Wednesday, July 26, 2017

This is a story about control

One thing that the Unified Library Scene has always been about is understand the needs of your user community and responding to them. When reading the most recent Ithaka S+R issue brief, Rethinking liaison programs for the humanities, I was once again reminded of how central listening should be to the work we do in libraries.

I was fascinated by the idea that their projects are "scholar centered." The authors describe their centering of researchers by saying:
we do not ask scholars how they engage with library services, collections, or employees but rather in a more open-ended way what their experiences and practices are like as researchers. Our intention is not to evaluate the "efficacy" of liaison services as they are currently organized but rather to determine what services if any may be needed.
This idea of asking scholars about their processes really resonates with me because it centers the user and decenters the library. Instead of asking "how good are we at meeting your needs?" this process asks "what are your needs?" Instead of asking scholars to do the work of figuring out how to structure the services the library should be providing, the work of mapping the efficacy of services happens when trying to reconcile scholar needs with current service offerings.

This methodology is perhaps easier for Ithaka to undertake than many individual academic libraries because one imagines that they don't tie the answer that a respondent gives to the work being done in the organization those respondents represent. If you talked to the libraries that serve those respondents, they may not feel as comfortable with the scholar centered approach because they are invested in making sure that they are doing the best possible job of meeting the needs of the faculty they serve. And in the end, scholar centered approach requires a flexibility of thinking and a willingness to give legacy services up in order to take on new, more useful services.

Later in the issue brief, the authors talk about how because humanists are often working in sub-disciplines, they don't see their liaison librarian as an expert they can include as a collaborator in their research process. The authors explain:
Even if, as appears to be increasingly the case, subject specialists have advanced degrees in the relevant subject area, subject expertise at a discipline level is not what is being sought. Rather, for research support humanists are looking for engagement at the level of their own sub-discipline, which is rarely available through the library.
That was really hard for me to read, and I don't liaise with scholars.

It's dangerous to think of any user community as a monolith, so what happens at any given academic library might not scale. But I still think this is really valuable insight. I think that academic libraries and the workers who staff them spend a lot of time trying to foist services upon scholars who may not need them and then internalizing the failure they feel when they aren't able to build the kind of relationships they wish to have with the scholars in the academic community. It isn't that those scholars don't see the library as valuable--the authors of this issue brief are very clear that they do--it's that they don't see us in the way that we may want to be seen.

We spend a lot of time in academic libraries evaluating the services we provide our users. And I do think it's valuable to measure the efficacy of the work that we're already doing. But I think what this issue brief points out to us, separate from its findings, is how important it is to have a user centered orientation that comes from truly engaging with your user communities, knowing how they work, and identifying ways in which your work intersects with theirs in an authentic way.

Stay positive,

No comments: