainstorm potential solutions. Then we heard from librarians at four different institutions that had restructured their service delivery model (e.g., eliminating and merging service desks, creating a “genius bar”, etc.) Skype is a fine technology for inviting a remote speaker to attend a retreat for a quick interview. We ended the day with a fun, creative activity called the Library Future – Library Science Fair. Each table was tasked with coming up with a vision for a future public service environment, and then using a variety of arts and crafts materials, everything from pipe cleaners to legos, to build a prototype that illustrated their ideas. Some great ideas emerged from that activity that greatly help our organization as we plan for an anticipated new building.
At one point, during our seven questions activity, each group discussed ideas for how to improve the library experience for the user community. I shared some thoughts about meaning and users. How could we deliver meaning to them as part of the library experience? A colleague asked a good question. What did I mean by meaning? After all, conveying thoughts about meaning is a challenge of sorts. Just saying “we need to give people more meaning” is a somewhat nebulous proposition. What does it mean to give someone more meaning? At first I was a bit flustered, and then I started to explain different attributes of experience that can define meaning such as accomplishment. So how could we communicate or brand a library experience designed around helping students and faculty succeed with academic accomplishments? That is one way in which our library could deliver an experience with meaning.
Had I had it at my disposal at the time, I would have pointed to this article titled “Experiences Make us Happier Than Possessions” that I recently discovered. It discusses research about meaning and how individuals derive and experience it. A study involving 154 students averaging age 25 asked about a recent purchase made to make themselves feel better or happy. They were asked to compare a tangible material object such as a car or clothes with an experiential intangible purchase, such as a movie or vacation. While both types of purchases will create good feelings initially, it was the experiential purchase that had the longer lasting impact:
Psychological research suggests that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions. That’s in part because the initial joy of acquiring a new object, such as a new car, fades over time as people become accustomed to seeing it every day, experts said. Experiences, on the other hand, continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred.
You can read the entire article to find out more about the specifics of the study and other things discovered about the difference between acquiring objects and experiences. From my perspective, the big difference is that people derive meaning from their experiences in a way they cannot from tangible possessions. So the next time I’m asked to explain what I mean by delivering meaning to the user community, a reference to this research may be helpful. Experiences, good and bad, are memorable. When we create better library experiences for our users we are, in a sense, giving them some happiness they’ll keep with them long after their physical or virtual library interaction comes to an end.