Libraries used to have a monopoly on information, but the Internet changed that. Libraries are only now starting to notice this change. For the past decade we’ve tried to convince our users that searching the library is often a better solution than searching Google. There is nothing wrong with this, since it’s often true. But all of our energy went into making these arguments instead of genuinely improving our user’s experiences. We ignored our clunky, complicated online catalogs, quickly tossed up long, convoluted help pages filled with library jargon, and tried to convince users that on the other side of these unpleasant Web pages lay the research promised land. Every question answered, every need satisfied. It was easy, we said:

Our site is simple. Just type some keywords, select from the radio buttons (Title or Series Title? What do you mean “you don’t know?”). Oh, don’t forget to select your region from the dropdown menu (Are you region #4 or region #5?). Subjects? Well, do you mean LCSH or MESH or Children’s, little Susie? Now just click Find it!

Well, that wasn’t so hard. What could that single search box have that libraries don’t? How about a stake in making great user experiences?

Google cares desperately about it’s users. It has to. Literally billions of dollars a year are at stake, since Google’s entire business model is designed to get people to use and reuse and depend on it’s services. If you use Google’s search, or Gmail, or Google calendar, they can sell your attention to advertisers. They can’t get you to use their services without making the experience the best on the Web. Imagine if Google’s search interface looked like some of our library search pages. Larry Page and Sergey Brin would be working at Jimmy John’s and you’d be asking Jeeves for directions and “Yahooed” would have been a useful word of the year.

One of the reasons libraries seem to be waking up from their jargon-filled delusion is that we suddenly have a financial stake in making experiences better for our students as well. Budgets are getting slashed and library directors are being asked to justify the existence of expensive library resources, especially when so many students skip the library and head to Google.

In her excellent The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane warns those with monopolistic products that they can’t afford to ignore the needs of their users just because they have no competition. She writes,

If you’re the only one offering a desirable product or service, you might not see the effects of narcissistic content right away, but someone will eventually come along and eat your lunch by offering the exact same thing in a user-centered way.
Kissane, p.9

That’s basically what happened to libraries. Google came along and offered up answers to questions (i.e. information) that was easy to use. It’s not that libraries didn’t care about our users, it’s that what our users wanted us to care about changed, and we decided that our fancy MLS degrees gave us the right to decide that what we thought they needed_ (comprehensive, subject-specific but difficult to use resources) was more important than what they said they wanted (ease of use). We just stuck our fingers in our ears and chanted “Our search is better! Our search is better!” How’d that work out for us?

Google ate our lunch.

So now libraries are rushing to hire “User Experience Librarians” and talking about simplifying their websites and jumping on google-like discovery tools like Summon. But will these small changes make a difference? Probably not, because these are superficial solutions. It’s not just that our users want a better gradient on our search buttons, or more white space between results. They want a library that doesn’t yet exist, one that understands that the world has changed and takes that change seriously in its mission and into its makeup.

Part of the problem is built-in to our organizational charts.

Take a look at most academic libraries. They offer a wealth of print and electronic resources, but these are all accessed through the library website. Want to see if the library has a book? Search the catalog, through the website. Access to a journal? Search for it through the website. This means that nearly everyone that walks through the library’s door and everyone that logs on to the website interacts with the library website. So while only a portion (a large portion, granted) of our users walk through the front door, nearly 100% come to the website.

Now look at the organizational chart. How many people are responsible for in-person service? How many people are responsible for the Web? See the discrepancy1?

Google’s business is online, and their organizational chart shows that. The academic library’s business is largely online, as well, but you wouldn’t know it by looking through a staff directory.

I’m not advocating tossing our organizational structure and hiring a bunch of Web developers. But as libraries continue to fight for resources and as our users move more and more to the Web for everything, we need to be ahead of the game and planning for how our libraries will survive into the next 10, 20, 30 years.

How do we start? Train the people we have. Every librarian on staff should know how to write HTML. Everyone should know the difference between hits, views, and visits. Everyone should understand how a relational database works, and how pages are generated dynamically. Most importantly, everyone should know why these things are important! These are foundational skills that no student can leave library school without demonstrating. These are the necessary skills for being a librarian in 20112.

In the automotive field, mechanics who don’t want to learn how to work on cars with computers are soon out of work. Why? They ignored their users desires to have their cars fixed. If we, as librarians, don’t start taking the Web seriously, we’ll all be sitting on a park bench, feeding pigeons with some mechanics, reminiscing about the “good ‘ol days.”

Epilogue: As I was adding in links for this article, I visited our “premiere” library publication, Library Journal, and found their website in this state, which just goes to emphasize my point.

  1. Please don’t make some silly argument like “but building a website takes less work than manning a service desk.” This just tells me that you’ve either never built a website, or have done a poor job at the ones you’ve created. Websites take constant attention, testing, and updating to stay relevant and usable. Think of how often Facebook changes its layout. Think they do that because they want to annoy you, or get you to join another “1,000,000 users against the new Facebook Layout” group? No. They change the layout to make the site more usable, which keeps you around longer, which gives them more of you to sell advertisers. In short, they change the layout because they _have_ to care about users. 
  2. Foundational skills are important, not just blind allegiance to technology at all costs. Start by understanding how the Web works and why that is important, not by pasting up QR codes on every book range.