Book Review: The Art of Relevance, Written by Nina Simon
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When Nina Simon became the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in California in 2011, the museum was on the edge of closing its doors. Like many institutions, the museum was faced with the question of whether or not they were relevant anymore. Over her time there, Simon has transformed the museum into a thriving community hub. People not only come to the museum, they come back again and again, and they help shape what is there for other people to find. Early on in her role as director, Simon defined “relevant experiences” as “those connected to the needs, assets, and interests of our community, and to the art and history in our collection” (p. 22). Over time, she began to see relevance as a key—“relevance is the key to a locked door where meaning lives” (p. 23). The metaphor of relevance as a key is used throughout the book and is a useful framework for libraries trying not only to improve the user experience, but to create new doors to allow non-users to enter the library and find meaning there too.
In The Art of Relevance (Museum 2.0 2016), Simon provides practical steps, advice, and insights into the participatory design she has implemented so successfully at her museum, offering librarians a new perspective on user experience at our institutions. The book’s many short chapters are divided into five parts: “What is Relevance?” “Outside In,” “Relevance and Community,” “Relevance and Mission,” and “The Heart of Relevance.” Each part consists of several short chapters, some only two or three pages long. The index of the book is equally short, only indexing projects or specific organizations mentioned in the text. For those looking for more detail, Simon has one previous book, The Participatory Museum, as well as her ongoing Museum 2.0 blog.
In Part One, Simon looks briefly at the relevance theory of cognitive scientists Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber and the connection between effort and positive cognitive effect. Relevance theory may be a theoretical avenue worth more exploration by user experience librarians. Part Two is about identifying and learning more about “outsiders.” Outsiders are the people we want to bring into the library who either don’t know that we exist or, worse, know that we are there but don’t feel welcome. This is one of the strongest parts of the book, where Simon teaches us how to empathize with outsiders and help more people feel like insiders. Part Three looks at understanding the needs and interests of our communities. Simon outlines the museum’s “community first program planning model” (p. 99), which consists of four steps that are easily transferable to libraries. In this part, Simon also provides two case studies of libraries: the Waukegan Public Library, which was struggling to reach Latino adults in a community that was more than 50 percent Latino (p. 90–91), and the Cleveland Public Library, which found ways to connect with a community hit hard by the recession (p. 96–98). Part Four looks at the effect of change on relevance and institutional missions. Ultimately, Simon argues that maintaining a solid, core mission will help make an institution be more open to change. She discusses proactive versus responsive relevance, partnering with other institutions or individuals to co-create relevance, content versus form of programming, and the ever-challenging balance between entertaining and educating. Part Five serves as the conclusion, exploring the transformative power of relevant experiences on individuals and the necessity of measuring relevance and querying users and non-users to truly be user-centered.
The Art of Relevance is not an academic text, and although Simon explains in her introduction that she did not start with a single thesis but rather a set of questions she wanted to explore, the book may not go in-depth enough into the problem of creating relevance in cultural institutions for some readers. On the other hand, Simon’s short chapters, numerous case studies from outside organizations, and practical lessons learned from her museum offers high impact for low investment, especially for public librarians, for whom there does not yet exist much literature on user experience, and those in academic libraries who do user experience on top of their regular duties. Finally, but no less importantly, anyone suffering from the seemingly never-ending charges of irrelevancy will find in this work the necessary dose of inspiration to keep experimenting and innovating with user experience in libraries.