As part of the IHR Library’s ongoing commitment to researching and improving user experience in the library, earlier this summer I attended the UXLibsIII conference in Glasgow. The two-day conference brought together 180 delegates from 19 countries and it was great to hear of user experience projects taking place in libraries across the world and to have discussions incorporate such an international dynamic. It was an exceptionally useful and inspiring experience, prompting several ideas for improving user experience in the IHR and ways to build upon the previous UX research undertaken by the library team.
The conference began with an introductory address from Andy Priestner in which he commented that ‘user experience is too fundamental to be just one person’s job.’ Much as there is no one single common ‘user’ of a library, neither can there be one single member of library staff who can encompass UX for an entire institution. This observation struck the tone for many of the discussions that followed. It was noted that UX is an invaluable tool for libraries, yet frequently it is a tool that remains underappreciated.
A recurring theme throughout the conference was ethics and values, with both keynote lectures focusing on this. The keynote delivered by Dr Meredith Evans, Director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library focused on ethics and social responsibility in archives and librarianship, most specifically in relation to the Documenting Ferguson project which she led at Washington University. The project is a freely available resource that aims to preserve and make accessible digital media captured and created by community members following the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9th August 2014. Meredith explained how the project prompted key ethical questions: did people who had tweeted about the shooting give consent to their tweet being archived? How could documents be archived but not accessed and used by law enforcement agencies? How can libraries create a tool that can minimise the risk of using Twitter and such platforms for research?
In answer to these, Meredith related how her team had undertaken mapping exercises and created personas for each user group incorporated within the project. She also called for librarians and archivists to listen to users and not necessarily always your institution’s administration, noting that in establishing archives based around communities different voices can be incorporated into history. Her keynote was one of the undoubted highlights of the conference and succeeded in being both incredibly moving and engaging; highlighting ethical issues and offering practical advice and reminding us all to ‘walk in the shoes of today’s content creator’ and library user.
Similarly, Matthew Reidsma’s keynote address also focused upon conducting ethical UX research. He asked attendees to question what are our values as library workers, arguing that design reflects the values of its creator, therefore biases and values will be embedded within your work and your library whether intentionally or not. One of the most striking points that Matthew reinforced was that analytics make us think that people are predictable and cause us to lose sight of the individual person (or library user) behind such data. He commented that too often library staff are designing library spaces for happy smiling people who want to be at the library – this he noted does not reflect the true complexity of users of a library.
Aside from the keynotes, another highlight was the ‘UXLabs’ feature, in which libraries from across the UK presented current or on-going user experience projects at stalls during lunchtime. This was a great way to learn about projects taking place and see the diverse methodologies applied by each institution. It was also a very useful way of stimulating ideas for future projects by learning what had worked and what challenges projects had encountered or were in some instances still facing.
For my own part, I also presented at the conference on the UX work being undertaken at the IHR. My talk focused on the project’s impact, most especially in relation to diversity, both within the library and across the wider Institute. The IHR Library is continuing to work to improve the experience for all its users and is implementing several of the key findings from the UX research undertaken in November last year.
The conference ended with a Q&A in which discussion frequently turned to the question of ‘what next for UX in libraries?’ The panel were emphatic that user experience research and activities are not a fad, instead they argued UX should be regarded as a deeply ingrained practice and should be a part of every library’s thinking. After all, what is a library without its users?