Bits and Books: Libraries, the Internet and Meeting the Needs of Twenty-first Century Patrons

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Hello! I'm Rob, an innovative, patron-focused, high-tech librarian living in Chicago.

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NYPL Labs has launched a website, Direct Me NYC 1940, which allows people to look up a person in the 1940 New York telephone directory and then to find that person in the National Archives’ recently-released 1940 Census. It’s a great idea and a wonderful example of how libraries can integrate existing resources to provide valuable information complete with context.

Screenshot of Direct Me NYC 1940 website

Even better: since they developed it themselves, this information didn’t cost NYPL a penny. If they had asked a vendor to build a tool like this, it would likely have involved thousands of dollars in licensing fees, months of meetings and an expensive support contract. By building and releasing it quickly and by themselves, though, New York Public Library has created a tool that gives people a fascinating look into our past and saved money, too.

Hopefully, this will encourage more public libraries to take a chance on building useful tools themselves instead of just relying on vendors for everything.

PC Sweeney has a great post on his blog wherein he questions the trend of “branding” libraries, which you should really read. However, although he’s got several great reasons why branding may not be the solution to your library’s problems, he’s come to a much more practical basis for branding:

But here is where I think Branding is right. If a library system serves a small enough or similar enough community of users that they typically want or need the same services and programs etc… that there is a large enough crossover of patrons between the library system’s branches who are not also using a number of other libraries in the area or that the use of those libraries would not dilute the brand they are trying to create. And of course, that the cost of trying to rebrand every library is far lower than the benefits. I’ve only seen 2 public library systems where I would argue that this occurs.

I agree that “branding” has become a fad — both in library schools and in libraries — but I also think that eventually, the true value of branding will become apparent and libraries will deploy it when it can have a geniunely positive impact and not just because something is novel. However, the only way to reach that level is to understand what branding is and what it does.

A brand is a means, not an end.

Right now, digital media centers such as CPL’s YouMedia are heavily branded because they seem novel… but they’re really not. They’re actually quite a natural stage in the evolution of the library. To your average teen, a digital media center in the library is as obvious a feature as including a steering wheel in a car.

Look at the PC market: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer, Samsung, Alienware… all of them have a “personality” to their brand, but they’re all effectively the same. It’s one of the reasons so many people have little brand loyalty in the PC market: despite the intense marketing efforts of those companies, the average consumer sees them all as virtually identical. When you’re just another copycat doing all the same things as everyone else, your brand doesn’t carry any real weight with your patrons.1

In short, your brand is a tool for highlighting your differentiation from “the rest”, not your similarity to them. When a person sees Apple’s brand, they think of devices that are well-designed and work together (and are more expensive). Apple’s “think different” philosophy infuses not just their ads, but their whole product line. This, in turn, creates in the minds of its customers psychological connections that the company reinforces through its brand.

As digital media centers proliferate in libraries across the country, the novelty of branding them will wear off and eventually, we’ll be left with a generic term for them (hopefully, something more succinct and catchy than “digital media center”).2 And thus should it become clear that your brand was only ever a means to an end: namely, providing the services your patrons need.

  1. Don’t forget that your branding effort can backfire if the thing you’ve branded is crap, leaving people with a negative impression of it… and of you. (Two words: Ford Pinto.) 

  2. You know, given all the branding being thrown at digital media centers these days, it’s possible that we could end up with several terms in different regions of the country, similar to the way that “sub”, “grinder” and “hoagie” are all different regional terms for the same kind of sandwich. 

Don’t know how I missed this piece when it came out a couple of months back. Instagram is a pretty simple app — take picture, apply filter, share it — but this post on their engineering blog describes how they use tools like Amazon Web Services, Ubuntu Linux, Django and PostgreSQL to make their app work simply and reliably. There’s a lot of work that goes into making something like Instagram seem so simple and work so well.

This blog post by Jenica Rogers is a perfect example of the way more libraries ought to be thinking.

Money quote (emphasis mine):

The user is not broken in that our job is to fulfill the user’s needs, and the user’s needs are, while not always well-defined, possible to meet, or understood by either side, valid — so accusing the user of Doing It Wrong is counterproductive to our goals and needs, and should be avoided. This applies to space usage, reference inquiries, customer service, and use of our online tools.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Libraries need to pay a lot more attention to how our patrons behave and start adapting our systems to the way our patrons expect search to behave. Our seemingly in-built desire to force patrons to search for things our way is counterproductive and ultimately damaging to our credibility and our profession.

If there’s one point that I’d like to add to hers, it’s that a big part of the problem is that very few libraries actually take real responsibility for the software that’s used to build their site. By relying on external vendors and not having in-house coders who can improve the system, many libraries pretend that any deficiencies in it are minor and/or not their responsibility. But everything that happens under your logo — whether it’s on your website, at the Reference Desk or how you organize your stacks — is ultimately your responsibility. That means that, like it or not, it’s your job to make things as easy and intuitive for your patrons as you can. As Jenica so wonderfully puts it:

We can sit back, all of us, in libraries and outside of them, and with smug self-satisfaction explain why our tools, websites, spaces, and services are just brilliantly perfect… or we can thoughtfully observe our environment, acknowledge that the user has needs and is showing us what they are, and adapt.

When you pay someone to provide you with the software you need, you enter into an agreement with them. “If you install this software and provide us with tech support,” you say, “we will pay you for the software and for a support contract.”

However, those agreements also come with baggage. When you buy a solution, you’re lashing yourself to the vendor’s development cycle and you’re trusting that the software they provide you (both in the short term and over the length of the contract) will meet your patrons’ needs. You’re also betting that when you need to add a new product or service to your repertoire, that piece of software will either do what you need or will integrate well with another piece of software that does what you need.

Relying on vendors for your software is a decent short-term strategy, since it lets you get up and running quickly and provides a dedicated support channel when things go wrong. Over the long term, though, it causes stagnation: if your patrons want or need something new, you can’t provide it to them without waiting on your vendor, shelling out more money for another product… or both. And if your vendor discontinues a product or even just decides that what your patrons need isn’t in their interests, you’re left out in the cold.

For example, I know of a library whose content management system is not only no longer developed by the vendor, but hasn’t even been supported by them for several years. That library hasn’t upgraded or switched to a new platform, because doing so would require them to negotiate a new contract with a new vendor. With money so tight these days, many libraries (including my own employer) are seeing dramatic reductions in funding; as a result, that library system is stuck with a dead-end content management system for the foreseeable future.

Libraries need more coders. I’m not talking about “that guy in the office who knows HTML”, but real, honest-to-goodness coders, who can build a custom solution for your library from scratch. There’s no reason your library can’t have a search system that includes your research databases or build its own app for the iPad. Building your own solution means you can innovate at your own pace and you can meet your patrons’ specific needs.

In fact, programming should really be a track in library school, because programming skills allow people to build their own solutions, which is a big part of what libraries need to stay relevant in the age of the iPhone. Lots of Library Science programs teach students HTML (a nice start and certainly better than nothing), but librarians are supposed to be experts at dealing with information, so why aren’t library school students being taught to do interesting and useful things with that information in a digital setting? Why aren’t library school students being taught how to write a web app in Rails, how to do version control with Git and how to get an open-source project off the ground?

The emergence in the last few years of the mobile information market has been staggering. Ever since the iPhone, iPad and Android revolutionized the way we view our mobile devices, there’s been a tsunami of development in this market. Everyone’s rushing to build apps and mobile-friendly versions of their websites. Libraries are a natural fit for this world, since we curate large amounts of quality info and we are seen as trustworthy by the public at large.

Libraries can’t wait a year or two for their vendor to deliver an iPhone app or a mobile website. The future is here – right now – and any library that isn’t trying to deliver its services to patrons wherever they are (especially on their mobiles) is merely contributing to the view that they are merely relics of a bygone era.

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