How To Tell If They Really Love Your Library

This is a profession that promotes the idea of loving a library. If you need some evidence just visit If you find it difficult to express love for a building, then you can shift your affections to your favorite librarian – over at I Love My Librarian. Anyone ever heard of an “I Love My Accountant” movement? Maybe if he or she just saved you a bundle in taxes you would wear one of these.

We like the idea that a library or librarian can be loved by community members, and while I joke a bit with the concept we know it’s a great marketing strategy to encourage community members to show their appreciation and the value they place on libraries. It reminds me of that old Pee-Wee Herman running gag on the classic television show. Whenever Pee-Wee said “I love my/this _______” (fill-in-the-blank) another character would come back with “Then why don’t you marry it” which works great on all sorts of objects, such as fruit salad. Anyone out there want to marry their library?

But what does it really mean to love a library or any other inanimate object? There’s actually a study that attempts to answer this question. It’s a report titled “Shoes, Cars and Other Love Stories” and it’s actually a dissertation in the field of industrial design by Beatriz Russo. The research is based on an analysis of just twenty-four people who were asked many questions about products they loved. The author says the dissertation “describes a journey in unravelling and clarifying this complex, powerful and, sometimes, unexplainable experience people have with special products they love, own, and use.” The author sought to determine what are the qualities and characteristics of product love. Here are a few of the key characteristics:

* There’s a meaningful relationship
* The relationship is deeply rewarding
* The relationship is enduring
* It’s not just an experience but rather a container of experiences
* It can change over time – perhaps even towards dislike

Admittedly there is some vagueness to these ideas. What does it mean to have a ‘meaningful’ relationship with a product? Do those who love a specific product lust over a new competitor? What causes a breakup? Do human loved ones actually get jealous of those loved products? Being it’s a dissertation it can’t answer all these questions, but there’s some useful information that may enlighten us about what it takes to get someone to love our product – or in our case the library and services we provide. If you have only limited time for some browsing of the research findings, you may find the section on the phases of product love as interesting as I did (starts on p.121).

Like any love relationship, product love begins with attraction (e.g., “Wow, take a look at that laptop”). Then there is the build-up phase shortly after the product is purchased, which sounds a bit like the honeymoon part of the relationship (e.g., “I could work on this laptop all day – it’s so light and portable). The continuation phase is where most of the relationship takes place, and it’s at that point where the owner is completely comfortable with the product (e.g., “I couldn’t even imagine getting another laptop”). Now in all love relationships there are some rocky times, and here you can hit a deterioration phase in which the owner loses interest (e.g., “This laptop seems a lot slower than it used to be and those new models are really thin and light”). And you know what deterioration leads to of course – the end phase (“I’ve had it with this sucky laptop”). In some ways it sounds just like a real relationship, although we only throw out our products at the end of the road.

Does knowing the basic qualities and phases of product love make it possible for librarians to truly understand not only what community members mean when they tell us they love our library, but to create an experience specifically designed to facilitate such a passionate relationship ? I think you can make a case that it’s possible for members of a public or academic community to develop a meaningful relationship with their library and hopefully with the staff. What’s meaningful about it may be different to a mix of people. For some it may be the books, for others the sacred space and yet for others the interaction and conversation found there. Looking at the list of key characteristics that Russo developed, it is strongly reminiscent of my three core ways in which libraries can differentiate themselves (meaning; relationships; totality). While I’d like to think the connector between the library and the passionate user is a meaningful relationship, that could be an area for more involved research. What would the community members have to say about this?

What we do hear anecdotally (and all too often from non-librarian conference speakers) from individuals is that their fond library memories often stretch back to their earliest encounters with library books or a caring librarian. While the relationships change and the community members move on, their love for the library can endure and cross over from one library to another – unless he or she encounters a library with a truly poor experience. You can well imagine having a much loved product, and then encountering a new incarnation of or variation on that product that truly disappoints. That will probably end the relationship (think “New Coke” or “Qwikster”).

Thanks to this dissertation we can gain a better understanding of the relationship individuals build with products (or services), and how that leads to something along the lines of true love. With that knowledge we librarians might be equipped to provide the type of experience that leads to a true love for libraries. But there are occasions when the relationship changes and community members move on. For some, deterioration and the end may eventually arrive, which is why we need to constantly be finding new members who will become passionate about the library. That’s where marketing, promotion, branding and relationship building come into play. How can we create awareness and best present our library so others will fall in love with it? It may ultimately come down to designing a great library user experience that sets the stage for the blossoming of love.

Be Your Library’s Greatest User

Note: I wrote this a few days before the untimely and unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs. Jobs did so much to add to our understanding of what it means to deliver a great user experience – and a total, systemic experience. Although he is gone his presence will continue to have a lasting impact on the study of user experience and his accomplishments will no doubt continue to influence our thinking and writing on this subject.

There are many different ways a library staff can express its desire to become more focused on designing a better library. Some of them fall into the realm of improving the user experience. It might be something as basic as usability tests on the library website. It could be creating a staff position dedicated to user experience. It may even take the shape of a larger, staff-wide initiative to design an experience that emphasizes totality. Whatever initiative your library takes up to improve the user experience, it may be wise to step back and position yourself as a user of the library, and not the creator of its services.

Since Steve Jobs announced his retirement as Apple’s CEO numerous articles have both celebrated and critiqued his leadership of the world’s leading technology firm. More than a few could be said to go overboard in their praise of Jobs, and lead us to wonder if it isn’t all a lot of hype. After all, Jobs is but one more CEO of a technology company, albeit one whose vision and innovation has impacted many lives. One of the dozens of articles about Jobs that most captured my attention was featured in Fast Company. Titled “What Steve Jobs Can Still Teach Us” it too puts Jobs up on a pedestal despite a few obligatory remarks about his micromanaging and berating employees over minute product details. What it expresses well however was the way in which Jobs excelled at designing products for passionate users.

What Cliff Kuang eloquently points out is that in order for Jobs to do that he had to be Apple’s greatest user. He tells a story that shares, from Kuang’s view, the moment that more than any other shaped Apple’s future. When Jobs returned to Apple after a 12-year hiatus he found a company ill prepared to compete with Dell, IBM and others. Apple was only doing what all the others did but with higher priced, less competitive products. What happened? Jobs encountered an unknown Jonathan Ive (now Apple’s top designer) working on the iMac. That’s when their long-time relationship began, with an emphasis on great, user-centered design. Kuange writes:

That single moment in the basement with Ives says a great deal about what made Jobs the most influential innovator of our time. It shows an ability to see a company from the outside rather than inside as a line manager…That required an ability to think first and foremost as someone who lives with technology rather than produces it…It’s not clear that anyone else at Apple will possess Job’s same talent for looking at Apple’s products from the outside view of a user.

Therein may lie the important lesson that Jobs can still teach us librarians. We certainly use our own products – we have to – but we do so as the information experts not the typical user. While our expertise allows us to make things simpler for those who seek us out for mediated research assistance, it also prevents us from seeing our library’s facility, resources and services from the outside – as the user experiences it. How might we do a better job of becoming the library’s greatest user? For a start, we might try spending more time with users asking them to tell us how they see and use the library. That’s not a particularly new idea, and we already know what we’re likely to hear (too complicated; less useful than Google; intimidating; etc. ). Perhaps this story about Jobs can encourage us to become more passionate about using our own resources – and really caring about how they are making (or could make) a difference for people – and then demanding from them what any great user would.