#LibrariesInLife: The Convenience Imperative

Smartphone users

Technology has turned learning outside in

We used to bring all our learning, content and media resources to various “watering holes” where folks would gather to consume it. Classrooms, libraries, newspapers, magazines, TV networks, bookstores and record stores. Why? Because it was the fastest way to distribute a wide variety of materials. It wasn’t wrong. It made sense. But it also left us with embedded cultural and institutional ideas and biases about what learning is, who is involved in our workflows, what counts as “good enough” and even why we learn.

Now? The content comes to us through digital devices anywhere and at any time. We can pick and choose from a variety of sources based on factors that didn’t apply when media were collected around physical distribution centers. And that repeals a lot of the laws that we grew up with concerning information dissemination and retrieval.

The convenience imperative

Take a moment and think back (if you’re old enough) to those days before the Web. Imagine yourself in a library or a record store or looking at a classified ad in a newspaper. Imagine you’ve already found a piece of content that interests you and that you want. As you pause to consider your options, which of the following questions would be answered easily:

  • Can I get it somewhere else cheaper?
  • Do my friends like it?
  • What other works reference this?
  • What else is known about the creator?
  • Can I confirm its accuracy?
  • Is this available in another format?
  • Is this part of a larger set of materials?
  • Is there a way I can interact with the creator?

Trying to answer any or all of these questions in the days before you had a smartphone could require hours, if not days, if it even was possible. Now? In most cases you could click your way through that list while waiting for your coffee to cool down a bit.

That’s what we mean when we say that Ranganathan’s Fourth Law, “Save the time of the reader,” (The Five Laws of Library Science) now should be considered the first law in how libraries approach user service. However, we now substitute “user” for “reader,” since libraries support so many more types of information acquisition.

Libraries in life

Late last year, OCLC Research released The Library in the Life of the User: Engaging with People Where They Live and Learn, a 10+-year compilation of user behavior studies and findings. Taken together, the ten chapters provide a good, basic understanding of much of the work we’ve done in this area. All of which can be said to come under the heading of “inside out” libraries, to borrow a phrase from Lorcan Dempsey—the ways in which libraries succeed by taking traditional library resources and services and getting them “out there” into the lives and workflows of our users.

The first chapter covers our 2015 report, Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviors, Shifting Priorities. And it articulates what is arguably the single most important imperative of how the digital revolution has changed the environment for the work librarians do:

Convenience trumps everything else.

When we looked at Ranganathan’s Five Laws, we realized that all the laws still apply…but that “save the time of the user” was now the most important. In Ranganathan’s time, one of the most pressing issues facing librarians was getting books out of closed stacks and into the hands of patrons. Thus, his first law, “Books are for use.” In the 85 years since he first proposed his laws, most libraries have moved well beyond that issue. Today’s dilemma for librarians isn’t about how to “free the library’s books.” It’s about how to “free our users’ time.”

We also need to remember that convenience isn’t one-size-fits all, or even one-time-fits-all. Our users are becoming accustomed to having multiple choices for what’s convenient. Think of watching Netflix on your TV or laptop or smartphone. We can choose to get the same information from many different sources as an email update, in a blog post, or by reading it on a website or within Facebook. Any definition of convenience has to be a moving target—always in flux.

Got to get me into your life

We’ve learned a lot during the last ten years. And we’ve collected that information in many reports, white papers and books. What I’d like to do, now, is take some key thoughts and findings from the OCLC Research “User Studies” theme and put them out there to get your ideas, experiences and reactions. In terms of any “life of the user” equation, librarians are the “users” of OCLC research, products and services.

I’ll post some thoughts here and, hopefully, get feedback from you.

The question for today is this: what have you done recently to save your users’ time? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtags #LibrariesInLife and #OCLCnext, which we’ll use to track these discussions as I post more from this theme.

I’ll see you out there.

You can watch Lynn discuss this subject further in her “Library in the Life of the User” video from the OCLC Research Update at ALA Midwinter 2016.