My Life as a UX Librarian: What, Why and How

Any librarian interested in user experience -and even those who may not be – has noticed the recent jump in library positions that relate to user experience. If you look at the Library Journal placement reports for new library graduates, between 2013 and 2014 the number of graduates who reported having UX related positions nearly doubled. I expect these positions will continue to grow. But what exactly are these UX librarians doing? When I look at the job advertisements it seems that the role of UX librarian is any number of things, from assessment to usability to service enhancement. One way we can learn more about UX librarians and what they do is to ask them to tell us about their work and the things they are doing to design better libraries for their user communities. So I asked a fellow academic librarian I have known for while, Ameet Doshi, to tell us about his work as the head of the UX department at Georgia Tech. As Georgia Tech conducts a major library renovation project they have appointed Ameet to lead the process to implement a new service design model, which explains his new job title, Director, Service Experience & Program Design.

I was hired by Georgia Tech Library in 2009 as the head of the user experience (UX) department, after my predecessor Brian Mathews left for another position. In fact he posted on his widely-read “Ubiquitous Librarian” blog that he was leaving which is when I fired up my word processor and wrote a rather pleading cover letter to the Institute begging to be hired. At that time Georgia Tech (and Brian, in particular) had detected an opportunity for libraries to leverage techniques widely used by web usability designers in Silicon Valley to “get into the shoes” of users. The end goal was to create a great “user experience.”

Recently, after decades of data and advocacy, the prospect of a long overdue physical renewal of our library buildings, as well as a reimagining of library services has become a reality. My role has evolved from user experience to directing the service experience and program design effort in support of the Library Renewal. Essentially, I am now responsible for ensuring the great ideas we envisioned during the planning stages are prototyped, successfully implemented and iteratively improved upon.

Empathy and Compassion for the User

Many students, faculty colleagues, and even librarians ask me: “what is a user experience librarian?” I usually reply that my core mission is to make every user feel like a VIP on every level of their encounter. In fact that was our rather audacious departmental mission statement. Our counterparts in the retail and hospitality industries might call themselves “customer experience” professionals, or even the new manifestation of a CEO: “Chief Experience Officer” (I’m sure “Chief Empathy Officer” is just around the corner…). But what lies behind all of this jargon? What pulses at the heart of the desire to thoroughly understand and improve the user experience? This is just my personal, “gut” feeling, but I believe at the core of what drives me and most UX librarians is a deep empathy and compassion for the user. We are obsessed with getting into the minds of students and faculty and feel their pain points (and their successes!) in their encounters with the library – whether via the digital portals or in the physical facility. UX specialists constantly ask: What hurts? Why? How can we improve the situation? Can we test if the solution is working? If it is working, why? If not, why not?

The UX Librarian Portfolio

A few years ago, my former associate dean at Georgia Tech, Bob Fox (now dean of libraries at University of Louisville), and I completed a study of User Experience positions around the country for the ARL SPEC series. We found that, although the UX role is still rather amorphous as compared to other more traditional library positions, there did appear to be a few broad areas within which many user experience librarians focus their efforts:

*Assessment (primary focus)
*Marketing and Communications (secondary)
*Facilitating Outreach and Partnerships (secondary)
*R&D / Innovation (tertiary)

These are very broad domains that involve a great deal of collaboration with almost every other unit in an academic library. As many of you already know the assessment role alone often requires an entire position or more. In our resource-strapped libraries the UX librarian needs to be very strategic with how their time is used and ensure that the research being conducted has a strong likelihood of improving user experiences at scale. So it is typically applied research. The UX research arsenal usually involves surveys, focus groups, managing advisory boards, as well as more non-traditional user research methods such as leveraging apps (like dScout) or time-lapse photography of user spaces. In addition, the core principles of UX work in libraries aligns with the design thinking approach applied by people like Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, or Don Norman, author of the seminal text The Design of Everyday Things.

Innovation and R&D

On a related note, the need for a “skunkworks” R&D effort is rarely addressed in most libraries. My sense is that resource needs at most academic libraries are simply too great to permit anything like Google’s heralded “20% time” wherein employees are permitted to undertake any kind of research they would like (basic or applied) for one day during the workweek. In lieu of that fixed “innovation” time, I have been fortunate to develop partnerships with colleagues and leverage existing campus resources, which have led to some innovative programming and outreach projects. I suspect this is the case with many UX librarians who seek to push the boundaries on user research and engagement.

Other Duties, as Assigned…

At Georgia Tech, a secondary responsibility for UX included collaborating on outreach and public programming initiatives, as well as developing consistent branding and messaging by centralizing Marketing and Communications within the User Experience dept. I should point out that the User Experience dept. at Georgia Tech included myself and two full-time staff who were direct reports. One person was dedicated to marketing and communications (essentially, copywriting for print and web outlets), and the other staff member was a multimedia, branding and graphics specialist who also supported some assessment activities. Both are now with other organizations but this arrangement worked pretty well for us when it was in place. Every institution is unique, so your mileage may vary.


So, although my role is now focused on the Georgia Tech Library Renewal, I think the UX work helped to lay the groundwork for a forward-thinking service model and architectural program strategically aligned with user needs. The UX position should be crafted to strategically fit with your user community’s needs. However, any person in this role should have a deep desire to empathize with, and ultimately affect positive change for, those who rely upon library services.

Many thanks to Ameet Doshi for sharing a profile of his work as a UX librarian and the value he brings to his institution as a designer of better libraries. If you are a UX librarian and you’d like to share your profile and let others know about your UX work, feel free to get in touch with me.