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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.

Build It And They Will Come

Proposals to build a new library facility will almost always be met with some community resistance these days. Taxpayers who are non-library users will question why they should be required to contribute to a new library building when everyone can get all the information they need from the Internet – and they can get any book they need from Amazon. Even armed with all the data and Pew research that confirm how important libraries are to their communities – and knowing the value a modern new facility delivers – convincing the naysayers is a difficult task. College and university trustees may raise similar questions. New library projects, depending on the funding streams, may cause a tuition increase – something to avoid as much as is possible. The institution must balance meeting its deferred maintenance needs with the expectation it will continuously add an awesome new building. With so many competing demands and limited resources, it’s understandable that plans for a new library will be subject to intense scrutiny.

In municipalities and campuses around the country these questions are routinely asked, and choices must be made about investing in new facilities when it’s not entirely clear if they will meet their potential. It’s the age old question. If we build it will they come? When it comes to library buildings both new and renovated, we know both quantitatively and anecdotally that the investment pays off with significant returns. It’s not unusual for gate counts to quadruple when a new library opens. With new study spaces, new service areas, better event areas and much more, few community members can resist the draw of a better library facility that gives them a far superior experience.

These success stories are found elsewhere in our communities too. When I moved to a new suburb outside of Philadelphia (after 24 years in a house about 15 miles in the opposite direction), my spouse went in search of a new fitness center. There were four from which to choose, one of which was the local YMCA. When we went to check it out it was a pretty tired looking building and space. Although it was the closest, the sad state of the facility put it at the bottom of the list. We also found out why it was badly in need of renovation. The regional YMCA, recognizing it was losing out to area competitors, was already in the early stages of building of a new facility about 5 miles away.The existing building would be obsolete soon enough. For a number of reasons, but mostly owing to the convenience factor, my spouse chose another fitness center. On a few occasions though, we found ourselves driving past the new Y as it was under construction. It was clear this was going to put that old Y to shame.

Fast forward about 18 months and the new Y has been open for business for a short while now. Guess what? They built it and boy, did they ever come. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new Haverford Y quickly became the fastest growing YMCA in the United States:

With more than 20,500 members, it has become so popular that as cars pull into the expansive parking lot, attendants with flags direct them to the few available spaces…the Haverford Y’s membership numbers have far exceeded expectations and surpassed those of Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA’s 16 other branches.

Yes, the new building is attractive. Its brand new equipment offers the latest technology. There are three swimming pools so you can always find a lane. It is easily accessed from a major road in a densely populated community. So newness, location and demographics are in the new Y’s favor. But the planners have also designed the experience in a way to attract singles, families and senior citizens. They offer something that appeals to everyone in the community. Administrators at the regional headquarters of the YMCA, seeing the success of the Haverford Y, are encouraged that building similar or even better facilities will get people off their couches and into their neighborhood YMCA.

No doubt all of us in libraryland would be eager to replicate the success of the new Y, but few of us will have such an opportunity in our careers. For the majority who must work with the library they have, it is critical to make the design choices that will provide community members with the best possible library they deserve. When our facilities create barriers that work against this goal, we must work at understanding the needs and expectations of community members, and doing our best to exceed them. It’s unlikely the result will increase usage three or four times beyond what it is now, but with hard work and persistence we can make it a much better experience for our current users – and if each of them tells just one other person about their great library experience it can make a difference.

Creating a Better Library Experience…For the Birds

We like our feathered friends. Unfortunately, many of our library buildings have a notorious track record when it comes to giving birds a bad library experience. In fact, it’s the worst experience they can have. Our buildings, with their many over-sized windows, kill the birds. There’s an experience we need to improve.

An Internet search will yield quite a few articles about libraries and birds colliding with the windows. Here’s one about my library building. Paley Library is recognized as one of the most dangerous buildings on the Temple University campus for birds because of the trees surrounding the building and the extremely large main level windows. Many of the birds don’t stand a chance.

While plate glass is invisible to birds, they do see the reflections of trees, the sky and other elements that make them think they’ve got clear sailing ahead. They may even see interior plants through the glass. It’s not uncommon to find dead birds around our library perimeter. Even those birds that appear to just be stunned and fly off often die later from brain injuries.

Over the years the University has tried different strategies as deterrents. Unfortunately, attaching plastic hawk figures to the library’s exterior and putting a few bird decals on the windows has made minimal difference. In 2012, a new strategy was devised. Students at our Tyler School of Art participated in a competition to design a more effective solution. The result was a new type of stencil to apply to windows that proved more effective in repelling the birds before they made contact. The winning designs appeared to improve on past solutions, and they also added attractive window graphics to the building.

The good news is that we are finally beginning to install these decals on windows around the Paley Library. Installers added these bird-repelling decals to a small segment of the buildings windows. The photo below gives you an idea of what the window looks like after the decals are installed.

birddecal

I believe that representatives of the local Audubon Society occasionally do counts of dead birds found around campus buildings. This may help us to determine if the decals are reducing the bird fatalities. We still have many windows in our building that are a threat to the birds. I hope that we are just at the start of an initiative to install more window stencils in the library, and that we can decrease the number of deaths from bird-window collisions.

When we talk about the impact of library design on the quality of the experience, we typically think in terms of our human community members. Seeing the decals installed reminded me that our facilities and their design also affects the animal life in our community. This is just part of the larger challenge of creating sustainable, environmentally-friendly buildings. Let’s be thinking about how our buildings, and the experiences they deliver, can be designed to minimize collateral damage.

No solution has yet proven to be 100 percent effective in ending all fatal bird strikes, but perhaps this new style of window decal will help to decrease the numbers of birds that meet an untimely death because of our libraries.

Benefits Not Features: Think Like a Copywriter

I was at the reference desk when this fellow came over and said someone had told him he could get access to Lexis/Nexis through the university library. Turns out he was one of our adjunct faculty members in the college of business. He had both a personal and educational interest in learning more about the databases he could access through the library. Sounds pretty normal, right? But here’s the shocker.

He told me he had been teaching at my institution for eleven years. Afterwards I thought, how is it possible this instructor could be here all that time and be completely unaware of all the business information databases we offered. He had no knowledge of any of them – even the most basic EBSCO and PROQUEST products – and we have many business databases beyond that. How could this be the first time he was hearing about the library’s e-resources?

You would think that he’d hear about them from another faculty member – or even a student in one of his classes. It seems likely that at least once in all those years he’d visit the library website and get exposed to the database resources. Here’s the really scary thought though. How many other faculty, adjuncts or otherwise – and students – are just like this average community member?

What could explain it? Whatever it might be, let’s avoid blaming the user for their lack of awareness – even the case of an educator who should perhaps know better. If any of our community members lack exposure to the library experience the most likely explanation is our failure to do a better job of selling that experience? What works when it comes to selling things to people may or may not be of much use to librarians who want their community members to know about all the great services that are part of the library experience. Outreach and marketing are legitimate librarian activities. Sales – not so much.

Perhaps we can borrow some sales techniques without selling out. Copywriting is one skill set that may be of value. Copywriters prepare text, whether for an advertisement or a website, that is designed to influence the thinking of the potential customer. While librarians offer community members free goods and services, it’s still in our best interest to grasp better techniques to influence how they think about our resources. Too frequently we hear our community members tell us they wish they knew about those resources when they really needed them – not when they finally get around to discovering them…too late.

Several good tips about copywriting – and not all of them are applicable to library environments – are shared in a post titled “Five Copywriting Tips That Can Dramatically Improve Your UX“. Most of the advice addresses the website and how to craft text that focuses on the user in order to influence or change his or her thinking to make a sale. It really comes down to the choice of words and how those words are presented.

For example, notice the difference between “click here to learn more” and “as a member of our library community, learn how to get instant access to great services”. Perhaps just a tad more interest on the part of the community member if the emphasis is on getting those services. Copywriters know that features don’t sell. What sells is giving people the ability to understand why they should use what the library has to offer: What’s In It For Them.

Apply that philosophy to a typical library research database. Instead of focusing the attention on the number of publications covered, the amount of full-text content or the ability to create citations in multiple formats – all features – put the attention on the benefits that community members will derive from the database. For a student that might be time saved or a superior way to access scholarly content. For a faculty member the big benefit could be improved student research papers or better class discussions. Ask yourself how a copywriter would tackle the best way to convince or influence the community member to prefer library research resources over other options.

Granted, a few tips won’t turn librarians into skilled copywriters. But these five copywriting tips do offer a good introduction to help us be more intentional about the words we choose and understanding what we want to accomplish as we write our next blurb about the latest library resource service, as we add content to our websites or as we get a few moments to tell a faculty member about library resources he or she is asking about for the first time.

Start by copywriting your description of the optimal experience your library offers. What are the benefits it provides. Internalize it. Develop the ability to articulate those benefits as a message you can deliver on the spot and apply to any number of situations where you’ll want to sell someone on why the library experience delivers great value to the community. Remember to focus on the benefits. Done right, in time, they’ll discover all the great features.

Open or Closed: Office Space Design Contributes to the Library Experience

No matter how well we design the library experience, it will never meet expectations if staff members lack the enthusiasm or appropriate level of engagement needed to deliver the experience as intended. To a large extent it depends on staff morale, job satisfaction and the work environment. Perhaps the best organizational example of the value of committed staff to the success of the experience is Southwest Airlines.

Southwest customers who can compare their experience with that of any other airline will surely conclude that the Southwest experience begins with staff who are motivated and empowered to deliver a great experience. Southwest’s leadership, much more than its competitors, is committed to building a culture that requires a satisfied, high morale workforce to achieve success. While multiple factors contribute to workplace satisfaction, the design of office space plays a considerably important role.

Just how that office space is configured is currently the subject of great debate. One only needs to spend some time with Dilbert to see how the design of the cubicle culture is mocked as a contributor to workplace dissatisfaction. Lately, the idea of the open office, whether it’s people at cubicles, long tables or some other sort of non-private office arrangement, is taking a beating. A post at the HBR Blog Network put it bluntly with the headline “Cubicles Are the Worst”.

Jason Feifer, writing at Fast Company, claims that the open office is a failed concept that crushes workers’ souls. A host of writers are citing a new research study that cites noise and lack of privacy in open offices as a key contributing factor to worker dissatisfaction. One of them, Oliver Burkeman blogs that open offices are simply a cheap way (yes – open offices are considerably less expensive to build than private ones) to cram more people into less space. Anjali Mullany, on the other hand, believes that with the right design elements, open offices can deliver on all the promised benefits of the concept. For example, Mullany mentions a design factor known as the “library effect” which suggests that when walls between workers are lowered it contributes to a quieter space as co-workers are less likely to be noisy when they know the behavior is observed by their office mates. Rather than condemning open offices, perhaps we need to learn more about the design features that contribute to their success and then eliminate what leads them to fail.

So who and what are we supposed to believe about open office space? I’ve been to both libraries and non-libraries that are using open office arrangements, and the impression I got is that the workers are satisfied and do believe the arrangement contributes to a more successful organization and user experience. Last year I visited the Manhattan headquarters of Seamless, a web-based food service, and General Assembly, a start-up incubator. Both use completely open plans – no cubicles at all. Everyone works in an open shared space. At Seamless even the top executives work at the same open tables as everyone else. There are abundant spaces for privacy when it’s needed and small group collaboration. At the General Assembly, it’s more than just co-workers connecting with each other. Different start-ups work along side each other. These are both thriving enterprises, so while there may be naysayers within, to the outside observer the open office arrangement appears a success.

photo of the office space at Hunt Library

View of the open office space at Hunt Library

At libraries I visited that had either renovated or built new space, open offices were in evidence – although department heads still had private offices. The business librarians at Purdue say they benefit from working in the same space, and they have quick access to consultation or private space when needed. At the new Hunt Library at North Carolina State University and the soon-to-open new library at Liberty University, the majority of staff work in open office arrangements. At Hunt, cubicles are the standard but the employee space features a large area adjacent to the open office where there are a variety of private and semi-private areas, and a range of different types of furniture, such as a pod chair. I observed staff working and collaborating in both areas. I had no opportunity to ask them how they felt about the open office arrangement.

photo of hunt library office space

A short hallway connects the open office at Hunt Library to the “Collaboration Hub” staff space.

The debate about the power and pitfalls of open office space is likely to continue, with stories and research supporting both sides of the argument. Martin Pedersen, writing at Metropolis, perhaps sums it up best when he says:

The truth is, architecture can’t keep up with the changes in the workplace. The whole idea of The Office is under assault—by tools that allow us to work anywhere, smart machines that threaten to make us “redundant,” and, lurking in the shadows, a perpetually squeezed economy. It’s no surprise that a lot of design responses, like the open-plan office itself, are best guesses, driven in part by real estate expediencies.

Photo of Hunt Library Office Space

Multiple furniture types and configurations are found in Hunt’s Collaboration Hub.

It is ultimately up to those of us who work together to decide what space not only works best for us, but what configuration will create the right environment to support our efforts to deliver the type of experience that compels our community members to come to the library. Noise and privacy issues are a challenge. I have a private office. It’s a pleasure to shut the door when there’s excessive noise from elsewhere. My office can also be isolating and I suspect it leads to less awareness and opportunities for engagement with my colleagues. I have every reason to believe those noise, privacy issues and the occasional need we all have for consultation/meeting space can be overcome through well-designed spaces and furnishings.

As the physical library experience increasingly becomes about our space and how it is designed to offer a blending of private, collaborative, quiet and noise-tolerant options, we should be thinking of creating the same type of workplace experience for ourselves. The open office spaces I have observed may well offer just such an opportunity.

Note: Featured photos taken by s. bell and posted with permission of NCSU’s Hunt Library