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March, 2012:

What Do Libraries Call Users, and What Do Library Users Think of Themselves in relation to Libraries?

 

Do library users think of themselves as library “patrons?”

In American Libraries Magazine, Anthony Molaro wrote a piece titled “Just Who Do We Serve?”  There, Molaro mentioned an interesting fact that caught my eyes. Did you know that library users actually preferred to be called “member” rather than “patron”, “customer,” or “user?” According to a recent survey, that is the case.

“You Must Focus on Connection Management Instead of Collection Management” R. David Lankes posted in his Work In Progress blog a while ago. He details a strategic planning session in which library consultant Joan Frye Williams decided to end the eternal debate about what we should call library patrons by asking them directly. Unexpectedly, those surveyed responded that instead of being called a library “patron,” or “customer,” or “user,” more than half preferred the term “member.”

(Side note: Some information about the survey mentioned is found at http://www.newlibrarianship.org/wordpress/?page_id=1052 . See the second comment by Lankes. Thanks to David Lankes for the link.)

Throughout my entire library career since early 2000s, the term that refers to library users which I heard most from the library staff was “patron.” I don’t recall any library staff calling a library user “customer” or even “user” back then.  As a very new part-time library assistant, I took it that this term “patron” meant pretty much “customer” in the sense that it is the customer (=patron in the library) that is the king.

At that time, I found the term “patron” odd and was curious about the fact that libraries were so patron-oriented. As a total library novice, I found the term ‘patron’ antiquated. (Could be just me, I admit.) Secondly, I just had no idea that libraries I frequented had such a patron-oriented culture even though I was a good library user/grad student. I was greatly impressed and amazed at how seriously the library staff take each and every small comment they receive from their “patrons.”

Now of course, I no longer feel the same curiosity about the term ‘patron,’ as I was brainwashed through my formal LIS education. (Kidding, kidding… ) But I still feel odd calling a library user “library patron.”   When I hear the term “patron,” I automatically think of patrons of the arts and culture, like the Medici who were the patrons of Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Now, certainly library users don’t consider themselves as playing the role of that kind of “patron.” Do they? If patronage means just some support, probably a term for this type of patronage that library users can better relate to would be rather “friends of the library.”

Library membership = CVS or Costco Membership?

I am not against the idea that as the library staff, we do and should strive to create and support the maximum satisfaction of library users. I am just pointing out that there seems to be some interesting difference between how libraries and library staff view library users in their operation and how library users consider themselves in relation to the libraries they frequent.

Side note: I have realized that I often use the term “user” to refer to library patrons. But that’s just because I work mostly in the context of web services. I use this term ‘user’ out of habit, not as any result of reflection. Interestingly, I found that some who work in the areas of web design and development (not library-related) actually prefer a term different than “user.” Jenifer Hanen, a web developer/designer, said once on Twitter that she preferred “people” or “customers / clients” opposed to “user.” I am guessing here, but it is probably because all the other terms than “user” seems to imply that they are not just some abstract entity that comes into a website and click links but the actual people with certain interests and preferences etc.

The survey result that Molaro cites seems to point out the very same kind of  interesting difference that I have noticed between how libraries and library staff view library users in their operation and how library users consider themselves in relation to their libraries. It shows that library users (in lieu of no better term here) think of themselves as library members rather than library patrons, library customers, or library users.

Molaro continues to detail his view on what each term is likely to signify. According to him, “library patron” as a term represents the worldview in which libraries are indebted to them, patrons. By the way, this matches with what this term brings to my mind.

“Library user,” on the other hand, makes Molaro think of those who consume without creating. And he opposes to the use of this term because, in his opinion, this term implies that the users need something the library offers but the library do not need them.  I disagree on this. I actually like the term ‘library user’ because it always reminds me of the fact that there are many other places where they can go for their information needs. It reminds me that libraries are not the only source for them and it is unrealistic to, say, argue that all library users should start their research at their library homepage rather than Google. But again, this could be just me working mostly in library web services.

Molaro likes the term “library member” since he thinks that this term implies ownership and an active role. And he says “people served by libraries view themselves because they carry a library card.” Now, I am in 100% favor of library users or patrons or members having the feeling of ownership and active role in relation to their libraries. But I do not think that library users prefer to be called library members because of the feeling of ownership and their active role in libraries.

I carry and use the CVS and the Costco card. This doesn’t make me feel ownership towards these companies, or in any way I imagine myself playing an active role in them. Am I a member? Probably,  since I have a card, a membership card.  If the membership costs money, then, definitely the term, ‘membership’ is more fitting because it implies that some kind of services and privileges are rendered to me once I join (whether free or not). I get points at CVS and enter/buy stuff in bulk at a lower price at Costco with my membership. Now as a library member, I don’t pay the membership fee, but I get to borrow books and other library items. So there, in my mind, I am a member in relation to my local library just as I am a member of CVS or Costco.

I am not saying that this is the mental perception that libraries want their users/patrons/members to have in relation to them. I am simply saying that this might be the actual mental image that most of our library patrons/users/members have about their relation to their libraries.

The Million-Dollar Question

If libraries want those people who sign up for a library card to feel the ownership to their library and play an active role, what can they do to achieve that?  Molaro thinks that perhaps “Preferred Member card” can help in this respect. He says:

Much like other organizations, institutions, and businesses, libraries should consider implementing a preferred member card program. This preferred member card could be purchased through an annual fee and would have perks and privileges. For example, hot new bestsellers are purchased for regular library members and extra copies purchased for preferred members. Perhaps preferred members would not be subject to late fines, or entitled to extended loan periods, being cited on an honor roll, or invited to a special party? The preferred member card could be a part of a larger membership and fundraising drive. Much like NPR or PBS, libraries can incorporate preferred membership drives into their National Library Week or National Library Card Month promotions.

Well, what do you think? I am divided on this idea for many reasons. And I am not going to go into those reasons here, because at this point, many of us, librarians, will have minds bouncing left and right and up and down just thinking about those reasons and what the best direction would be. So it might be the best to let them percolate a bit before shooting ideas to the sky.

In the meantime, it would be worthwhile to just break down the question to see where the difficulty exactly stems from. It really originates from the conflict of these two things:

  1. How do you make the library members care about their libraries?
  2. Anyone can become a library member (no investment required) and there is nothing they gain by being an active member (no incentive provided).

Just as a reminder, we all know that libraries do 2. intentionally as its mission is not to generate profit but to provide equal access to information for both the under-served/underprivileged and the well-to-do. Now 2. has the problem:  no investment and no incentive. Human beings tend to care much less about the things they get for no investment; they are also highly likely to be involved very little with things that they have no incentive to do so.  So 2. creates an obstacle to achieving 1.

How can libraries achieve 1. without endangering 2.?  That’s a million dollar question for libraries.


Making Library e-Books on the e-Book Reader Visible

***  This post has been originally posted to the ACRL TechConnect blog. ***

Browsing Experience in the Virtual vs. the Physical Space

However entangled our lives are in virtual spaces, it is in the physical space that we exist. For this reason, human attention is most easily directed at where visual and other sensory stimuli are. The resulting sensory feedback from interacting with the source of these stimuli further enriches the experience we have in the physical space. Libraries can take advantage of this fact in order to bring users’ fleeting attention to their often-invisible online collections. So far, our experience on the Internet, where we spend so much time, is still mostly limited to one or two sensory stimuli and provides little or no sensory feedback. A library’s online resources, often touted for its 24/7 accessibility anywhere, are no exception to this limitation.

Flickr - "augmented reality game bibliotheek deventer"

Think about new library books, for example. The print ones are usually prominently displayed at a library lobby area attracting library visitors to walk up and browse them in the physical space. By thumbing through a new book and moving back and forth from the table of contents to different chapters, we can quickly get a sense of what kind of a book it is and decide whether we want to further read the book or not. The tactile, olfactory, visual, and auditory sensory input that we get from thumbing through a newly printed book with fresh ink contributes to making this experience enjoyable and memorable at the same time.

Now compare this experience with reading a library Web page with the list of new online library books on a computer screen. Each book is reduced to a string of words and a hyperlink. It is hard to provide any engaging experience with a string of words and a hyperlink.

The Invisibility Problem of Library e-Books

Like many libraries, Florida International University (FIU) Library started an e-book reader lending program that circulates e-book readers. Each reader comes with more than one hundred titles that have been selected by subject librarians. But how can a library make these library e-books on e-book readers noticed by library users? How can a library help a user to quickly figure out what books are available on, say, a library Kindle device when those are specifically what the user is looking for?

Well, if a user runs a keyword search in the library’s online catalog, say, with ‘Kindle,’  s/he will find more than sufficient information since the library has already neatly cataloged all titles available on the Kindle device there. But many users may fail to try this or even be unaware of the new e-book reader lending program in the first place. The e-book reader lending program offers a great service to library users. However, the library e-books offered on the e-book readers can be largely invisible to users who tend to think that what they can see in a library is all a library has.

Giving Physical Presence to Library e-Books on e-Book Readers

The problem can be solved by giving some physical presence to e-books on the library’s e-book readers using a dummy bookmark on the stacks. This is particularly effective as it quickly captures users’ attention while they are already browsing the library stacks looking for something to read.

Users are familiar with a dummy book on physical shelves that marks a print title that is often looked for under different names or the recent change of the location of a title. Applied to Kindle e-books, a dummy bookmark is just as effective. A user can walk around the space where stacks are located and physically identify those e-books that the library makes available on a e-book reader in each subject section. By a visible cue, a dummy bookmarks create a direct sensory association between an e-book and something physical (that provides a visible and tactile feedback) in a user’s mind, thereby effectively expanding a users’ idea of what is available at a library.

When you pull out the bookmark, it looks like this. The bookmark includes the book’s cover image, title, author, and call number, which help a user to locate the title record in the library’s online catalog. But in reality, users are more likely to just walk down to the Course Reserves area to check out an e-book reader after reading this sign.

I tweeted this photo a while ago when I accidentally found out the idea was implemented while looking for some book in the stacks. (See the disclaimer below.)  I was quite surprised by many positive comments that I received in Twitter. Many librarians also suggested adding a QR code to the dummy bookmark next to the Call Number. The addition of the QR code would be an excellent bonus on the bookmark. It will allow users to check the availability of the title on their mobile devices, so that they can avoid the situation in which the e-book and the e-book reader device have been already checked out.

If you are running a pricy e-book reader lending program at your library, a dummy bookmark might be an inexpensive but highly effective way to make those e-books stand out to users on the library stacks. What other things do you do at your library to make your online resources and e-books more visible to users?

Disclaimer: I have suggested this idea at the E-resources group meeting where all FIU libraries (including Medical Library where I work) are represented. But the implementation was done solely by the FIU main Library for their Kindle e-book collection on their stacks. For those who are curious, I was unable to find the exact number of dummy bookmarks on the stacks. 

 

Usability in Action (2) – The Role of a Homepage

What to place and where to place the many elements of a website’s homepage is often the result of a delicate negotiation and compromise between what users want and what the site owner wants.  While the most ideal case is surely when these two things completely match, this doesn’t happen often for reasons you can easily guess.

I have recently worked with a vendor of a database called UpToDate to implement their new feature of automatic CME (Continuing Medical Education) Credit tracking through the EZproxy of my institution. This new feature brought some interesting changes to their database homepage, which I thought would be a great example to discuss in the context of Web usability.

Their homepage used to look like this. Very clean and to-the-point. Their Googole-like homepage offered exactly what users want most, searching their database for the information they need often at the point of (medical) care.

Previous Homepage

After the introduction of the automatic CME tracking feature, however, their homepage has changed as shown below. To be exact, they show the new homepage first-time when a user enters the site and then every 15 days or so to prompt users to register.

New Homepage

 

There are some pretty obvious usability issues in this new homepage due to the prominent Log in box and Register box as well as the big heading that reads “Earn CME with UpToDate.”

  • To a new users, the whole purpose of this database appears to be Earning CME.
    (I am pretty sure this is not the first impression this database wants to give to its first-time visitors no matter how well known the database is!  The most important role of a homepage is to answer the question for a user: “What does this site do for me?”)
  • To a user who just got to this database, seeing another Log-in vs. Register box makes them doubt if their initial authentication was successful.
    (If you run a website, you do not want to make your user  worry if their first action to get into the site was a failure!)
  • To experienced users, it is confusing where to do what they used to do, which is what they really want from this site. That is, running a search for clinical information.
    (You don’t want your user to “THINK about” how and where to do the most primary action in your site, ever! It should be obvious.)

In designing a homepage, try to provide satisfying answers to these three questions. Then you are on the right track. If you need to add additional information, do so without making the homepage fail to answer these questions first.

  • What does this site do for me?
  • What first action should I take to try what this site promises?
  • Where and how do I do that action (at this second without a need to think)?

Now that you have given a thought about the usability of this example, how would you re-design this page while providing information about the new feature that requires log-in and registration? I will leave that as something for you to think about!

 

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