UX Librarians – More Than a Trend

Here is another profile of a User Experience Librarian. I first became acquainted with Debra Kolah, User Experience Librarian at Rice University, several years ago when she invited me to visit with her and colleagues at Rice University – just ahead of my visit to Texas to speak at the Texas Library Association Conference about library user experience design. At the time I was incredibly impressed by the progress Debra had made implementing UX into the library culture at Rice in a short time as the UX Librarian – a new position for the library. In this guest post Debra tells us more about her evolution as the UX Librarian and the impact it has had on the Fondren Library at Rice University.

When I graduated from University of Texas in December of 1995, with my MLIS, I had no idea that 20 years later, the focus of my librarianship would be “user experience.” I had written a paper in library school that required I go out and interview physicists and physics graduate students about how they were using the internet, but that information was never tied back to what services might be developed for them, or how to scaffold what they were doing into the architecture of library tools. The experience of the user was not a consideration for librarianship in terms of how to improve interfaces, or how to decrease frustration, or how to deliver better services.

Fast forward to December 2009. I was one of three science librarians when my job title changed to the new position of UX librarian and a sign saying UX Office was put on my door. I have worked over the past few years to develop a UX practice in our library that permeates the building. My goal is that we don’t do a project without thinking about how we can incorporate user research or usability testing into it.

The library profession has a clear understanding of what work a subject librarian should be doing, but the work of UX is still being developed. Maybe one UX Librarian does only work around the digital—testing users and improving the website or LibGuides. Maybe work is done at a higher framework level-user research to guide creating new workflows for services.

Focus groups, surveys, usability studies, embedded librarianship and ethnographic studies are some of the tools used to gather data and anecdotal information about the user experience.

Last summer a big project at our library was renovating new study rooms–focus groups of students determined furniture and artwork decisions, and the internally-programmed room reservation system was tested, retested, and improved. So, from every aspect of the study room experience, the User Experience office helped get student input to improve the experience, and deliver one that met user needs.

Inspired by hearing about the use of GIS to understand space utilization in a library at a CLIR workshop, our GIS department undertook a similar study that helped inform furniture renovation decisions for a renovation that is underway to create an expanded information commons on the first floor of our library.

The UX Office at Fondren strives to create a holistic, user-centered, innovative approach to service design for virtual and physical spaces, as well as, digital and physical collections. I have done smaller projects outside the library along the way as well, especially a great project with the American Mathematical Society (Robert Harington), and another one with Ebsco (Kate Lawrence).

This summer’s big project expanded the thinking of the UX Office. My university is thinking about a new learning management system, and my office is getting to do the usability testing for the project. A university project. Outside the library.

UX in libraries continues to grow past being a trend, and is truly becoming part of what many libraries do on a daily basis. But, there are still many challenges. Do libraries need a UX Librarian or a UX department? Just two weeks ago the UX Office at Fondren expanded with the addition of an amazing new professional, Amanda Thomas. Now, after so long, I am envisioning that our work documentation will improve, and we will be able to do more projects! Much of our approach will be entrepreneurial, seeking to be included and utilized on projects. Our new team, including a wonderful HCI graduate student, gets to work together to brainstorm, analyze data, and imagine the future. I managed UX alone as a department of one, but it is much more fun and effective with a team!

Envisioning the future from the user perspective helps us to create the most amazing experiences possible; I feel the electricity of possibility. It has been exciting to see Weave: Journal of Library User Experience http://weaveux.org/ come into the UX librarianship world, the first peer-reviewed journal for us.
And I just reviewed an article for another library journal that was on user experience, so we see the threads continuing to develop.

Study Room Reservation System (Spring 2014) Kolah, Debra, and Mitchell Massey. “Get a Room: The Birth of a New Room Reservation System at Fondren.” News From Fondren. Fondren Library. Vol. 24, No. 1, Fall 2014.
Study Room Renovations (Summer 2014) Kolah, Debra. “New Wave of Study Room Renovations.” News from Fondren. Fondren Library.

Debra Kolah is User Experience (UX) Librarian in the UX Office at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She is a member of multiple divisions and currently serves as Chair-Elect of the Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics Division. Many thanks to Debra for sharing a profile of her work as a UX librarian and the value she brings to her 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.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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