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Patrons r’ Us January 13, 2006

Posted by unamable in Library 2.0, Repatronising.
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Just caught up on the article in Library Journal by Beth Dempsey. One of her points refers to breaking up the library into easy-to-swallow pieces and how this can actually aid digestion and promote the health of the patron.

Coming from a library system which has a mixture of DDC and popular subject areas I can’t say that my experience bears out the suggestion that this method gets people to the materials quicker. What I have found is that often a sought after item slips down between the formal classified order and the popular groupings. For me this is in one sense o.k. – it, on the one hand, promotes serendipitous roaming but, on the other, things aren’t where the catalogues say they are! For instance, taking something like food – there is a potential separation between food as in cooking which is likely to end up in a popular subject area and food as a historical phenomenon which will most probably be placed in the DDC sequence. No matter how much help the catalogue gives, there is still the likelihood that talking colloquially through popular subjects will disperse related items – perhaps more so than DDC itself.  So neither system is helping me find what I want and meanwhile I am getting hungry!

On a related track, while I applaud the optimism inherent in the hope that when patrons get confident in one user-friendly area of the library they will move on to others – it seems another strain of the segmentation syndrome where users get what they said they wanted but not able to get to what they need when their wants change.

The article also highlighted “high interest” areas, as defined by community surveys, as an answer to the what-to-keep dilemma. How, as they say, “in this day and age”, can we be so confident that “high interest” areas remain “high interest” – and when they don’t are we prepared, at the very least for the logisitics of moving from the passe “high interest” to the hip new “high interest”? This is fine with funds and time, no matter how flexible the physical envelope, but somehow I don’t see a lot of either around for us as we pursue those escaping patrons.
Another question comes to mind whose groupings will we use? – ours of course! Is this viable in an age where particiaption by consumers/patrons is becoming the norm. This does open the extremely fanciful door that invites the patrons to rearrange the physical library periodically in a way that they would like to see it. But perhaps part of the answer perhaps does not relate to a moving of physical items into distinct places identified “conveniently” but from the naming end. By employing the “libertarian” appeal of folksonomies where users, (perhaps guided by librarians), provide their own entry/access points to the sought materials. Thus a mixture of formal subject headings and user-generated tags would give a sense of control and involvement to both the patron and the librarian.

When libraries start seeing their materials as content, rather than containers which have to be labelled, it will pose a real challenge for the existing labelling systems (given that LC and DDC, for example, will most probably be unable to keep up with the speed of generation terms/tags/subject topics). So it probably means that the tags will run ahead of the label unless someone comes up with a dynamic self-updating label based on RFID or such.
This is one aspect of the seeking and finding. The other, as Ms. Dempsey suggests, lies down the “information architecture” road where the usability and findability, those watchwords of the IA world, being used as gauges of the physical space and how it works for the user. Allied to this is the sense of a good, and even great, experience for the patron when they enter, seek, discover and move physically and intellectually through the space. It is interesting that, although there has been a rapid evolution of good website practice in library websites that this has not transferred to the physical space. Although the desirable “white space” of webpages may not be achievable in libraries in a physical sense due to our present need for collection space – it may be provided by thinking of reflection spaces/quiet zones as the “white space.”

To me another aspect of this is that it seems that libraries in the future will not on one level be defined by the information/knowedge they hold/generate, but in the apt and various metaphors they use to energise patrons while they are in the virtual/physical space. These metaphors may derive from peppering the physical/virtual space with personal viewpoints from historical or professional individuals (a steelworker’s view of a skyscraper; a stone mason’s view of 16th century society) or through chronological grouping of period items from many different disciplines and social perspectives; and so on, related to the imagination of the library and its interactions with users. This I suppose is merely merchandising on the physical level but can be very involving and stimulating on the digital plane.

So it looks like we have get down and dirty with a few new and some unusually transformed skills. The job justs keeps growing if we let it!

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