Are libraries in a UX moment? If so, why right now? What opportunities (and hazards) does such a moment present?

Georgina Cronin:

Well speaking purely from personal experience (and especially from a UK funded perspective), libraries are often perceived as struggling against the all dominant nature of Google, everything being free on the Internet and the usual myths that hound our profession. While we know that a lot of this is simply not true, it has certainly had a huge impact on the public perception of the value and relevance of libraries and their services. As a result, and again I am speaking a lot from personal experience, librarians are being made to prove their worth. While this is by no means a bad thing, this worth also has to be backed up by data and fact, which is where UX comes in. Through in-depth study and analysis of what our users want, need, and use, we can highlight our value in ways that are far richer than simple statistics.

On the flip side of this, ensuring that our services are flexible, adaptable, and relevant to our users also requires insight so that they keep using what we offer and are finding value in that (especially with the recent soar in fees in UK universities). Through good UX research underpinning services and justifying the investment of time, money, and effort into these services, we are hopefully ensuring that we are more sustainable and reactive as a profession as opposed to relying on our status as "people who know stuff" which unfortunately is simply not enough any more.

The opportunities of this "moment" should be clear (and I've mentioned some of them above) but the hazards are more difficult to quantify. I always encourage librarians to do UX as part of their workflows as opposed to a one-off project that never gets repeated or built upon. It has to be sustainable and kept going. If UX is seen as some sort of trend, then it may not be given as much respect as more traditional aspects of the library professional role. I really believe that UX is for everyone (users and professionals alike) so it is key that this moment becomes absorbed as part of a wider skill set rather than as something special and "other."

Amanda L. Goodman:

In the six years I’ve been paying attention to libraries, I’ve only noticed an increased chatter about UX and libraries for the past two years. Aaron Schmidt, Amanda Etches, and Nate Hill of Influx were my first introduction to any library UXers. However, my boss had founded our UX department in 2008. So clearly someone was talking about this.

From podcasts, I know that UX, information architecture, content strategy, etc. really got going in the mid-to-late 90s. I came online in 2000. I now have 15 years of web experience. I’ve watched my dad drown in a sea of pop-ups, sites that were red text on black backgrounds, all the way to being pleased when a website’s input fields are properly set so that when I enter my zip code, my phone keyboard switches to numbers. This is huge. However, even as a semi-professional reader of the big web designers, I did not note a serious uptick in accessibility until Responsive Web Design (RWD) burst upon the scene. Thanks, Ethan Marcotte! The roots of RWD as noted by Marcotte started a decade earlier but weren’t really heeded.

Therefore, from my admitted limited historical perspective, I think best practices of the web have pushed UX into all other domains. Other well-known factors: competition from the Internet (convenient!), the Great Recession threatened budgets, so we needed to push the public to seeing us as community hubs (useful!), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There’s quite a bit of pressure to feel ashamed if your website and building aren’t accessible, so that’s a motivating factor.


  • Better signage
  • More accessible websites
  • Friendlier libraries


Oops, gotta go on desk. More later!

Eric Larson:

I think Amanda's comment that "best practices of the web have pushed UX into all other domains" is spot on. At least, that's been my experience. I think libraries are in a web moment, with UX principles coming along for the ride. Why? The web has gotten better and easier. People have greater expectations for their web services.

At University of Wisconsin-Madison and here at the University of Minnesota, I've seen two large institutions substantially invest in the number and talent of their library web development teams. The more web professionals you get in a room, the more you'll speed the adoption of best practices for: accessibility, usability, design patterns, test-driven development, front-end frameworks, analytics, etc. And finally, when the team begins to write better software, as an organization you quickly begin to appreciate how UX can improve and inform that work. It's all very natural. When the web team grows, more opportunity exists to take ownership of our largest usability issues: the discovery system, our open-source and in-house web applications.

The opportunities are vast now. You've hired a lot of great people aboard, so you decide to make "the next great thing." It might be a catalog, it might be a data preservation tool, it might be a visualization of squirrel femurs (no joke, hello old friends!). It doesn't matter. The point is you have become a library with much more than just a web team. You now own a software development shop and you only have so many applications you can create and maintain. The hazard is how do you choose what to make and what to buy. At least, that's been my experience.

When the web matures, the web team becomes a model for A/B testing success stories and data-driven decision practices. Libraries are very habitual, so it's easy for those good habits to cross over into interlibrary loan practices and borrowing privileges. Everyone wins.

Amanda L. Goodman:

“The point is you have become a library with much more than just a web team. You now own a software development shop and you only have so many applications you can create and maintain. The hazard is how do you choose what to make and what to buy. At least, that's been my experience.” – Eric Larson

This! Thanks to my boss, we have our own catalog and servers. Since we’re located in a small town, we also host community non-profit sites and are building a closer relationship with the local public access TV station. With the arrival of the sysadmin two weeks ago, we’re pushing to act more like a startup. This means a white board and standing meetings on Mondays. Now if we could add a couch to go along with our mini fridge...

Rebecca Blakiston:

Ha—I like that Amanda’s hazard was that she had to run off to the desk! That’s actually perhaps one of the hazards of our work in general—being pulled in many different directions and often not having clear priorities about what we should be focusing our efforts on. I’m pretty sure most librarians feel this way, no matter what their position is.

But are libraries in a UX moment? I agree with what others have said. UX isn’t all that new, but it has gained more prominence over the last few years as libraries are challenged to prove their value. Libraries can’t take for granted anymore that we are a requirement or a necessity. We have competition now, and our future as a profession is not at all clear. Users can help guide our directions and sustain us over time. We’ve got to listen to our users to avoid becoming irrelevant.

User-centered decision-making allows us to improve and demonstrate our value, provide exceptional services that improve student retention and success, improve faculty productivity, and better our communities. Hazard is a bit strong of a word, but some of the challenges are prioritizing and staffing to get the most impactful work done, and done well.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

I concur with the rest of the conversation so far and my brain went in a very similar direction to Rebecca’s. At least in academic libraries, it definitely feels like as the Value of Academic Libraries initiative/movement has geared up and grown, so has discussion around user experience and user-centered decision making along with the inherent assessment piece.

Getting back to what Georgina mentioned about ensuring UX becomes part of workflows and not just a one-off thing, I see a potential hazard in UX becoming more of a trend than a best is definitely trendy right now.

Craig MacDonald:

Wow, it sounds like some of you are working in really advanced and sophisticated UX/webdev teams—a great sign for the future of libraries! But, it also points to one of my biggest worries, which is the increasing gap between the "UX-haves" and the "UX-have-nots." I've spoken to librarians who work with or lead fully staffed UX departments and do amazing things for their users, but I've also talked to librarians who are one of a handful of staff members and can only do "UX work" when time permits, or don't have a strong relationship with their web development team and need to fight to get their voice heard, or are just making up "UX" as they go along because they haven't received formal training in the tools/methods/etc., but they know it's important so they do whatever they can. It reminds me of something I read a few months back about an organizational UX maturity model.

To bring this back around to the discussion prompt, I think this is very clearly a "UX moment" for libraries, but in my mind the biggest hazard is and will continue to be the lack of UX expertise among a large chunk of the library profession. We're trying to address this at Pratt by offering a UX concentration within our MSLIS program, but I don't think it goes far enough (yet), and there's only so much a recently minted MSLIS graduate can accomplish.

Some of you work for libraries that are clearly at the forefront and are pushing the boundaries of what UX can do for libraries, but what about everyone else—the UX "Teams of None"? To me, this leads to a critical question: