Tuesday, June 2, 2015

You're pretty good with words

Both Rachel and I have written about the power of words. To be fair, Rachel has written about it more than I have, as you can tell from the links. But the point is, it's something we think about here on The Blog.

I read something yesterday that made me think a lot about what I mean when I say "the user."

In Chapter 2 of The Power To Name, Hope A. Olson writes about classification systems as envisioned by both Melvil Dewey and Charles A. Cutter. In the section about Cutter, Olson points out that Cutter believed that different types of libraries have different purposes. That is, one uses a research library in a different way than a public library. It is for this reason, Cutter asserts, that different words may be used to describe the same topic and the type of library governs which words get used. In Olson's (and Cutter's) example, a public library might choose to organize all of it's material on butterflies under the heading of butterflies while a research library might choose to organize that same material under the heading of lepidoptera.

Olson pushes back against this notion, writing:
In reality, libraries do not have homogeneous users, but the conception of a single public presumes that they do (42)
It is easy for me to accept Olson's assertion that library users aren't a homogeneous group. Our users represent different socioeconomic groups, different races, different sexual orientations, different gender identities and expressions. They have differing levels of ability. As a result of this diversity, library users have both different information needs and different levels of information literacy.

In theory, I recognize this. But I am guilty of writing about "the user" as if there is a single type of person who uses the library. I talk about being user-center and "putting the user first." But what (or, rather, who) do I mean when I talk about "the user."

If, after reflection, I am honest with myself, I probably mean a user who is like me: white, able-bodied, cis gender. I probably mean someone who is middle class. I probably mean someone who is college educated.

I think that we bring our privilege and our baggage to work with us. And as a result, I think it isn't exactly fair to suggest that the library is neutral. But part of building the Unified Library Scene is to acknowledge that and figure out how to at least be more inclusive in a way that respects the experiences of the people who come to our libraries looking for information that has the capacity to transform their lives in radical ways.

Maybe instead of talking about being "putting the user first," we (well, I) should talk about "putting users first." It won't solve the problem entirely, but I feel like acknowledging that there is no such thing as a typical user is a good start.

Stay positive,

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