By Meredith Farkas | June 8, 2005
I just had another really great interview today. I could get used to this (though I could also get used to having a job and being done with these shenanigans)! The search committee said a lot of things that impressed me, but what really stuck with me was the fact that when I asked “what do you like most about working at your library?” their first answer was “the students.” This was the first time anyone had mentioned the students (or the patrons) in response to that question. They talked about how intellectually curious their students are and how wonderful it is to create relationships with them and witness their intellectual development. Wow!
Why is this so important? Let’s look at a contrasting institution. I interviewed at one academic library that never said one good thing about their students. They told me that their students had a lot of trouble using the library’s online resources and they basically put the responsibility for that failure squarely on the shoulders of the students. So what do you think their views of their website, OPAC, and databases were? Well, they were fine with the status quo! If you’re going in with the assumption that your students are to blame for not knowing how to search the OPAC, why would you need to change the OPAC? Clearly, you should just instruct the students on how to use it. If you have a positive view of your patrons, you will be more likely to endeavor to design things that meet their needs. You won’t say “well the students need to change.” You’ll say “we need to change to meet the needs of the students”. And this is what I heard today. The librarians were highly critical of their website and wanted to make it more dynamic in order to meet the research needs of their students. And frankly, they already have a website that is heads and shoulders above most library websites. But the fact that they see the best in their students has led to their user-centered design orientation and their desire for constant improvement and innovation. And it’s not that all of the other institutions I’ve interviewed at have had no respect for their patrons, but this search committee was the first one that really described the pleasure they get from working with students as the best part of the job.
When I was a psychotherapist, I was very interested in some of the newer psychotherapeutic models, like cognitive, solution-focused, and narrative therapies. What these all had in common was the basic premise that your worldview really determines the choices you make. If a person gets an F on a test and says “I got this grade because I’m stupid” or “I got this grade because the teacher doesn’t like me”, it is unlikely that they will try harder next time. They see their situation as one they have little control over. If a person gets an F on a test and says “I got this grade because I didn’t study hard enough”, it is likely they will do better next time. They see themselves as having control over their situation and they realize that they have the power to do better. Sometimes all it takes is helping a person to see different ways of interpreting events, of retelling the story of their life, to get them to make better choices. Likewise, I think that a librarian’s choices regarding the library’s online presence, educational programming, etc. is based on his/her view of his/her patrons. Perhaps if we can get change-averse librarians to retell the story of their patrons, to change their view of their patrons to a positive one, we can get them to be more interested in user-centered innovation.
How do you feel about your patrons? How does your view of your patron population affect your view of how electronic resources should be designed for them? How does it affect your view of the role of information literacy education? It is the mark of a healthy library to have a positive view of their patron population and to design services around their needs. All of the library services (the website, the catalog, educational programming, access to databases, how information is disseminated, technology applications, etc.) should conform to the needs and wants of our users. Our users should not have to conform to the library. I think libraries that see the best in their patrons will be the ones that will make all of the great library innovations over the next few years. And I hope I have the opportunity to work at an institution that respects their patrons and designs services around their needs.