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.

Shifting Too Far To The Experience

On a recent visit to the new Hunt Library at the Centennial Campus of the North Carolina State University, I observed an unusual sight – for most libraries that is. A group of individuals, they might have been prospective students and their parents or perhaps just a group participating in some summer workshop, was highly immersed in a rather unique library experience. They were learning about and watching a demonstration of the Library’s robotic Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS), and rather enjoying how the Bookbot’s robot arm moved crates of books to and fro. The visitors were clearly immersed in this particular library experience. With a glass wall through which it could all be observed, the building’s designers clearly intended for this spectacle to catch the attention of all those entering the library. While it delivered a unique experience, did it motivate anyone in the crowd to search the catalog or move on to the stacks to find a book of their own? Or did they simply move on to the next destination point the way one might if touring the White House or Hoover Dam?

The question of the extent to which we should be re-thinking and re-designing the library experience as both immersive and interactive was the subject of an essay questioning similar work in the world of art museums. The author, Judith H. Dobrzynski, asks if it shouldn’t be enough to just view the artwork by yourself or with other people and obtain enjoyment or satisfaction from being exposed to great art. Why does it have to be embellished by some sort of artificially attached experience? She writes:

For decades, museums have offered social experiences — the fact that you can talk while you’re in the galleries has always given them an edge over the performing arts — and that is good. Now is the balance shifting too far to the experience? Are they losing what makes them unique? Should museums really follow the path of those “experience” businesses…In this kind of world, the thrill of standing before art — except perhaps for works by boldface-name artists like van Gogh, Vermeer, Monet and Picasso — seems not quite exciting enough for most people. What’s a museum to do?

The answer, for many museums, is to hire a User Experience Director.

The concerns of Dobrzynski are reasonable. She wants people to come to the art museum for the sheer enjoyment of discovering and viewing great works of art. There is also a learning component in becoming more knowledgeable about artists and the stories behind their work. But she does understand that the experiences that people have in contact with other commercial and cultural institutions has raised their expectations. For many people there has to be more than just walking through galleries:

Playwrights now turn theatergoers into participants or let them choose the ending. Botanical gardens are adding skywalks that let visitors traipse through treetops. Museums stage sleepovers in the galleries and dance parties in huge atriums that were built to be gathering spaces. The landmark Beaux-Arts headquarters of the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a sedate research institution, may soon be transformed with the addition of a gigantic branch library, where the main draws will be meeting places and areas for teenagers and children. A ground-floor cafe has already moved in. Who needs Starbucks?

In another era people were content to stroll through zoos observing the animals in rather grim settings. While zoos have vastly improved the animals’ environment and the viewing experience it’s insufficient. Now, to get parents to bring their kids, the zoo has to offer some kind of immersive, interactive learning experience.

The shift to an experience-based culture can be worrisome for purists. Those who responded to Dobrzynski’s article agreed that it is troubling when, as one letter writer put it, museums “pander to the public looking for an experience”. Designing an intentional experience is equated with selling out to bulk up the door counts, dumbing down to appeal to those who fear exposing themselves to culture will be boring or to simply compete with all the other attention grabbing distractions that consume people. If you asked a bunch of summer campers if they want to go to the library to browse the shelves what sort of response do you think you’d get? What about ” Hey, let’s go over to the new library to check out their cool robot book thingamajig”. Now they all want to go to the library. I saw no less than two summer camp groups all excited watching the ASRS at Hunt Library in action. Say what you will, but it got them in the library.

So what’s our choice? We can be purists and expect people to come to our libraries solely for the sake of immersing themselves in the collections. To some extent, we’ve already abandoned that concept. We’re much more likely to offer cafes, patron-initiated curated displays, hi-tech study rooms, big screen televisions, patron-oriented programming and other non-traditional experiences designed to draw people into the library for taking advantage of all that we offer beyond collections. Or we can embrace the idea that a library can offer a well-designed user experience that can get someone in the door and convert them in to a passionate library user. I would have liked to follow that group of campers around as they had their library experience. I wonder what else they discovered that day that might change how they think about and experience libraries.

Getting Community Members Beyond The Level One Library Experience

Among the more recognized and often repeated findings emerging from Ithaka S & R’s faculty research studies, including the recent 2012 report, is the revelation that faculty primarily perceive the academic library as their purchasing agent. When given a list of choices for identifying how important the library is to them, faculty have consistently, since 2003, selected “buyer.” The librarian’s role in facilitating access to journals and books is for many faculty the essence of the library experience.[See figure 38 on pg. 67 in the 2012 study] That’s a pretty dismal way to think of the library experience. If asked the same question, I suspect that many of our students would respond in a similar fashion – as might those who use their public library.

Some members of our professional community might be just fine with this state of experience. We give them what they want. That should suffice. Perhaps it’s fine if your idea of the library future is being replaced by a content acquisition and delivery algorithm. I think it should concern us that many of our community members’ perception of the library is primarily about the content it delivers, not its educational role in helping community members learn new skills or any of the many other non-content services that are part of a robust and connected library experience. According to Bill Lee, what libraries deliver is a level one experience – and we need to do better than that.

In his column titled “Building Customer Communities is the Key to Creating Value“, Lee describes four levels of the user experience. In Level One the organization is perceived by its customers as simply the supplier of some commodity – in the case of the library – the content (and typically at the best price and what’s better than free to the user). In Lee’s hierarchy of customer experience Level One is the least desirable experience to deliver because community members care only about what they can get from you – not about you or the added value services offered. It’s strictly a one-way relationship.

A Level Two experience would represent an improvement for librarians because it moves beyond content to a state where community members believe you help them accomplish something, but it’s more than just basic productivity. At Level Two the librarian is perceived as adding value by saving time, delivering something not easily obtained elsewhere (e.g., expert advice on getting to the best content). If they can get past the content delivery focus, delivering solutions would serve as a good way to start connecting with community members.

If we do that well then we may, for some segment of our community, achieve the Level Three experience. At Level Three there is more engagement, emotional connection and relationship building. This is the level where trust gets established and in turn it leads to deeper community engagement and member loyalty. Now the experience is far beyond connecting with the library to get a book, article or movie. It’s about wanting to be at the library, to spend time there browsing the stacks or working with a librarian on a research project or just being comfortable in our community space. The experience at Level Three instills loyalty in the community members, and they tell their friends about the great experience they have at the library. While Lee spends most of his column discussing the Level Four experience, I’d be glad to see most of us getting to Level Three – that’s a big enough challenge.

What happens at Level Four? The way I’d describe it is to say that the library achieves platform status. The library is actually offering an experience that helps its community members to build their own networks and communities. The library acts as a platform upon which its members can build their own social presence. He provides a few examples of organizations that are achieving the Level Four experience. Whether librarians can create that Level Four experience is less clear because achieving trusted platform status involves more complexity and investment. One library example, in the academic sector, could be the library research award competition. Prize winners may use this to enhance their presence and build their network. Anyone who offers such a prize knows it’s a complex initiative that requires both personal and financial investment.

Given that many of our libraries are stuck at Level One, Level Three strikes me as a reasonable target goal.To get there we will need to do some rethinking about the value we deliver – or could be delivering – and how to get past being seen primarily as a content provider. I hope Lee would consider taking that up as a topic in a future column – what to do to move beyond Level One experiences. In the meantime, we need to start assessing our own library experiences to honestly know the level at which we currently operate and what we can do to move up the experience level ladder.

Service Does Matter In Higher Education

Though slow to come around, the signs indicate that there is an increased awareness in higher education that the quality of services delivered does matter. When students are behaving more like traditional consumers who comparison shop before making a purchase decision, colleges and universities may want to develop a reputation for delivering great customer experiences. Whether it’s the online registration process, managing student loans and assisting with financial aid or resolving an overdue book issue in the library, students are increasingly attuned to the quality of these experiences – and when it’s subpar they may broadcast it on their social networks. I know I want my institution’s students to be telling each other about the great experience they had in interaction with the library.

More attention is being paid to the student experience. Based on what I’ve read so far this mostly focuses on the quality of face-to-face service. One institution was profiled in Inside Higher Education because they pay students to be mystery shoppers, going around campus to different offices to rate the service. In this particular article, a college describes its effort to institute “mystery shoppers” to make sure students get good service. There is a clear distinction that the mystery effort applies only to students’ interactions with campus service providers; it doesn’t extend to what happens in the classroom. The goal is to focus on out-of-the-classroom experiences that could ultimately impact on the learning experience:

Shank and Marymount’s efforts highlight an often-overlooked aspect of university administration that can have a profound effect on the student experience – the myriad interactions students have with university officials outside the classroom. Shank said such interactions, while not the focus of a student’s time at the university, can shade his or her view of the experience, thereby making him or her less likely to recommend the institution to others or preventing him or her from engaging with a particular campus office. In the case of something like the library or career service, it could have a significant effect on that student’s educational or professional outcome.

Mystery shopping is certainly less common in higher education, but it strikes me as a good way for the institution to know what sort of user experience students are having. It reminded me of an article written a few years ago about an academic library that made use of mystery shoppers to evaluate service quality. Even faculty can agree that the experiences students have beyond the classroom are important to the over quality of higher education – especially when their son or daughter is a college student in need of help from a campus service. This article published in Educause Review suggests that higher education needs to pay closer attention to “service science”. It’s becoming more important for colleges and universities to treat the service they provide as a scientific endeavor that can be studied, analyzed and improved. Yet another Educause Review article described how higher education institutions would be smart to implement “service blueprinting” as a more effective way to improve the student experience.

I hope that the idea of paying attention to the user experience – or at least the service experience – that college students get will spread to many other colleges and universities. While there is far more to be accomplished beyond mystery shopper tactics, the fact that university administrators are beginning to catch on to the value of providing a good user experience is a good sign that institutions will start to encourage – and reward – its different service units to provide great user experiences. I’d like to think that academic librarians are ready to lead the way.

Library Community Member’s Quality of Life Bill of Rights

There are times when I wish our library building and equipment could provide a better user experience simply by virtue of consistently and successfully delivering on the most basic set of user expectations. The building is past its prime, gets heavy use and as much as we’d want it to always meet those expectations we occasionally fall short – and we do our best to remedy what we don’t get right. What are those basic user expectations? I refer to it as the library “quality of life.” That’s the term the director at a previous place of work used, and I always thought it aptly described that most basic services that we needed to consistently deliver with high quality – and certainly free of breakage.

When we focus our attention on the interaction between staff and community member, which is certainly critical to the experience, the more simple quality of life factors can get overlooked. We should not underestimate how important the library quality of life is to the total user experience. A dirty bathroom, a broken piece of equipment, bad odors, uncomfortable temperatures,noisy study space and other problems detract from the great user experience we want our community members to have. Those are also the exact sort of things that often get communicated in a social message, and we know how damaging that can be to our brand.They are also the sort of things that lead to complaints, and yet they we should have the most control over them. How do we make it better?

Perhaps we just need to keep reminding ourselves how important the library quality of life is to user experience, and that we should make a point of checking everyday to make sure we are doing our best, no matter how uncooperative our buildings (or the community members themselves) are, to deliver a consistently high quality experience. I thought for sure that someone in libraryland had already devised some sort of manifesto or bill of rights about this, but my searches came up empty. The only references to “quality of life” in connection with “library” pointed to the importance of the library to the community’s quality of life. Just like a community without a library fails on quality of life, a library with broken basics fails on its quality of life. Here’s my attempt at a “Library Quality of Life Bill of Rights” that should serve as the commitment we make to our community members to guarantee them the best possible library experience. If you already created one of these for your library or you have other tenets to add, please use the comments to share.

1. Our community members are entitled to a clean library. Where they walk, where they sit and where they work should be regularly cleaned, and re-cleaned as necessary to meet expected standards of cleanliness for a shared community space.

2. Our community members are entitled to decent, usable lavatories. This is important and deserves to stand separately from overall library cleanliness. Keep it simple. If you go in there and there’s a problem (odor, dirt, leaking faucet, whatever) – just get it fixed – and fast. Don’t wait for a community member to complain.

3. Our community members are entitled to a library that offers a comfortable working environment. To the extent possible eliminate disturbances or issues that create discomfort or disruption. Recognizing that one size does not fit all requires us to offer multiple environments within the library to meet different work and learning needs.

4. Our community members are entitled to working spaces that are quiet. Consider developing quiet rooms, distraction-free zones and other spaces designed to minimize noise. Create a building culture that empowers community members to safely self-police quiet spaces, and that discourages those who create disruption.

5. Our community members are entitled to equipment that is in correct operating order. Whether it’s a photocopier, a scanner, computers, printers or a vending machine, a library experience should be free of the frustration experienced when broken equipment means projects that go unfinished, wasted money or the outcome for a library visit goes unmet.

6. Our community members are entitled to comfortable, safe furniture. Seating, carrels, tables and whatever else counts as furniture should be kept in the best possible condition and regularly checked to ensure that age and use has not caused a serious condition of deterioration.

7. Our community members are entitled to a safe and secure library facility. The administration and staff, working collaboratively with those responsible for security, should establish a culture that is sensitive to saftey issues. It should put into place those resources that help to prevent crime from happening, and to allow it to be effectively dealt with and resolved in the event it does happen.

8. Our community members are entitled to adequate working outlets and network access for connectivity for their devices. Community members depend on their technology devices to conduct their daily business, and if their library fails to provide these 21st century work-life basics we have no reason to blame them for going elsewhere.

9. Our community members are entitled, within reason, to the basic office supplies that facilitate their ability to satisfy whatever tasks they came to complete at the library. There are any number of options for providing access to staplers, scissors, tape and other simple necessities of office work that help community members do their work and eliminate their stress. Let’s eliminate barriers to providing these resources.

10. Our community members are entitled to a library that is easy to navigate. Let’s make sure our building has pathways and signage that are conducive to effective and intuitive way-finding to get community members to their destination and back again, and whenever possible eliminates barriers that create confusion, wasted time and stress.

Perhaps you find these rights just too obvious. Perhaps you assume that they should just be and not require us to give them our attention. Or we might assume that someone else is going to take the responsibility to make sure that this all works correctly and to the community member’s satisfaction. I know I didn’t get into this profession to make sure bathrooms are clean, and you probably didn’t either. But it’s their library and it’s our responsibility. If we want to delivery a better library experience we need to pay attention and build processes to ensure we deliver the library quality of life that we want for ourselves when we go to any library other than our own. Perhaps having a Library Quality of Life Bill of Rights could make a difference in designing and sustaining that better library experience.