Our Customers, Ourselves: Computers in Libraries 2017

As the Internet has evolved and mobile devices have proliferated, libraries and librarians have engaged in a collective quest for a new identity, trying to discern their purpose and value in an increasingly digital age. If the Computers in Libraries 2017 conference is any indication, the key to this new identity lies not within technology or systems or processes, but within library customers.

“We asked ourselves, if the library were a human being, how would it treat our customers?” said one panelist in a session on using social media. This sentiment—that customers, not technology or collections, should guide library strategies and tactics—was echoed by several other presenters throughout the three-day meeting, which was held March 28–30 in Arlington, Virginia.

Although none of the conference “tracks” was devoted specifically to understanding customers, the topic was discussed in many of the sessions. For example, Leif Pedersen of Innovative Interfaces noted that libraries have transitioned from the age of cataloging to the age of the patron/student/client, but many of their systems and technologies are still catalog-facing rather than customer-facing. What libraries need to provide, he said, is a seamless experience in which information flows directly to customers from publishers and content providers (and vice versa).

Author Patricia Martin, the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference, encouraged librarians to see their customers not as consumers searching for information—“nobody wants more information; they’re overwhelmed as it is”—but as individuals searching for an identity. More than half of Americans use multiple social media platforms, she noted, which means they must manage multiple personas across multiple platforms.

“What we are entering as a culture is a collective identity crisis,” she said. “The key for libraries is to make the user experience about self discovery.”

The Pew Research Center’s Lee Rainie, who delivered the keynote address on the final day of the conference, seconded Martin’s call for libraries to facilitate self-discovery. “Seventy-three percent of Americans self-identify as lifelong learners,” he said. “The 2008–2009 recession made many people rethink their lives, their career goals, and their skills.”

Jill Strand, senior manager of library and knowledge information systems at Fish & Richardson in Minneapolis and 2015 president of SLA, suggested that librarians take their cues from sectors that are more sensitive to customer needs. “We need to take a 360-degree view of our customers,” she said. “Retail is very similar in this regard—it is a customer-centric experience.”

A panelist in a session about augmented reality cautioned against treating all customers alike. “We never think of digital natives as under-served populations,” he said. “We assume they’re all comfortable and familiar with technology.”

Underlying these disparate messages was a common theme: by gaining a better understanding of their customers, libraries and librarians will better understand themselves and their mission. “Most successful organizations have clarity,” said Rebecca Jones of the Brampton Library in Ontario. “They’re very clear about what they want to do.”

Maintaining that clarity will require librarians to understand not only their customers, but also what their customers see in the library. “I don’t think we ask ourselves often enough, ‘Why the library?'” said Linda Hazzan of the Toronto Public Library. “We need to be asking that more often.”

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