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How to Price 3D Printing Service Fees

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on May. 22, 2017.***

Many libraries today provide 3D printing service. But not all of them can afford to do so for free. While free 3D printing may be ideal, it can jeopardize the sustainability of the service over time. Nevertheless, many libraries tend to worry about charging service fees.

In this post, I will outline how I determined the pricing schema for our library’s new 3D Printing service in the hope that more libraries will consider offering 3D printing service if having to charge the fee is a factor stopping them. But let me begin with libraries’ general aversion to fees.

A 3D printer in action at the Health Sciences and Human Services Library (HS/HSL), Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore

Service Fees Are Not Your Enemy

Charging fees for the library’s service is not something librarians should regard as a taboo. We live in the times in which a library is being asked to create and provide more and more new and innovative services to help users successfully navigate the fast-changing information landscape. A makerspace and 3D printing are certainly one of those new and innovative services. But at many libraries, the operating budget is shrinking rather than increasing. So, the most obvious choice in this situation is to aim for cost-recovery.

It is to be remembered that even when a library aims for cost-recovery, it will be only partial cost-recovery because there is a lot of staff time and expertise that is spent on planning and operating such new services. Libraries should not be afraid to introduce new services requiring service fees because users will still benefit from those services often much more greatly than a commercial equivalent (if any). Think of service fees as your friend. Without them, you won’t be able to introduce and continue to provide a service that your users need. It is a business cost to be expected, and libraries will not make profit out of it (even if they try).

Still bothered? Almost every library charges for regular (paper) printing. Should a library rather not provide printing service because it cannot be offered for free? Library users certainly wouldn’t want that.

Determining Your Service Fees

What do you need in order to create a pricing scheme for your library’s 3D printing service?

(a) First, you need to list all cost-incurring factors. Those include (i) the equipment cost and wear and tear, (ii) electricity, (iii) staff time & expertise for support and maintenance, and (iv) any consumables such as 3d print filament, painter’s tape. Remember that your new 3D printer will not last forever and will need to be replaced by a new one in 3-5 years.

Also, some of these cost-incurring factors such as staff time and expertise for support is fixed per 3D print job. On the other hand, another cost-incurring factor, 3D print filament, for example, is a cost factor that increases in proportion to the size/density of a 3d model that is printed. That is, the larger and denser a 3d print model is, the more filament will be used incurring more cost.

(b) Second, make sure that your pricing scheme is readily understood by users. Does it quickly give users a rough idea of the cost before their 3D print job begins? An obscure pricing scheme can confuse users and may deter them from trying out a new service. That would be bad user experience.

Also in 3D printing, consider if you will also charge for a failed print. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you don’t. Maybe you want to charge a fee that is lower than a successful print. Whichever one you decide on, have that covered since failed prints will certainly happen.

(c) Lastly, the pricing scheme should be easily handled by the library staff. The more library staff will be involved in the entire process of a library patron using the 3D printing service from the beginning to the end, the more important this becomes. If the pricing scheme is difficult for the staff to work with when they need charge for and process each 3D print job, the new 3D printing service will increase their workload significantly.

Which staff will be responsible for which step of the new service? What would be the exact tasks that the staff will need to do? For example, it may be that several staff at the circulation desk need to learn and handle new tasks involving the 3D printing service, such as labeling and putting away completed 3D models, processing the payment transaction, delivering the model, and marking the job status for the paid 3D print job as ‘completed’ in the 3D Printing Staff Admin Portal if there is such a system in place. Below is the screenshot of the HS/HSL 3D Printing Staff Admin Portal developed in-house by the library IT team.

The HS/HSL 3D Printing Staff Admin Portal, University of Maryland, Baltimore

Examples – 3D Printing Service Fees

It’s always helpful to see how other libraries are doing when you need to determine your own pricing scheme. Here are some examples that shows ten libraries’ 3D printing pricing scheme changed over the recent three years.

  • UNR DeLaMare Library
    • 2014 – $7.20 per cubic inch of modeling material (raised to $8.45 starting July, 2014).
    • 2017 – uPrint – Model Material: $4.95 per cubic inch (=16.38 gm=0.036 lb)
    • 2017 – uPrint – Support Materials: $7.75 per cubic inch
  • NCSU Hunt Library
    • 2014-  uPrint 3D Printer: $10 per cubic inch of material (ABS), with a $5 minimum
    • 2014 – MakerBot 3D Printer: $0.35 per gram of material (PLA), with a $5 minimum
    • 2017 – uPrint – $10 per cubic inch of material, $5 minimum
    • 2017 – F306 – $0.35 per gram of material, $5 minimum
  • Southern Illinois University Library
    • 2014 – Originally $2 per hour of printing time; Reduced to $1 as the demand grew.
    • 2017 – Lulzbot Taz 5, Luzbot mini – $2.00 per hour of printing time.
  • BYU Library
  • University of Michigan Library
    • The Cube 3D printer checkout is no longer offered.
    • 2017 – Cost for professional 3d printing service; Open access 3d printing is free.
  • GVSU Library
  • University of Tennessee, Chattanooga Library
  • Port Washington Public library
  • Miami University
    • 2014 – $0.20 per gram of the finished print; 2017 – ?
  • UCLA Library, Dalhousie University Library (2014)
    • Free

Types of 3D Printing Service Fees

From the examples above, you will notice that many 3d printing service fee schemes are based upon the weight of a 3D-print model. This is because these libraries are trying recover the cost of the 3d filament, and the amount of filament used is most accurately reflected in the weight of the resulting 3D-printed model.

However, there are a few problems with the weight-based 3D printing pricing scheme. First, it is not readily calculable by a user before the print job, because to do so, the user will have to weigh a model that s/he won’t have until it is 3D-printed. Also, once 3D-printed, the staff will have to weigh each model and calculate the cost. This is time-consuming and not very efficient.

For this reason, my library considered an alternative pricing scheme based on the size of a 3D model. The idea was that we will have roughly three different sizes of an empty box – small, medium, and large –  with three different prices assigned. Whichever box into which a user’s 3d printed object fits will determine how much the user will pay for her/his 3D-printed model. This seemed like a great idea because it is easy to determine how much a model will cost to 3d-print to both users and the library staff in comparison to the weight-based pricing scheme.

Unfortunately, this size-based pricing scheme has a few significant flaws. A smaller model may use more filament than a larger model if it is denser (meaning the higher infill ratio). Second, depending on the shape of a model, a model that fits  in a large box may use much less filament than the one that fits in a small box. Think about a large tree model with think branches. Then compare that with a 100% filled compact baseball model that fits into a smaller box than the tree model does. Thirdly, the resolution that determines a layer height may change the amount of filament used even if what is 3D-printed is a same model.

Different infill ratios – Image from

Charging Based upon the 3D Printing Time

So we couldn’t go with the size-based pricing scheme. But we did not like the problems of the weight-based pricing scheme, either. As an alternative, we decided to go with the time-based pricing scheme because printing time is proportionate to how much filament is used, but it does not require that the staff weigh the model each time. A 3D-printing software gives an estimate of the printing time, and most 3D printers also display actual printing time for each model printed.

First, we wanted to confirm the hypothesis that 3D printing time and the weight of the resulting model are proportionate to each other. I tested this by translating the weight-based cost to the time-based cost based upon the estimated printing time and the estimated weight of several cube models. Here is the result I got using the Makerbot Replicator 2X.

  • 9.10 gm/36 min= 0.25 gm per min.
  • 17.48 gm/67 min= 0.26 gm per min.
  • 30.80 gm/117 min= 0.26 gm per min.
  • 50.75 gm/186 min=0.27 gm per min.
  • 87.53 gm/316 min= 0.28 gm per min.
  • 194.18 gm/674 min= 0.29 gm per min.

There is some variance, but the hypothesis holds up. Based upon this, now let’s calculate the 3d printing cost by time.

3D plastic filament is $48 for ABS/PLA and $65 for the dissolvable per 0.90 kg  (=2.00 lb) from Makerbot. That means that filament cost is $0.05 per gram for ABS/PLA and $0.07 per gram for the dissolvable. So, 3D filament cost is 6 cents per gram on average.

Finalizing the Service Fee for 3D Printing

For an hour of 3D printing time, the amount of filament used would be 15.6 gm (=0.26 x 60 min). This gives us the filament cost of 94 cents per hour of 3D printing (=15.6 gm x 6 cents). So, for the cost-recovery of filament only, I get roughly $1 per hour of 3D printing time.

Earlier, I mentioned that filament is only one of the cost-incurring factors for the 3D printing service. It’s time to bring in those other factors, such as hardware wear/tear, staff time, electricity, maintenance, etc., plus “no-charge-for-failed-print-policy,” which was adopted at our library. Those other factors will add an additional amount per 3D print job. And at my library, this came out to be about $2. (I will not go into details about how these have been determined because those will differ at each library.) So, the final service fee for our new 3D printing service was set to be $3 up to 1 hour of 3D printing + $1 per additional hour of 3D printing. The $3 is broken down to $1 per hour of 3D printing that accounts for the filament cost and $2 fixed cost for every 3D print job.

To help our users to quickly get an idea of how much their 3D print job will cost, we have added a feature to the HS/HSL 3D Print Job Submission Form online. This feature automatically calculates and displays the final cost based upon the printing time estimate that a user enters.


The HS/HSL 3D Print Job Submission form, University of Maryland, Baltimore

Don’t Be Afraid of Service Fees

I would like to emphasize that libraries should not be afraid to set service fees for new services. As long as they are easy to understand and the staff can explain the reasons behind those service fees, they should not be a deterrent to a library trying to introduce and provide a new innovative service.

There is a clear benefit in running through all cost-incurring factors and communicating how the final pricing scheme was determined (including the verification of the hypothesis that 3D printing time and the weight of the resulting model are proportionate to each other) to all library staff who will be involved in the new 3D printing service. If any library user inquire about or challenges the service fee, the staff will be able to provide a reasonable explanation on the spot.

I implemented this pricing scheme at the same time as the launch of my library’s makerspace (the HS/HSL Innovation Space at the University of Maryland, Baltimore – back in April 2015. We have been providing 3D printing service and charging for it for more than two years. I am happy to report that during that entire duration, we have not received any complaint about the service fee. No library user expected our new 3D printing service to be free, and all comments that we received regarding the service fee were positive. Many expressed a surprise at how cheap our 3D printing service is and thanked us for it.

To summarize, libraries should be willing to explore and offer new innovating services even when they require charging service fees. And if you do so, make sure that the resulting pricing scheme for the new service is (a) sustainable and accountable, (b) readily graspable by users, and (c) easily handled by the library staff who will handle the payment transaction. Good luck and happy 3D printing at your library!

An example model with the 3D printing cost and the filament info displayed at the HS/HSL, University of Maryland, Baltimore

Cybersecurity, Usability, Online Privacy, and Digital Surveillance

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on May. 9, 2016.***

Cybersecurity is an interesting and important topic, one closely connected to those of online privacy and digital surveillance. Many of us know that it is difficult to keep things private on the Internet. The Internet was invented to share things with others quickly, and it excels at that job. Businesses that process transactions with customers and store the information online are responsible for keeping that information private. No one wants social security numbers, credit card information, medical history, or personal e-mails shared with the world. We expect and trust banks, online stores, and our doctor’s offices to keep our information safe and secure.

However, keeping private information safe and secure is a challenging task. We have all heard of security breaches at J.P MorganTarget, SonyAnthem Blue Cross and Blue Shieldthe Office of Personnel Management of the U.S. federal governmentUniversity of Maryland at College Park, and Indiana University. Sometimes, a data breach takes place when an institution fails to patch a hole in its network systems. Sometimes, people fall for a phishing scam, or a virus in a user’s computer infects the target system. Other times, online companies compile customer data into personal profiles. The profiles are then sold to data brokers and on into the hands of malicious hackers and criminals.

Image from Flickr –

Cybersecurity vs. Usability

To prevent such a data breach, institutional IT staff are trained to protect their systems against vulnerabilities and intrusion attempts. Employees and end users are educated to be careful about dealing with institutional or customers’ data. There are systematic measures that organizations can implement such as two-factor authentication, stringent password requirements, and locking accounts after a certain number of failed login attempts.

While these measures strengthen an institution’s defense against cyberattacks, they may negatively affect the usability of the system, lowering users’ productivity. As a simple example, security measures like a CAPTCHA can cause an accessibility issue for people with disabilities.

Or imagine that a university IT office concerned about the data security of cloud services starts requiring all faculty, students, and staff to only use cloud services that are SOC 2 Type II certified as an another example. SOC stands for “Service Organization Controls.” It consists of a series of standards that measure how well a given service organization keeps its information secure. For a business to be SOC 2 certified, it must demonstrate that it has sufficient policies and strategies that will satisfactorily protect its clients’ data in five areas known as “Trust Services Principles.” Those include the security of the service provider’s system, the processing integrity of this system, the availability of the system, the privacy of personal information that the service provider collects, retains, uses, discloses, and disposes of for its clients, and the confidentiality of the information that the service provider’s system processes or maintains for the clients. The SOC 2 Type II certification means that the business had maintained relevant security policies and procedures over a period of at least six months, and therefore it is a good indicator that the business will keep the clients’ sensitive data secure. The Dropbox for Business is SOC 2 certified, but it costs money. The free version is not as secure, but many faculty, students, and staff in academia use it frequently for collaboration. If a university IT office simply bans people from using the free version of Dropbox without offering an alternative that is as easy to use as Dropbox, people will undoubtedly suffer.

Some of you may know that the USPS website does not provide a way to reset the password for users who forgot their usernames. They are instead asked to create a new account. If they remember the account username but enter the wrong answers to the two security questions more than twice, the system also automatically locks their accounts for a certain period of time. Again, users have to create a new account. Clearly, the system that does not allow the password reset for those forgetful users is more secure than the one that does. However, in reality, this security measure creates a huge usability issue because average users do forget their passwords and the answers to the security questions that they set up themselves. It’s not hard to guess how frustrated people will be when they realize that they entered a wrong mailing address for mail forwarding and are now unable to get back into the system to correct because they cannot remember their passwords nor the answers to their security questions.

To give an example related to libraries, a library may decide to block all international traffic to their licensed e-resources to prevent foreign hackers who have gotten hold of the username and password of a legitimate user from accessing those e-resources. This would certainly help libraries to avoid a potential breach of licensing terms in advance and spare them from having to shut down compromised user accounts one by one whenever those are found. However, this would make it impossible for legitimate users traveling outside of the country to access those e-resources as well, which many users would find it unacceptable. Furthermore, malicious hackers would probably just use a proxy to make their IP address appear to be located in the U.S. anyway.

What would users do if their organization requires them to reset passwords on a weekly basis for their work computers and several or more systems that they also use constantly for work? While this may strengthen the security of those systems, it’s easy to see that it will be a nightmare having to reset all those passwords every week and keeping track of them not to forget or mix them up. Most likely, they will start using less complicated passwords or even begin to adopt just one password for all different services. Some may even stick to the same password every time the system requires them to reset it unless the system automatically detects the previous password and prevents the users from continuing to use the same one. Ill-thought-out cybersecurity measures can easily backfire.

Security is important, but users also want to be able to do their job without being bogged down by unwieldy cybersecurity measures. The more user-friendly and the simpler the cybersecurity guidelines are to follow, the more users will observe them, thereby making a network more secure. Users who face cumbersome and complicated security measures may ignore or try to bypass them, increasing security risks.

Image from Flickr -

Image from Flickr –

Cybersecurity vs. Privacy

Usability and productivity may be a small issue, however, compared to the risk of mass surveillance resulting from aggressive security measures. In 2013, the Guardian reported that the communication records of millions of people were being collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) in bulk, regardless of suspicion of wrongdoing. A secret court order prohibited Verizon from disclosing the NSA’s information request. After a cyberattack against the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California system installed a device that is capable of capturing, analyzing, and storing all network traffic to and from the campus for over 30 days. This security monitoring was implemented secretly without consulting or notifying the faculty and those who would be subject to the monitoring. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the IT staff who installed the system were given strict instructions not to reveal it was taking place. Selected committee members on the campus were told to keep this information to themselves.

The invasion of privacy and the lack of transparency in these network monitoring programs has caused great controversy. Such wide and indiscriminate monitoring programs must have a very good justification and offer clear answers to vital questions such as what exactly will be collected, who will have access to the collected information, when and how the information will be used, what controls will be put in place to prevent the information from being used for unrelated purposes, and how the information will be disposed of.

We have recently seen another case in which security concerns conflicted with people’s right to privacy. In February 2016, the FBI requested Apple to create a backdoor application that will bypass the current security measure in place in its iOS. This was because the FBI wanted to unlock an iPhone 5C recovered from one of the shooters in San Bernadino shooting incident. Apple iOS secures users’ devices by permanently erasing all data when a wrong password is entered more than ten times if people choose to activate this option in the iOS setting. The FBI’s request was met with strong opposition from Apple and others. Such a backdoor application can easily be exploited for illegal purposes by black hat hackers, for unjustified privacy infringement by other capable parties, and even for dictatorship by governments. Apple refused to comply with the request, and the court hearing was to take place in March 22. The FBI, however, withdrew the request saying that it found a way to hack into the phone in question without Apple’s help. Now, Apple has to figure out what the vulnerability in their iOS if it wants its encryption mechanism to be foolproof. In the meanwhile, iOS users know that their data is no longer as secure as they once thought.

Around the same time, the Senate’s draft bill titled as “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016,” proposed that people should be required to comply with any authorized court order for data and that if that data is “unintelligible” – meaning encrypted – then it must be decrypted for the court. This bill is problematic because it practically nullifies the efficacy of any end-to-end encryption, which we use everyday from our iPhones to messaging services like Whatsapp and Signal.

Because security is essential to privacy, it is ironic that certain cybersecurity measures are used to greatly invade privacy rather than protect it. Because we do not always fully understand how the technology actually works or how it can be exploited for both good and bad purposes, we need to be careful about giving blank permission to any party to access, collect, and use our private data without clear understanding, oversight, and consent. As we share more and more information online, cyberattacks will only increase, and organizations and the government will struggle even more to balance privacy concerns with security issues.

Why Libraries Should Advocate for Online Privacy?

The fact that people may no longer have privacy on the Web should concern libraries. Historically, libraries have been strong advocates of intellectual freedom striving to keep patron’s data safe and protected from the unwanted eyes of the authorities. As librarians, we believe in people’s right to read, think, and speak freely and privately as long as such an act itself does not pose harm to others. The Library Freedom Project is an example that reflects this belief held strongly within the library community. It educates librarians and their local communities about surveillance threats, privacy rights and law, and privacy-protecting technology tools to help safeguard digital freedom, and helped the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to become the first library to operate a Tor exit relay, to provide anonymity for patrons while they browse the Internet at the library.

New technologies brought us the unprecedented convenience of collecting, storing, and sharing massive amount of sensitive data online. But the fact that such sensitive data can be easily exploited by falling into the wrong hands created also the unparalleled level of potential invasion of privacy. While the majority of librarians take a very strong stance in favor of intellectual freedom and against censorship, it is often hard to discern a correct stance on online privacy particularly when it is pitted against cybersecurity. Some even argue that those who have nothing to hide do not need their privacy at all.

However, privacy is not equivalent to hiding a wrongdoing. Nor do people keep certain things secrets because those things are necessarily illegal or unethical. Being watched 24/7 will drive any person crazy whether s/he is guilty of any wrongdoing or not. Privacy allows us safe space to form our thoughts and consider our actions on our own without being subject to others’ eyes and judgments. Even in the absence of actual massive surveillance, just the belief that one can be placed under surveillance at any moment is sufficient to trigger self-censorship and negatively affects one’s thoughts, ideas, creativity, imagination, choices, and actions, making people more conformist and compliant. This is further corroborated by the recent study from Oxford University, which provides empirical evidence that the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression. Privacy is an essential part of being human, not some trivial condition that we can do without in the face of a greater concern. That’s why many people under political dictatorship continue to choose death over life under mass surveillance and censorship in their fight for freedom and privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation states that privacy means respect for individuals’ autonomy, anonymous speech, and the right to free association. We want to live as autonomous human beings free to speak our minds and think on our own. If part of a library’s mission is to contribute to helping people to become such autonomous human beings through learning and sharing knowledge with one another without having to worry about being observed and/or censored, libraries should advocate for people’s privacy both online and offline as well as in all forms of communication technologies and devices.

Three Recent Talks of Mine on UX, Data Visualization, and IT Management

I have been swamped at work and pretty quiet here in my blog. But I gave a few talks recently. So I wanted to share those at least.

I presented about how to turn the traditional library IT department and its operation that is usually behind the scene into a more patron-facing unit at the recent American Library Association Midwinter Meeting back in January. This program was organized by the LITA Heads of IT Interest Group. In March, I gave a short lightning talk at the 2016 Code4Lib Conference about the data visualization project of library data at my library. I was also invited to speak at the USMAI (University System of Maryland and Affiliated Institutions) UX Unconference and gave a talk about user experience, personas, and the idea of applying library personas to library strategic planning.

Here are those three presentation slides for those interested!

Strategically UX Oriented with Personas from Bohyun Kim

Redesigning the Item Record Summary View in a Library Catalog and a Discovery Interface

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Oct. 15, 2013. ***

A. Oh, the Library Catalog

Almost all librarians have a love-hate relationship with their library catalogs (OPAC), which are used by library patrons. Interestingly enough, I hear a lot more complaints about the library catalog from librarians than patrons. Sometimes it is about the catalog missing certain information that should be there for patrons. But many other times, it’s about how crowded the search results display looks. We actually all want a clean-looking, easy-to-navigate, and efficient-to-use library catalog. But of course, it is much easier to complain than to come up with an viable alternative.

Aaron Schmidt has recently put forth an alternative design for a library item record. In his blog post, he suggests a library catalog shifts its focus from the bibliographic information (or metadata if not a book) of a library item to a patron’s tasks performed in relation to the library item so that the catalog functions more as “a tool that prioritizes helping people accomplish their tasks, whereby bibliographic data exists quietly in the background and is exposed only when useful.” This is a great point. Throwing all the information at once to a user only overwhelms her/him. Schmidt’s sketch provides a good starting point to rethink how to design the library catalog’s search results display.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.34.08 PM

From the blog post, “Catalog Design” by Aaron Schmidt

B. Thinking about Alternative Display Design

The example above is, of course, too simple to apply to the library catalog of an academic library straight away. For an usual academic library patron to determine whether s/he wants to either check out or reserve the item, s/he is likely to need a little more information than the book title, the author, and the book image. For example, students who look for textbooks, the edition information as well as the year of publication are important. But I take it that Schmidt’s point was to encourage more librarians to think about alternative designs for the library catalog rather than simply compare what is available and pick what seems to be the best among those.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 1.44.36 PM

Florida International University Library Catalog – Discovery layer, Mango, provided by Florida Virtual Campus

Granted that there may be limitations in how much we can customize the search results display of a library catalog. But that is not a reason to stop thinking about what the optimal display design would be for the library catalog search results. Sketching alternatives can be in itself a good exercise in evaluating the usability of an information system even if not all of your design can be implemented.

Furthermore, more and more libraries are implementing a discovery layer over their library catalogs, which provides much more room to customize the display of search results than the traditional library catalog. Open source discovery systems such as Blacklight or VuFind provides great flexibility in customizing the search results display. Even proprietary discovery products such as Primo, EDS, Summon offer a level of customization by the libraries.

Below, I will discuss some principles to follow in sketching alternative designs for search results in a library catalog, present some of my own sketches, and show other examples implemented by other libraries or websites.

C. Principles

So, if we want to improve the item record summary display to be more user-friendly, where can we start and what kind of principles should we follow? These are the principles that I followed in coming up with my own design:

  • De-clutter.
  • Reveal just enough information that is essential to determine the next action.
  • Highlight the next action.
  • Shorten texts.

These are not new principles. They are widely discussed and followed by many web designers including librarians who participate in their libraries’ website re-design. But we rarely apply these to the library catalog because we think that the catalog is somehow beyond our control. This is not necessarily the case, however. Many libraries implement discovery layers to give a completely different and improved look from that of their ILS-es’ default display.

Creating a satisfactory design on one’s own instead of simply pointing out what doesn’t work or look good in existing designs is surprisingly hard but also a refreshing challenge. It also brings about the positive shift of focus in thinking about a library catalog from “What is the problem in the catalog?” to “What is a problem and what can we change to solve the problem?”

Below I will show my own sketches for an item record summary view for the library catalog search results. These are clearly a combination of many other designs that I found inspiring in other library catalogs. (I will provide the source of those elements later in this post.) I tried to mix and revise them so that the result would follow those four principles above as closely as possible. Check them out and also try creating your own sketches. (I used Photoshop for creating my sketches.)

D. My Own Sketches

Here is the basic book record summary view. What I tried to do here is giving just enough information for the next action but not more than that: title, author, type, year, publisher, number of library copies and holds. The next action for a patron is to check the item out. On the other hand, undecided patrons will click the title to see the detailed item record or have the detailed item record to be texted, printed, e-mailed, or to be used in other ways.

(1) A book item record

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.46.38 PM

This is a record of a book that has an available copy to check out. Only when a patron decides to check out the item, the next set of information relevant to that action – the item location and the call number – is shown.

(2) With the check-out button clicked

check out box open

If no copy is available for check-out, the best way to display the item is to signal that check-out is not possible and to highlight an alternative action. You can either do this by graying out the check-out button or by hiding the button itself.

Many assume that adding more information would automatically increase the usability of a website. While there are cases in which this could be true, often a better option is to reveal information only when it is relevant.

I decided to gray out the check-out button when there is no available copy and display the reserve button, so that patrons can place a hold. Information about how many copies the library has and how many holds are placed (“1 hold / 1 copy”) would help a patron to decide if they want to reserve the book or not.

(3) A book item record when check-out is not available

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.34.54 PM

I also sketched two other records: one for an e-Book without the cover image and the other with the cover image. Since the appropriate action in this case is reading online, a different button is shown. You may place the ‘Requires Login’ text or simply omit it because most patrons will understand that they will have to log in to read a library e-book and also the read-online button will itself prompt log in once clicked anyway.

(4) An e-book item record without a book cover

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.35.54 PM

(5) An e-book item record with a book cover

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.48.33 PM

(6) When the ‘Read Online’ button is clicked, an e-book item record with multiple links/providers

When there are multiple options for one electronic resource, those options can be presented in a similar way in which multiple copies of a physical book are shown.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.35.22 PM

(6) A downloadable e-book item record

For a downloadable resource, changing the name of the button to ‘download’ is much more informative.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.35.13 PM

(7) An e-journal item record

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.47.31 PM

(7) When the ‘Read Online’ button is clicked, an e-journal item record with multiple links/providers

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.41.56 PM

E. Inspirations

Needless to say, I did not come up with my sketches from scratch. Here are the library catalogs whose item record summary view inspired me.


Toronto Public Library catalog has an excellent item record summary view, which I used as a base for my own sketches. It provides just enough information for the summary view. The title is hyperlinked to the detailed item record, and the summary view displays the material type and the year in bod for emphasis. The big green button also clearly shows the next action to take. It also does away with unnecessary labels that are common in library catalog such as ‘Author:’ ‘Published:’ ‘Location:’ ‘Link:.’

User Experience Designer Ryan Feely, who worked on Toronto Public Library’s catalog search interface, pointed out the difference between a link and an action in his 2009 presentation “Toronto Public Library Website User Experience Results and Recommendations.” Actions need to be highlighted as a button or in some similar design to stand out to users (slide 65). And ideally, only the actions available for a given item should be displayed.

Another good point which Feely makes (slide 24) is that an icon is often the center of attention and so a different icon should be used to signify different type of materials such as a DVD or an e-Journal. Below are the icons that Toronto Public Library uses for various types of library materials that do not have unique item images. These are much more informative than the common “No image available” icon.

eAudiobooke-journal eMusic

vinyl VHS eVideo

University of Toronto Libraries has recently redesigned their library catalog to be completely responsive. Their item record summary view in the catalog is brief and clear. Each record in the summary view also uses a red and a green icon that helps patrons to determine the availability of an item quickly. The icons for citing, printing, e-mailing, or texting the item record that often show up in the catalog are hidden in the options icon at the bottom right corner. When the mouse hovers over, a variety of choices appear.

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Richland Library’s catalog displays library items in a grid as a default, which makes the catalog more closely resemble an online bookstore or shopping website. Patrons can also change the view to have more details shown with or without the item image. The item record summary view in the default grid view is brief and to the point. The main type of patron action, such as Hold or Download, is clearly differentiated from other links as an orange button.


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Standford University Library offers a grid view (although not as the default like Richland Library). The grid view is very succinct with the item title, call number, availability information in the form of a green checkmark, and the item location.

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What is interesting about Stanford University Library catalog (using Blacklight) is that when a patron hovers its mouse over an item in the grid view, the item image displays the preview link. And when clicked, a more detailed information is shown as an overlay.

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Brigham Young University completely customized the user interface of the Primo product from ExLibris.


And University of Michigan Library customized the search result display of the Summon product from SerialsSolutions.

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Here are some other item record summary views that are also fairly straightforward and uncluttered but can be improved further.

Sacramento Public Library uses the open source discovery system, VuFind, with little customization.


I have not done an extensive survey of library catalogs to see which one has the best item record summary view. But it seemed to me that in general academic libraries are more likely to provide more information than necessary in the item record summary view and also to require patrons to click a link instead of displaying relevant information right away. For example, the ‘Check availability’ link that is shown in many library catalogs is better when it is replaced by the actual availability status of ‘available’ or ‘checked out.’ Similarly, the ‘Full-text online’ or ‘Available online’ link may be clearer with an button titled ‘Read online’ or ‘Access online.’

F. Challenges and Strategies

The biggest challenge in designing the item record summary view is to strike the balance between too little information and too much information about the item. Too little information will require patrons to review the detailed item record just to identify if the item is the one they are looking for or not.

Since librarians know many features of the library catalog, they tend to err on the side of throwing all available features into the item record summary view. But too much information not only overwhelms patrons and but also makes it hard for them to locate the most relevant information at that stage and to identify the next available action. Any information irrelevant to a given task is no more than noise to a patron.

This is not a problem unique to a library catalog but generally applicable to any system that displays search results. In their book, Designing the Search Experience , Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate describes this as achieving ‘the optimal level of detail.’ (p.130)

Useful strategies for achieving the optimal level of detail for the item summary view in the case of the library catalog include:

  • Removing all unnecessary labels
  • Using appropriate visual cues to make the record less text-heavy
  • Highlighting next logical action(s) and information relevant to that action
  • Systematically guiding a patron to the actions that are relevant to a given item and her/his task in hand

Large online shopping websites, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eBay all make a good use of these strategies. There are no labels such as ‘price,’ ‘shipping,’ ‘review,’ etc. Amazon highlights the price and the user reviews most since those are the two most deciding factors for consumers in their browsing stage. Amazon only offers enough information for a shopper to determine if s/he is further interested in purchasing the item. So there is not even the Buy button in the summary view. Once a shopper clicks the item title link and views the detailed item record, then the buying options and the ‘Add to Cart’ button are displayed prominently.

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Barnes & Noble’s default display for search results is the grid view, and the item record summary view offers only the most essential information – the item title, material type, price, and the user ratings.

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eBay’s item record summary view also offers only the most essential information, the highest bid and the time left, while people are browsing the site deciding whether to check out the item in further detail or not.

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G. More Things to Consider

An item record summary view, which we have discussed so far, is surely the main part of the search results page. But it is only a small part of the search results display and even a smaller part of the library catalog. Optimizing the search results page, for example, entails not just re-designing the item record summary view but choosing and designing many other elements of the page such as organizing the filtering options on the left and deciding on the default and optional views. Determining the content and the display of the detailed item record is another big part of creating a user-friendly library catalog. If you are interested in this topic, Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate’s book Designing the Search Experience (2013) provides an excellent overview.

Librarians are professionals trained in many uses of a searchable database, a known item search, exploring and browsing, a search with incomplete details, compiling a set of search results, locating a certain type of items only by location, type, subject, etc. But since our work is also on the operation side of a library, we often make the mistake of regarding the library catalog as one huge inventory system that should hold and display all the acquisition, cataloging, and holdings information data of the library collection. But library patrons are rarely interested in seeing such data. They are interested in identifying relevant library items and using them. All the other information is simply a guide to achieving this ultimate goal, and the library catalog is another tool in their many toolboxes.

Online shopping sites optimize their catalog to make purchase as efficient and simple as possible. Both libraries and online shopping sites share the common interests of guiding the users to one ultimate task – identifying an appropriate item for the final borrowing or access/purchase. For creating user-oriented library catalog sketches, it is helpful to check out how non-library websites are displaying their search results as well.

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Once you start looking other examples, you will realize that there are very many ways to display search results and you will soon want to sketch your own alternative design for the search results display in the library catalog and the discovery system. What do you think would be the level of optimum detail for library items in the library catalog or the discovery interface?

Further Reading



Stealth Librarianship: Creating Meaningful Connections Through User Experience, Outreach, and Liaising

I am doing a part of the ACRL E-Learning Webcast,  “Stealth Librarianship: Creating Meaningful Connections Through User Experience, Outreach, and Liaising,” next Tuesday with Kiyomi Deards and Erin Dorney and very excited about it.

I will be covering UX as a base for successful outreach and liaising activities. Kiyomi and Erin will discuss the stealth librarian liaising and the stealth librarian outreach respectively. If you can, join Erin and Kiyomi and me! If not, here are the slides of my part. The twitter hashtag is #stealthlib.

Part 1: UX for Stealth Librarian Outreach

Here are some info about the webcast for those who are interested:

Stealth Librarianship: Creating Meaningful Connections Through User Experience, Outreach, and Liaising
April 23, 2013
11 a.m. Pacific | 12:00 p.m. Mountain | 1:00 p.m. Central | 2:00 p.m. Eastern

90 minutes

Description: Relationships are at the heart of providing a satisfactory user experience and delivering library services and programs that match with what our users want and need. Many libraries have traditionally spoken with users only when necessary or when a problem has occurred. Looking at user experience, outreach, and liaison librarianship from the perspective of relationship-building between librarians and faculty, staff, or students allows librarians to provide more targeted and desired services while increasing positive perceptions of libraries. This live webcast investigates the benefits of relationship-building in a holistic manner. Instead of focusing on one aspect of librarianship, public, technical, and outreach services are examined as different means to the same end: better services through better campus relationships.

Join three academic librarians specializing in user experience, outreach, and liaison librarianship to discover how they use relationship-building to enhance their work. Learn how user experience research, outreach, and stealth librarianship can be used to create meaningful connections within the campus community. Presenters will examine the benefits of strong personal relationships and how they can improve the visibility and reputation of the library on campus. Additionally, hear how quality relationships can lead to the acquisition of new resources and the evolution of services to better meet users needs. Participants will perform a brief environmental scan, help to create an open access list of outreach activities, and share their own tips for successful stealth librarianship.

Learning Outcomes:

Learn to create a practical strategy in order to consciously shape and deliver positive user experience with the library staff in person and online.
List specific outreach activities which will engage users in order to build positive relationships between the library and its users.
Analyze nontraditional opportunities for engagement in order to prioritize and maximize the impact of time allotted to nontraditional engagement.

Presenter(s): Kiyomi D. Deards, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian, Millersville University; Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University

Target Audience: Librarians who want to improve the overall user experience of the library environment. Librarians who are subject specialist and/or have liaison duties with specific academic departments or schools. Librarians who perform outreach activities to faculty and students. Librarians who manage the library’s social media channels.