Article | Libraries and UX — A Common Thread

Header image showing books shifting to interface design.

Libraries and UX share a common priority – people.  

“People first” has been the driving force of my career.

I have always cared deeply about access to information and inclusive design meant for everyone, regardless of where they are starting. I believe in striving for understanding and meeting people where they are.Meet people where they are - both physically and emotionally.

Which is why I started my career in libraries – it was the perfect place to help others reach their goals and identify their needs.

Also, I really love books.

Library Origins

My early work with community-led libraries in Vancouver, B.C.  had a deep impact on my professional outlook.

In the community-led model, everything begins with the user. Listening and shifting to curiosity are key principles in the philosophy’s approach to building trust and empathy with users.  The process starts by working with users to understand how they experience and prioritize their needs.  Only through understanding, can you begin to develop effective library services.  Services that will help users accomplish their goals in ways that make sense to them.

User icon - beginning with the user is key.

In order to build truly useful services, you need to go beyond just talking with users at the start.  You have bring them along with you as you develop the service, implement it and then continue to refine it through trial and error.  Checking in with the user throughout, involving them in the process – that is true “community-led” library service.

It wasn’t until several years into my career that I realized why I loved this library model so much.  It echoes all the hallmarks of design thinking – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

As a young librarian, this philosophy resonated deeply with me and I carried it with me as I moved first to the Columbus Metropolitan Library (Ohio) and then to the Marin County Free Public Library (California).  Throughout my career, I used grant-funding to implement and refine programs with user input and collaboration.  Programs like Language Play, a language-based play group for young children of all abilities.  Language Play provided a safe place for these children and their families to play, learn and “just be” without judgment. A place that didn’t currently exist in the community.

The Shift

An outline of Utah with a dot for Salt Lake City, our new home.In November 2017, my husband was offered a promotion at the same time that I was wrapping up another library grant project.  The only catch was, the job was in Utah – 724 miles away from our home in the Bay Area.

At that time, I was the Children’s Services Supervisor for two branches in the busy Marin County Free Library system.  I had just finished implementing a system-wide grant initiative which involved directing a training team of 23 and coordinating hundreds of hours of staff training.  The next career step for me was into senior management.  But was that what I really wanted?

Moving into senior management held the appeal of solving even bigger problems and implementing more broad-reaching changes.  But, it also meant spending less face-to-face time with actual users.  There would be more meetings and fewer on-the-spot innovations and prototypes (or “pilot programs” as they’re called in libraries).  I would be giving up a lot of the aspects of my job that I loved the most.

My thoughts were a whirlwind.These thoughts kept swirling through my mind as I packed up box after box.  Libraries and public service had been my focus since my first shelving position at a local branch when I was 16.  But now, I found myself wanting something more – a new challenge.  Something that would allow me to do the work I love while pushing me to grow and expand in new directions.

Shortly after arriving in Utah, I attended a presentation by Jared Spool on why “It’s a Great Time to be a UX Designer.”  In his talk, Jared outlined the characteristics of a successful UX designer.  As he spoke, I kept thinking  “I can do that” or “oooooo, I want to learn that!”

The fire was lit.  I knew what I wanted to do next.

Two weeks later I had enrolled in the DevMountain UX Immersive program.

Why UX?

Looking back, I think the underpinnings of UX and design thinking have been with me from the very beginning.  From the community-led library philosophy to the community interviews I conducted to create Language Play, I have always strived to begin with empathy for the user.

Outline of a heartUX intersects beautifully with librarianship – and not just in a shared loved for information architecture and organization. UX combines all of my favorite things – people, problem solving, creating solutions, and responding to shifting environments.

It was the next logical step for a career of putting people first and connecting user needs with meaningful solutions.

And I have loved every minute of it.