From library stacks to server racks, and what is lost.

Library collections have taken a sharp turn to the digital in recent years, so maybe this Internet thing isn’t a fad.

Once upon a time I did some UX work with students about eBook stuff and many of them reported that, even when our eBooks suck and are hard to use (which often they totally do and are), they still love ’em. eBooks don’t have be shlepped around campus all day in your backpack. They’re available at 3am unlike the library’s print collection. And hey – no overdue fines! You can’t forget an eBook on the bus and then suddenly be at risk of having your degree withheld from you until you scrape together enough cash to pay for a replacement copy.

But the thing about print books is that in the last 500 years, libraries have devised some pretty nice systems for connecting users to print books and discovering other books they may be interested in. If you’re actually in the library (unlike the growing proportion of users who only access the library remotely), connecting to books of interest is easy and can help foster a rich library experience.

How do libraries traditionally do this? The most obvious way is by organising all our stuff by subject rather than by, say, colour. Serendipitous discovery through browsing is useful and, let’s face it, a pretty divine intellectual experience (have you ever shown an earnest first year student where all the books on their favourite topic live? Makes me feel like Santa, y’all).

Beyond that we’ve hone some promotional skillz in exhibiting book collections thematically (“Keep Calm and Survive College”, “Go Green for Earth Day!”, “Modern Art in the Stacks”) or just drawing our users to our newest acquisitions. This model of curated collections has been spun out in a million different ways to provide outreach to our communities, and for our (consistently decreasing) print book users, this is a pretty swell experience, so long as you don’t have too much crap in your backpack already.

Our nebulous digital users, on the other hand, have no such arrangements available to them. But they have a whole website at their disposal, which links to vast majority of serials collections, and an increasing proportion of (e)Book collections. What they lack in browsability, they make up for with searchability. For most undergrads, good enough is good enough when it comes to connecting to materials for their research papers, so they’ll make due with whatever’s online, and not bother hoofing it up to the stacks, thankyouverymuch. With the advent of discovery layers and the ever-so-helpful “relevancy” rankings our vendors have devised, we have done a nice job of creating the illusion of ease for novice users.

So: our digital users access our digital collections, and we may never lay eyes on these guys in the physical library, but they’re probably-maybe-hopefully-finger’s-crossed-finding-the-stuff they need. Conversely, users of the physical library have a pretty nice arrangement for connecting them to physical collections, all the while having access to a shrinking proportion of our book collections and an almost non-existent proportion of our serials collections.


Browsing a data centre isn’t quite the same thing as browsing a bookshelf, ya know? Image via BBC.

And while our print book users are dropping, most academic libraries will tell you: Our overall number of *library* users sure ain’t. Those numbers keep growing and growing. We’re a popular place, just not for finding books (and why should we be, given how many eggs we’ve placed in the eBooks basket?). Students continue to love the library, and we’re responding by delivering the spaces and furniture and technology they need to do their work. Books, what books?

To review: increasing bodies in the library, all attached to curious, critical thinking, beautiful brains.


Decreasing number of print items in the library, and a general distaste for hauling those things around all day.


Increasing number of digital items online. No shlepping required!


How can we better leverage physical spaces to help connect our in-library users to our *digital* collections?

It’s this wee corner of library user experience that has had me Thinking Thoughts. As our collections move from the book stacks to the server racks, they become invisible within our spaces. They get added to the ranks of ephemeral invisibilia online, accessible in the library only by logging on to a library computer or a user’s device. How to overcome this conundrum of our own making (and is it even a problem?). How can we create opportunities for our users to engage in meaningful ways when they’re in the library?

While I’m not sure what the answer is, we sure know what the answer ain’t (side eye to UR codes). Noble efforts have been made, but if the tweet below is indicative of how things are going… well, this is not great:

(When I mentioned this statistics to my Better Half, who is a software developer, he said that carousels are mostly used as a marketing tool on eCommerce websites. Clicking through usually yields low rewards for the end-user. So, our eyes basically process them as advertisements and immediately moves on. If you’ve spent lots of time arranging a carousel collection for your library’s homepage, that’s pretty disheartening news, innit.)

So what to do? How to forge meaningful user connections between a physical space and an increasingly digital collection?

When I try to think about this problem, all my brain yells back at me is  MORE DIGITAL SCREENS in the library, which is costly and prone to the magpie approach to strategic decision making (that is, just go after the shiniest things you can find and hoard them in your little library nest). But, libraries are doing it, and doing it well.

Things I like which others have done:

Lots of libraries that have digital installations to display collections and showcase research. Mostly the libraries at fancy schools. One example is Yale University and their librarians, who are doing some really beautiful work with in-library digital exhibits, using large LCD screens to showcase Yale research and special collections. Duke University has a wall display comprised of 18 screen panels for use of digital exhibits in the Perkins Library.


The LINK Media Wall Exhibit in the Perkins Library, Duke University, a.k.a fancypants town.

These digital exhibits might have some virtual book exhibits one week, and a showcase of faculty research the next. More flexible than a traditional print book display, and, let’s face it, wayyyyy prettier.

Another thing I dream about (but I have no idea if libraries are doing this somewhere?), is the use of touch screens for basic library processes, where users can link physical place to digital space. Imagine if each of your bookable library spaces (group study rooms, recording spaces, instructional classrooms, etc.) was bookable via a simple touch screen device, co-located to that actual space. We’ve moved so precipitously to online booking systems for our services and spaces, but haven’t yet closed the gap that now exists between the two. The result, from what I’ve seen, is lots of students running up and down the stairs trying to to find an empty room that is also free for booking *right now*. Again, with the schlepping. (I realise this has nothing to do with collections, but bear with me.)

And what about LIBRARY PRINTERS everyone. Who, on this earth, has solved the quiet crisis of library printers. Go ahead, go ask your users about their feelings about your printer services. Bring kleenex. Many users, particularly users attempting to engage with the complex ideas housed in scholarship, want to print out online materials. I have heard this assertion from 70 yr old students, and I have heard this assertion from 15 yr old students. I’m no cognitive psychologist, but clearly this A Thing That Our Users Wish To Do, and it’s not going away as younger generations join our ranks. A life-long engagement with mobile games and Facebook status updates does not translate well into being able to read Habermas on an iPad, or mark up Foucault via an eBook platform.

If you have fixed the printer situation in your library, I want to meet you and shake your hand, and buy you a drink, and ask you questions, and maybe steal your scarf and keep it under my pillow for the rest of my life so that I can periodically smell your scarf and always remember the time I met the person who fixed the printer situation at their library. But for us mere mortals, this continues to be a drag on user experience, and, to my mind, prevents users from engaging with digital collections in a format of their choosing.

Of course my ire doesn’t stand only with library printers, but with the unprintability of academic eBooks. We managed user expectations poorly by making journal articles easy peasy to print out and engage with freely, and then making eBooks IMPOSSIBLE to use and print out with ease (“We”, in this case implicates publishers, obvi). It’s something that, I, personally, would love to ignore forever and ever and ever. Nowhere in my application to grad school did I state that I want to become a librarian so that I can help fix the printers. AND YET. As we increasingly shift monograph purchasing from print to electronic, in many cases we haven’t increased our users’ flexibility to chose the format in which they wish to engage with our collections, but shifted from binding them to a print copy of a book, to having now bound them to an electronic version that seems damn-near impossible to actually print out to engage with in a meaningful way.

I’m fairly certain there’s no beautiful genius among us who has solved the eBook DRM conundrum, so I won’t hold my breath on that front. But until we make it easier for our users to choose the format in which they wish to engage with our collections, closing the gap between library as place and our digital collections will be undermined. These solutions ain’t glamorous, but I think they matter.

So: screens, tablets, easier abilities to transfer between e and print. As library collections become increasingly invisible to the users in our spaces, I hope we can focus on how bring back the visibility of our collections by bridging the gap between our spaces and our digital collections.


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