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Is Your Library User-Centered?

by on February 29, 2016

The OCLC Library in the Life of the User meeting last fall explored research and case studies about user expectations. Needs have shifted radically. It is no longer enough to design library services on what librarians think their users should be interested in. The time has come to “shift from looking at user in life of library to library in life of the user.”[1]

The library competes with choices from the outside world, including social networks. Librarians need to beware of assuming what users need and want. We also need to develop future services by focusing on user needs. Empowering the people who come through our doors and engaging them will help us to better serve them. The report “Shaping the Library to the Life of the User: Adapting, Empowering, Partnering, Engaging highlights these findings shared at the conference.

User-centered design is a term frequently associated with web development and online experiences. The research shows librarians need to expand their understanding of this concept to the physical library experience as well.

A suggested planning and research path is described in the report:

  1. Watch with open eyes. Interviewing users can be one of the best sources of new information on how to design the library experience.
  2. Design with a purpose. Look for how the library can add value to its users’ lives.
  3. See the world differently. Through visitor mapping, library space and services can be seen through the users’ eyes.

For public libraries, the challenge to create unique user experiences is even broader. We need to find ways to be engaged outside the walls of the library and bring our knowledge, talents, and skills to our communities. As cited by Lorcan Dempsey, Columbus Metropolitan Library Chief Executive Officer Pat Losinski said, “20 years ago I was in the libraries business. Today I am in the Columbus business.”[2]

The OCLC report challenges all library staff to become engaged in improving library experiences. “Members of the library staff need to engage and learn the relevant skills to help form a nimble team to do the research, analysis and implementation.”[3] In twenty-first century libraries, staying relevant to the user is everyone’s job.

So where to start? One resource I’ve found to be helpful is Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches. It includes checklists and strategies for improving library services based on what users are looking for. The Aspen Institute also just released a new Action Guide as a follow-up to last year’s report on re-envisioning public libraries. This tool helps provide real-life examples of how to become more engaged in the community. Both are concrete starting points to becoming a more engaging library.


[1] Lorcan Dempsey. 2015. “The library in the life of the user,” slideshow on SlideShare, November 6, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Merrilee Proffitt, James Michalko, and Melissa Renspie. “Shaping the Library to the Life of the User: Adapting, Empowering, Partnering, Engaging” OCLC Research report, accessed Feb. 11, 2016.

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