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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Age As a Factor In Experiencing The Library

Academic librarians mostly encounter community members in the 18-22 bracket, but we serve older individuals as well be they faculty members, alumni, second-career learners and members of the public.

We encounter no where near as many senior citizens as public libraries though. The elderly are often treated as a special user segment in the public library sector, and librarians develop programming geared to their needs. It makes sense to segment some service delivery by age in public libraries given the need to serve the full age spectrum of community members from infant to child to teen to adult to senior. Each segment needs and responds to different resources and service programming – and has different experience expectations. Age segmentation is less common in academic libraries, say, as opposed to segmenting by discipline or academic status, but then the segmentation of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty provides a somewhat natural division by age. There are exceptions, such as adult learners completing undergraduate degrees.

When contemplating the design of the best possible library experience for the full spectrum of the library community, it’s likely we treat our distinct user segments as one. We want all of them to have a good experience. If the methods we employ to design and deliver that experience are successful the likelihood is that it is equally distributed across the age spectrum. But there may be good reasons to think about how age impacts the way people have experiences. There is new evidence to suggest that as people age their attitudes about the experiences they have, and what makes then good or bad, tend to change.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania wanted to learn more about extraordinary and ordinary experiences and how we define them. They studied 221 people between the ages of 18 and 79, asking them to recall both types of experiences and how it contributed to their happiness.

An ordinary experience might be going to the library and finding an interesting new book, while an extraordinary experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii. The researchers had other individuals rate the reported experiences as ordinary or extraordinary. One of the discoveries was that a participant’s age affected their perception of how an experiential event contributes to personal happiness. Older individuals reported that ordinary events contributed as much to their happiness as extraordinary events did for the younger participants. As the authors of the research report discovered:

“Ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.”

As library experience designers, we may have overlooked the possibility that a great library experience may be defined or appreciated differently by members of different age groups. I have previously shared my observation that library workers, because the typical library user’s expectations are set so low (e.g., using the library = pain, confusion, anxiety, etc., excepting perhaps children) compared to expectations set for other services, are able to exceed them by giving community members the basic help they desired but for which they were to terrified to ask. For community members who rarely use the library, receiving assistance from a dedicated, experience-driven library worker can be a WoW experience.

It can certainly help to understand what goes into a excellent experience, as a way of knowing that each encounter should meet a certain standard of performance. My big takeaway from the impact of age on experience research is that it should serve as a reminder, that when it comes to experience, each person – or in this case each age cohort – receives an experience differently – and that the younger the library community member the more challenging it might be to exceed their experience expectations.

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