ALA’s 2007 Annual Conference

Last weekend was the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC. It was the usual mixture of good things and bad things. I was sorry I didn’t run into more of my colleagues while I was there. But I did make it to a few programs that were more interesting than the usual fare.

The first program I attended was The Balanced Scorecard: the Results Please. I am always interested to hear about what libraries are doing to gauge the effectiveness of their services. While the Balanced Scorecard(BSC) approach was not really a revelation (and businesses and other organizations have been using it for years), it was interesting to hear libraries talk about how they had implemented it. There were speakers from UVa Libraries and Georgia Lomax from Pierce County Library System (Tacoma WA). Georgia Lomax told an interesting story about when her library was looking into getting their DVDs from their vendor preprocessed, so they wouldn’t need to barcode, label, etc. the DVDs when they arrived. The decision had been held up by competing concerns within the library. When they started to implement the BSC approach, they took a step back and asked, “how will this impact our users?” By reframing the question they were able to easily answer the question. If they chose to get their DVDs from the vendor already processed, they would be able to make those DVDs available to the library’s users the same day the DVD was released to the public. Although it would cost more per DVD to get them preprocessed, they determined it was worth it for the improvement in service.

I like this story for 2 reasons. First, it shows that if you aren’t asking the right question, you will never get the best solution. Second, it frames the question the way that it should be framed, “how will this change impact our users?” All too often we make our decisions on what is best for the staff and completely ignore what is best for our users. Sometimes we don’t do new projects because they mean extra work. Sometimes we do new projects because the staff or the administration thinks it is a really great idea, but no one has thought how it will really impact the users. Both of these approaches miss the point that we are here for our users and our business decisions need to made based on their impact to the users, while taking into account budgetary concerns.

I also we went to the Do Libraries Innovate? session. I have to admit, I was hoping for a livelier session. For the most part everybody was on the same page – although, I’m not sure what page that was. Something that was glossed over – and I wish had been addressed was the role of either Library (and Information Science) Schools or the vendors in innovation. There was a little bit of finger-pointing in both of those directions, but nothing ever heated to the point of what I would call “debate” as the program had been billed. Joe Janes did mention that fewer application essays focus on how the applicant likes to curl up with a good book – and made a point of how he didn’t work at a library school anyway – it’s an “Information School”. Both of which duck the question of whether library schools are graduating the kind of students that are going to make libraries innovative.  You can hear the podcast over at LITA.

Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge was Steven Bell’s returning to the “culture of victimization” that he saw as pervasive throughout libraries. I do agree that low self-esteem is rampant in librarians and that we seem to be fixated on the negative things that happen to libraries. Doesn’t this point back to the kind of students that are graduating from our library and/or information schools? Too often the bar is set very low, so most libraries don’t even know what they are capable of. Low standards in the library profession is a topic better saved for a later date.

On Sunday, I attended the Building the Next Generation Public Library Web Site with Drupal program. What I appreciated most about the presentation is that they had a clear view of what they wanted to accomplish and how it would be achieved using Drupal. I also appreciated John Blyberg’s discussion of why they chose to use a Content Management System, because it “invites participation and elicits contribution.” He was referring mostly to staff participation, but it also included the participation of their users. This is where we need to take our library websites. You can see the slide here.

I stuck around Monday morning to see Peter Morville speak at the ALCTS President’s Program (see the PowerPoint). Two things stuck out about Peter’s talk. First, he talked about the “User Experience Honeycomb“. Peter pointed out that there is more to the user experience than usability. The honeycomb consists of six cells: useful, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, and usable; around a single cell: valuable. Peter emphasized the cells that are often overlooked. That although usability is a necessary part of website design, being a desirable, attractive website is also important. Take a look at usability guru, Jakob Nielsen’s website to see what a usable site looks like when it sacrifices desirability. Libraries still enjoy a great deal of credibility with their users, so that wasn’t really addressed. Findability, as you can tell from the title of Peter’s recent book, is his passion. His example of the importance of findability was the website of the National Cancer Institute. The website had lots of great information for patients and the family and friends of cancer patients, that information was not easy to find. Searches on Google only returned articles from the NCI website deep in the results list. So the information was effectively hidden from many of its potential users. Lastly, on top of the honeycomb is the all too often overlooked, useful. It is important that the website does something that the user wants. Morville stated some law about the relationship between how much effort the user will put in vs. the pay off – I don’t recall it right now ( I even searched for it a bit and still couldn’t find it). The gist was that users will only expend their energy in relation to the perceived reward. In the end, all of these pieces of the honeycomb make the website valuable to the user. It is a good lesson to keep in mind.


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