the future of librarians

Libraries! Let's stop underestimating simplicity. (Simplicity is user-friendly)

Simple image of a display on a bare wall I think one excellent way forward for most libraries would be to adopt an aggressively pro-simplicity stance. We often make decisions about services or models based on the need to accommodate everyone - the need not to put anyone out, rather than the need to really inspire people to use what we have. It's very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be both inspirational and compromising at the same time. Look at loan periods as a really basic example. Most libraries have a lot of them - this is an attempt to make sure everyone is catered for. But sometimes it's so complicated as to be detrimental to the users.

Simplicity is great for many reasons.  It allows focus. It allows us to market with clear messages about what we do. It helps the user feel like they know where they are. It stops the model being too diluted by attempts not to offend. And - and this is the key point I want to make in this post - people can often prefer simplicity even to desirable options.

Think about your own experiences. Let's take a mundane example - sometimes it's nice to go to a coffee shop and have a choice between an Americano, an Espresso and a Latte, in two sizes. Even if you really like cinnamon lattes or whatever, you might prefer the simplicity of options to 7 different types of coffee, in three different sizes, with syrup options ago-go.

There's all sorts of retail experiences like that - booking hotel rooms or flights, for instance, or choosing a sandwich in Subway... - where options that are designed to personalise the experience to suit you actually just get in the way of some sort of essential process.

So I think (and I'm thinking about all this because I suggested it at a work meeting the other day) that all new processes and models and services should be designed to be simple and to make an impact, rather than to cover all the bases. (I realise librarians often feel a sort of moral obligation to make sure we're not disadvantaging anyone, and I'm definitely in favour of that as long as it doesn't come at the expense of our actual future.) And I think any services we re-design should be re-designed at least partly with the question 'What would users who'd NEVER EXPERIENCED THE OLD SYSTEM really want her?e' uppermost in our minds, as well as the need not to offend existing users. Chances are, they'd want something efficient, non-complicated, and easy to understand.

- thewikiman

p.s some of the themes in this post are also covered in my previous one



the future of humans in a self-service library world

At the CILIP Graduate Day last month, a couple of questions came up both in the panel discussion and after my own presentation, about the future of actual living breathing staff in libraries. It’s a fair enough thing to ask about on a day designed to some degree to attract people into the profession – will there even be a profession to be a part of in 20 years time?  I answered positively at the time - I’ve since given my off-the-cuff analogy with drum-machines a bit more thought, so I figured it was time to make the great drumming and librarianship connection in a blog post…  

the missing link?

I’m a drummer, so this is a subject I know something about. In the early 80s, the advent of the drum machine seemed to sound a death-knell for drummers. Not only were drum machines cheaper by the hour than humans, they were part of a trend towards new technology which had the effect of making those artists clinging to the old ways look old-fashioned. (In the end, very few groups I can think of survived the 80s without taking on some drum-machine action, and partly as a result of this and largely as a result of the whole musical culture of the time, a hell of a lot of God-awful music was produced during the period. Even proper rock bands like Led Zep were determined to embrace the new technologies and not been seen as dinosaurs as the new decade dawned – I’ve convinced that only the end of the group caused by the death of their drummer, the great John Bonham, prevented them from taking a path into naff 80s technology led musical hell which would have been entirely prohibitive to the legendary status they enjoy today. But I digress…) A lot of drummers panicked, and many quit the music business entirely, to get proper jobs.

Two things emerged from this. Firstly, the smart drummers learned to programme drum machines, and were able to continue to earn a living by using the new technology rather than fighting it. Secondly, after the initial rush to use programmed beats, many people eventually missed the human element and went right back to employing real humans to play real drums. (There’s also a third aspect, which is that there is a big trend at the moment towards the live reproduction of programmed drums during gigs; through the usual ‘knowing someone who knows someone’ type sequence of events, I’ve been lucky enough to play drums as part of a house band at a live Hip-Hop night for the likes of Roots Manuva, Estelle, Omar and many other people who use programming on their records and a full-band live).

So the net result is a relatively happy coexistence between the technology and the human input, with many of those session drummers who stuck at it in the 80s still able to make a good living today. Now, I’m not saying we in the library industry should be learning to programme self-issue machines. But there is a clear parallel in that we can either beat a hasty retreat and lock ourselves in a cupboard, or we can work with the technology and trust in the fact that there is nothing quite like taking away human interaction to show how much it is ultimately valued by customers / patrons / users. If self-service machines are good for the library, we should embrace them – even if jobs are at stake in the short-term, what is right for the customer is right for the customer and should be seen as a positive thing. If it turns out that an all self-service model is not right for many customers (as I suspect will be the case) then we need to be ready to work either instead of or with the machines and the technology.

My all-time favourite drummer Vinnie Colaiuta was asked: In many situations , has the role of the studio drummer been reduced to simply to the "overdub guy" replacing pre-recorded parts? His answer could just as well have been to the question, In many situations has the role of librarians been reduced to simply ‘the person who offers help when the self-service machinery doesn’t suffice'?:

Yes- and just why should that be considered a "reduction"? What kind of attitude is that? It's still a job to be done, and either you do it or you don't. What's the big whoop?

In the context of the article, he expands upon this theme and talks about learning to work with the technology. Which is why you’ll find the name of this incredibly virtuosic musician, who has played with Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock and so on, listed on the liner notes of the Pussycat Dolls album, and the Destiny’s Child LP. He was able to be flexible, to adapt, and to carry on providing a service – just as we Information Professionals will have to do.

-   thewikiman