Back in 2006, Karen Schneider, now university librarian at Oakland, Calif.’s Holy Names University, published “The User Is Not Broken: A Meme Masquerading as a Manifesto” on her blog, the Free Range Librarian. The post, as radical as it was simple, sparked debate, quickly became a classic in the profession, and is now a touchstone for librarians eager to reinvent their institutions.
But how well has the piece, written as a series of pithy maxims, survived the past eight years? Extraordinarily well, it turns out—even if our responses to some of Schneider’s rules continue to change.
We Are Not a Format, We Are a Service
We all should have had this sentence taped above our desks these last five years—it would have helped us weather the public’s fascination with e-books and the publishing industry’s exasperating licensing impediments and nutty pricing models.
For decades our identity was married to a format: the print book. And despite the tech boom, little has changed. According to a 2010 OCLC report, Perception of Libraries, 75% of Americans primarily associate libraries with books—more than in 2005 ( 69%).
With that in mind, it’s understandable how the rise of e-books might send some librarians into a tailspin. E-books, many of us feared, would send us the way of the dinosaur, because print would become obsolete and we wouldn’t be able to license e-books.
It turns out that the e-book’s Manifest Destiny has been overhyped. E-book sales have flattened in the past year, and during the same period, according to new research from Pew, the number of adults who reported reading an e-book has grown only modestly, from 23% to 28%.
This mirrors what’s happening in my library. E-book borrowing is growing at a reasonable pace, but print book borrowing is growing too—just at a slower rate. And e-book circulation remains a small piece of our overall circulation. While we once feared that e-books were going to leave us behind, we now fear that by shifting to digital too quickly, we’ll leave behind our core patrons.
The e-book, no longer the bright young thing, is now settling into early middle age. Digital turns out to be just another format, and it’s not even the prettiest. Granted, for some it’s the format of choice, just like audiobooks are for other patrons. But many readers move back and forth, motivated by availability or by what’s happening in their lives, like an upcoming long flight to California to visit the grandkids.
Others, when told that the only available copy of a title (say, Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch) is an e-book, recoil like we offered them a cuneiform tablet. And, no, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between readers’ ages and format preferences, except that teens seem to really, really hate e-books (unless that’s the only format they can get Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy in).
Readers are looking to us to connect them with books, whether via the new books display, their favorite reference librarian, or our Web site. Turns out it really is the service they want. We’re not, as Schneider wrote, a format after all.
The OPAC Is Not the Sun
Not only is the OPAC (the library catalogue, for you nonlibrarians) not the Sun, Schneider wrote, it is “at best a distant planet, every year moving farther from the orbit of its solar system.”
Back in 2006, librarians were grappling with the sad reality that our catalogues—with their rich, expensive metadata (did you know that The Goldfinch is 25 cm tall?)—were taking a back seat to Amazon and other online tools. Readers wanted an easy search that was likely to deliver the books they were looking for on the first try, along with cover art, reviews (from anyone, really), as well as suggestions for read-alikes.
Today’s catalogues have improved, typically including covers and reviews. Some libraries have partnered with software developers like Bibliocommons, to allow users to customize their online experience, tag content, and post reviews. Other libraries import data from social reading sites like Library Thing. We may no longer be moving farther from the orbit of its solar system, but we are still far from the Sun.
And that’s okay. Readers today have a lot of tools at their disposal—their Amazon wish lists, their bookmarked reviews, their buddies on Goodreads—and libraries are now only one player among many. Public library OPACs just need to be easy to navigate, have relevancy ranking by default, and allow users to easily perform tasks, like placing holds.
What has changed is discovery within the library. Many readers, young and old, relish browsing through physical books, and with the sad decline in the number of bookstores, they have fewer opportunities to do so.
If a library can support a robust new books collection with multiple copies of many titles, can display the books with care, and can weed the area assiduously, then it is well on its way to developing a user base that will regard the library as a sun.
Your Web site Is Your Ambassador to Tomorrow’s Taxpayers
As Schneider astutely noted, many users will meet a library’s Web site long before they see its building, its physical resources, or its librarians.
This statement is truer than ever in 2014, meaning that today a good Web site is even more critical than it was back in 2006. After all, some users—like committed digital readers—may never visit their local library or meet its staff. If new users are able to navigate the library’s Web site, and register for their cards online without ever coming into the building (and why shouldn’t they?), then they’re off—they can download and stream. It could be a decade before they stop by the library, if ever.
But if libraries’ Web sites really are their ambassadors, then many of us librarians need to pay more attention to them. Some sites still have poor usability (five clicks to get to popular resources?) and are full of strange library jargon. And what’s with this habit of throwing up product logos without explanation? Who would guess that NoveList Plus provides book recommendations and isn’t, say, a site for fan fiction?
The best library Web sites today are marketing vehicles, pushing library programs and services and engaging our public, while continuing to provide bread-and-butter features, like access to catalogues. Just look at how NYPL.com (the New York Public Library’s site) throws up an incredible mix of book lists, programs, and performances; it borders on being chaotic, but generates real excitement. Or look at how well the graphic and bold design of the homepage of the Salt Lake City Public Library markets its activities and invites repeat visits.
Meet People Where They Are—Not Where We Want Them to Be
Libraries are very good at organizing and presenting content in anticipation of users’ needs. From cataloging resources to creating booklists, to offering workshops and classes, we’re all about meeting people where we think they may be. The trouble is, not all individuals fit into our elaborate schema.
It’s difficult to genuinely meet people where they are. It’s far easier to set up a system that we think might help most users—and a whole lot cheaper. Meeting people where they are can take a serious commitment of staff time.
In the past decade, libraries have experimented with creating alternatives to their “build it and they will come” paradigm. Teen librarians, working with teen advisory groups, have encouraged their users to help determine teen programs and services. Letting the public have a role in ordering materials is one way to open a library’s collection to its readers. Book-a-librarian programs allow us to focus on our users’ needs in more depth than is possible at a reference desk.
For several years, my library provided drop-in e-reader help. But in the past 12 months, interest in e-readers has taken a nosedive, so we expanded the program to offer help for other types of devices. The response has been enthusiastic: the public has hauled in cameras, phones, laptops, and iPads. No amount of handouts, FAQs on our Web site, and classes could begin to address the variety of questions we have received, and few programs have generated gratitude.
Technology isn’t something we offer, it’s something we do, and helping people understand how to use their technology is perfectly in line with what libraries do best: respond to people’s needs.
The User Is Not Broken
At its essence, Schneider’s essay demands that we focus on people, and that we pay close attention to how people interact with us and the systems we have created. When a visitor leaves our Web site in frustration, or a browser exits the building empty-handed, it’s not his or her fault. It’s because our systems are in some way broken.
The future of libraries gets a lot of attention these days, especially from those outside of libraries. It’s understandable. There are disruptions to formats, distribution, and technology that would seem to undermine our existence. But the one constant that gets forgotten is people.
If libraries remain focused on channeling their resources toward helping people solve their problems and meet their needs, then we are providing a service so unique in this world that it will be hard to readily dismiss us.
“The user is the Sun,” Schneider wrote in 2006. She’s right.