February 19, 2013

The Library as a Place to Support the Mobile User

Achieving Impact

Pronouncements of paradigm shifts are inherently risky (recall Bill Clinton’s “The era of big government is over.”). And yet it is time to acknowledge a shift in how libraries ought to be planned: we are beyond the era of academic libraries justifying their existence by how many students they can draw in despite the near-ubiquity of information.

Through a mix of strategies like information commons, new service offerings, and more attractive spaces (including the must-have coffee shop), libraries have proved to be magnetic and needed places. The gate counts and user satisfaction are up, and increasingly effective ways of proving their value are emerging.

So, now we can move on to really thinking about how to support the users we’ve drawn in because the way they are working and their expectations are changing rapidly – the library of the future is one that supports mobile users.

In Libraries and Learning: A History of Paradigm Change, Scott Bennett expertly explains the Library’s evolution from reader-centered (information in service of the reader), to book-centered (housing collections as the priority), to learning-center (facilitating learning through space, services, and technology). I’d propose that the next paradigm extends the learning-centered paradigm by focusing on the mobility of learners – call it the choice-centered paradigm.

Now that we’ve drawn them somewhere, supporting them is going to mean providing the requisite variety of spaces, technologies, services, and information to enable learners to choose based on their styles and preferences – and to enable users to fluidly change those choices minute-to-minute, based on where, how, and with whom they want to work.

So what does a choice-centered library design mean? A few thoughts:

1. Spaces that are more like landscapes, where users can see a variety of options; chose among them based on their location, atmosphere, and collaborators; reconfigure to customize to their needs; and fluidly shift between them with little or no switching costs. The dashboard of “what computer is free,” will give way to dashboards on what events are going on, what people are working on (think: meetups), where their friends are, and what atmosphere a certain space has that day/time. These dashboards will be able to change rapidly based on the needs (and will be on personal apps rather than monitors bolted to a wall).

2. Technology infrastructure that connects to users’ devices and connects theirs to their friends’. Less and less fixed technology will be needed, with libraries focusing on high-end, out-of-reach technology like immersive visualization or by lending mobile devices rather than providing fixed desktops.  Customized profiles, mobile apps, printing from mobile devices, cloud-based services, and digital fabrication will all play roles.

3. Mobile services that come to users – physically and virtually. Rather than delivering services face-to-face across a counter (and at a different designated counter for check-outs, tech support, and research support), staff and services will need to be more proactive, going to users to consult with them side-by-side. Staff will also be roving throughout spaces to uncover needs rather than wait for people to ask for help. Consultations will also be delivered virtually through text-based and video chats, both in individual- and group-format.

4. Collections on-demand  when, where, and how they’re needed.  Choice will not only be the driver for space, but for collections as well. Users will need a way to browse digitally, with a recommendation engine (or else they’ll use Amazon and come to the catalog last…). They will seek the same information in a variety of formats – from a physical volume (especially in certain disciplines like visual arts), to device-agnostic pdfs, to e-reader-specific formats – depending on their preferences, devices, and skills. They’ll want the commentary too – not just what the author wrote, but what others are annotating on and writing about it as well.

Now that we’ve spent over a decade successfully drawing students to the library under threat of its demise, it’s time for a more nuanced approach that acknowledges that users need choices not only where on campus to study, but rather where in the building, the floor, or the room to study, based on their preferences. And crucially, understanding that these preferences can change rapidly depending on their work and whom they are working with. Environments driven by variety, choice, connectivity, personalization and reconfigurability will thrive. Libraries that fix equipment, people, and functions will falter as they fail to provide the choices user demand.

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