What is the importance of design in libraries?
Libraries have users, and those users go through an experience, whether they walk through the doors and into the building or use the library’s online website and resources.
Why should we care?
- Design can give users a good experience or a bad one.
Think about when you go to a store. Any store. The experience you have can be improved by design, or hindered by design. For example, if you go to a store in person and you are trying to find a particular item- signs have the potential to help you find that item. But what if you had too many signs? Or what if those signs are unreadable?
Think about when you are at a restaurant. You certainly want to have an enjoyable dining experience. From the time you walk through the door to the time you leave, everything you encounter and experience has an impact on you. When you sit down to the table and open the menu, you want to be able to easily read the menu items. Have you ever been to a restaurant where it was hard to decide on what to order because the menu was difficult to read? This seems to be a common occurrence, yet a simple well thought out menu can change that experience entirely. And great design can even give people an emotional experience that they remember deeply. Think about a time when you went to a restaurant and had a great experience; think about what details made that experience great.
- Now take these concepts and redirect them to libraries.
When a user walks into the door of the library, what is their experience? Put yourself in the users shoes. Are signs unfriendly or hard to read? Is it difficult to find what they might be looking for? Think of design as a way of providing service to users. Good design takes training and study, however, within a relatively small timeframe, anyone can understand design basics and fundamentals to create decent design that communicates. Librarians are good at organizing things and within design lies organization. Designing is simply organization and choices about elements such as typography, composition, contrast, and color to name a few.
- Design is also about restraint; what you don’t do.
This is an important distinction because often people get excited when they explore elements of design and want to put everything they love all into one design. Often this doesn’t work very well and it comes back to making good choices and sometimes leaving out an element you really love but doesn’t work in the overall design you are building. It’s okay though- designers collect like librarians do and we just save that good stuff for another design that it will really work well in. Keeping a little library and saving elements and inspirations are part of being a good designer. Whether online or in paper- both practices are good to get into. The tool Pinterest serves this purpose well but any tool or method for collecting design elements and inspiration is good practice. When you are looking for ideas- don’t forget to go to that tool to give you new ideas or to help get you thinking in new ways.
- Good design in libraries leads to a quality user experience.
This concept of design can extend to all kinds of user experiences in the library, including layout of a room, the library’s web presence, the building’s architecture, furniture choices, marketing materials, and more. But let’s start simple- start in your library and examine what you have for signs. Ask this: what does this sign communicate to our user? How does it look and feel to you? What if this sign were in a store where you were making a purchase, how would it communicate in that scenario? Ask users what they think of your signs as well. Developing an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, will only lead to better design and thus better user experience.
Do you know what an infographic is? Infographics are visual representation of facts, tutorials, or other data-centered information that inform while staying focused on great design.
Here’s an example of one about the history of the iPad:
This infographic takes a whole mess of data and makes it visually interesting and easy to digest.
So, what do infographics have to do with libraries? Libraries have tons of data- both informational and instructional data ranging from topics like local history facts to how to do research. Take a look at this Google infographic recently posted on the HackCollege site: http://www.hackcollege.com/blog/2011/11/23/infographic-get-more-out-of-google.html
This image highlights several complex research skills while explaining the thought process behind it in one easy to understand sentence, while being attractive and compelling to look at. What’s better than that?
Great examples of infographics can be found across the web. Wired magazine, for one, often uses them and Holy Kaw!, Guy Kawasaki’s website (http://holykaw.alltop.com) also highlights great infographics from other sites. Another great site to see examples of different types of infographics is http://killerinfographics.submitinfographics.com/.
The importance of infographics and other great visualizations of data (see Warby Parker’s 2011 Annual Report for the best annual report ever: http://www.warbyparker.com/annual-report-2011) to libraries is obvious. People respond to great design, and great design makes information accessible and inviting. It is in our best interests to strive for great design in all that we do, to make libraries accessible and inviting.
Recently, Sophie Brookover, New Jersey librarian, posted in the ALA Think Tank Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/groups/ALAthinkTANK/) about starting a group of librarians learning to create infographics, much like the Code Year project. This idea is very much in the early stages, but keep an eye on it or get involved- good things are sure to come.
You may have seen people posting that they are learning to code with CodeYear, mentioned in our earlier blog post “Tips for Everyone Doing the #codeyear”. While CodeYear and Codecademy are not the first sites to teach programming, CodeYear has seen quite a bit of marketing and notice, especially in the library world (#libcodeyear and #catcode).
Many find themselves, however, in a familiar situation when dealing with learning to code. And it starts with the person saying or thinking “I want to learn to code, but…
Do you fall under any of these categories?
1. “I don’t have enough time to learn coding.”
You can work through the time issue in two ways. The first way is block off time. You have to look at your schedule and decide, for example, “ok, I’m working on my coding lesson between 1 to 2pm.” Once you made that decision, tell the rest of the world, so that they know that you’re working on learning something during that time.
For some folks, though, blocking off an hour may be impossible due to disruptions from work or personal life. When you’re in a situation where frequent disruptions are a fact of life, documentation is your friend. Keep notes of what you learned, what questions you have, what issues you ran across, and so on – this will make sure that you do not end up having to repeat a lesson, or losing track of your thoughts during a lesson.
2. “This is too hard.”
Here I must stress one of the key survival traits for people learning to code: ask questions! Find people who are taking the same lesson and ask. Find coders and ask. Find an online forum and ask. Post your question on Twitter, Facebook, blog, or any other broadcasting medium. Just ASK.
More often than not your question will be answered, or you will be pointed in the right direction in answering your question. The overused saying “there is no such thing as a stupid question” applies here. Coding is a community activity, and it’s to your benefit to approach it as such.
3. “I don’t like the tutorial/course.”
It’s OK to say “hey, this course isn’t what I thought it would be” or “hey, I’m not finding this course useful.” Ask yourself, “in which environment do I feel like I learn the most?” Is it a physical classroom? A virtual classroom? Do you like learning on your own? With a small group of friends? With a large group? There are various formats and venues where you can find courses in coding, from credit-earning classes to how-to books. For example, the Catcode wiki lists a variety of coding lessons or learning opportunities at various levels of coding knowledge. Choose the one (or a few) that will fit best with you, and go for it. It might take a few tries, but you will find something that works for you.
So, if you find yourself saying “I want to learn code, but…,” there is hope for you yet.
Find what’s holding you back, tackle it, and work out a possible solution. If you don’t get it the first time, that’s OK. It’s OK to fail, as long as you learn and understand why it failed, and apply what you learned in future endeavors. For now, we are stuck in learning coding the hard way: practice, practice, practice.
Learning code the hard way, on the other hand, is not too hard once you have taken the first few steps.
“Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens.” - David Foster Wallace*
What if a library operated more like an Internet start-up and less like a library?
To be a library in the digital era is to steward legacy systems and practices of an era long past. Contemporary librarianship is at its worst when it accepts the poorly crafted vended services and offers poorly thought through service models, simply because this is the way we have always operated.
Internet start-ups, in the decade of 2010, heavily feature software as a service. The online presence to the Internet start-up is of foundational concern since it isn’t simply a “presence” to the start-up — the online environment is the only environment for the Internet start-up.
Search services would act and look contemporary
If we were an Internet start-up, we wouldn’t use instructional services as a crutch that would somehow correct poor design in our catalogs or other discovery layers. We wouldn’t accept the poorly designed vendor databases we currently accept. We would ask for interfaces that act and look contemporary, and if vendors did not deliver, we would make our own. And we would do this in 30-day time-lines, not six months and not years to roll out, as is the current lamentable state of library software services.
Students in the current era will look at a traditional library catalog search box and say: “that looks very 90s” – we shouldn’t be amused by that comment, unless of course we are trying to look 20 years out of date.
We would embrace perpetual beta.
If the library thought of its software services more like Internet start-ups, we would not be so cautious — we would perpetually improve and innovate in our software offerings. Think of the technology giants Google and Apple, they are never content to rest on laurels, everyday they get up and they invent like their lives depended on it. Do we?
We wouldn’t settle.
For years we’ve accepted legacy ILS systems – we need to move away from accepting the status quo, the way things have always been done, and the way we always work is not the way we should always work — if the information environments have changed, shouldn’t this be reflected in the library’s software services?
We would be bold.
We need to look at massive re-wiring in the way we think about software as a service in libraries; we are smarter and better than mediocrity.
The notion of software services in libraries may be dramatically improved if we thought of our gateways and virtual experiences more like Internet start-ups conceptualize their do or die services; which are seemingly made more effective and efficient every thirty to sixty days.
If Internet start-ups ran their web services the way libraries contently run legacy systems, the company would surely fold, or more likely, never have attracted seed funding to start operating as a start-up. Let’s do our profession a favor and turn the lights out on the library way of running libraries. Let’s run our library as if it were an Internet start-up.
* also: “… this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.” – David Foster Wallace
What Library Circulation Data Shows
Unless current patterns change, by 2020 university libraries will no longer have circulation desks. This claim may seem hyperbolic if you’ve been observing your library, or even if you’ve been glancing over ACRL or National Center for Education Statistics data. If you have been looking at the data, you might be familiar with a pattern that looks like this:
This chart shows total circulation for academic libraries, and while there’s a decline it certainly doesn’t look like it will hit zero anytime soon, definitely not in just 8 years. But there is a problem with this data and this perspective on library statistics. When we talk about “total circulation” we’re talking about a property of the library, we’re not really thinking about users.
Here’s another set of data that you need to look at to really understand circulation:
Academic enrollment has been rising rapidly. This means more students, which in turns means greater circulation. So if total circulation has been dropping despite an increase in users then something else must be going on. So rather than asking the question “How many items does my library circulate?” we need to alter that to “How many items does the average student checkout?”
Here is that data:
This chart shows the upper/lower quartiles and median for circulation per FTE student. As you can see this data shows a much more dramatic drop in the circulation of library materials. Rising student populations hide this fact.
But 2020? Can I be serious? The simple linear regression model in the charts is probably a good predictor of 2012, but not necessarily 2020. Hitting zero without flattening out seems pretty unlikely. However, it is worth noting the circulation per user in the lower quartile for less than 4 year colleges reached 1.1 in 2010. If you’re averaging around 1 item per user, every user that takes out 2 items means there’s another who has checked out 0.
What’s Happening Here?
Rather than waste too much time trying to predict a future we’ll live in in less than a decade, let’s explore the more interesting question: “What’s happening here?”
By far the number one hypothesis I get when I show people this data is “Clearly this is just because of the rise of e-journals and e-books”. This hypothesis is reasonable: What has happened is simply that users have switched from print to electronic. This data represents a shift in media, nothing more.
But there are 2 very large problems with this hypothesis.
First, print journal circulation is not universal among academic libraries. In the cases where there is no print journal circulation the effect of e-journals would not be present in circulation data. However, I don’t have information to point out exactly how many academic libraries did circulate print journals. Maybe the effect of e-journals on just the libraries that do circulate serials could effect the data for everyone. The data we have already shown resolves this issue. Libraries that did circulate serials would have higher circulation per user than those that did not. By showing different quartiles we can address this discrepancy in the data between libraries that did and did not circulate journals. If you look at the data you’ll see that indeed the upper quartile does seem to have a higher rate of decline, but not enough to validate this hypothesis. The median and lower quartiles also experience this shift, so something else must be at work.
Second, e-books were not largely adopted until the mid 2000s, yet the decline preceding 2000 is at least as steep as after. If you look at the chart below you’ll notice that ebook acquisition rates did not exceed print until 2010:
Ebooks, of course, do have an effect on usage, but they’re not the primary factor in this change.
So clearly we must reject the hypothesis that this is merely a media shift. Certainly the shift from print to electronic has had some effect, but it is not the sole cause. If it’s not a shift in media, the most reasonable explanation is that it’s a shift in user behavior. Students are simply not using books (in any format) as much as they used to.
What is Causing this Shift in User Behavior?
The next question is what is the cause of this shift.
I think the most simple answer is the web. 1996 is the first data point showing a drop in circulation. Of course the web was quite small then, but AOL and Yahoo! were already around, and the Internet Archive had been founded. If you think back to a pre-web time, pretty much anything you needed to know more about required a trip to the library and checking out a book.
The most important thing to take away is that, regardless of cause, user behavior has changed and by all data points is still changing. In the end, the greatest question is how will academic libraries adapt? It is clear that the answer is not as simple as a transition to a new media. To survive, librarians must find the answer before we have enough data to prove these predictions.
- All library data referenced in this post comes from the Library Statistics Program (National Center for Education Statistics) nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/getpubcats.asp?sid=041#
- Data regarding fall enrollments is from “Fast Facts” (National Center for Education Statistics) http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98
About our guest author: Will Kurt is a software engineer at Articulate Global, pursuing his masters in computer science at the University of Nevada, Reno and is a former librarian. He holds an MLIS from Simmons College and has worked in various roles in public, private and special libraries at organizations such as: MIT, BBN Technologies and the University of Nevada, Reno. He has written and presented on a range of topics including: play, user interfaces, functional programming and data