A Start on Getting at Services Our Users Want

“We need to understand how they do research, how they use our current resources, why some of them don’t use the library, and what they want from the library that they’re not currently getting.” ~ Meredith Farkas, from “What Do They Really Need?”, posted in her blog, Information Wants To Be Free, December 13, 2010.

“Librarianship is a people profession.” ~ Emma Cragg and Katie Birkwood, from “Beyond Books: What It Takes to Be a 21st-Century Librarian,” in The Guardian, January 31, 2011.

At Penn State Libraries, we’ve been busy working with Digital Library Technologies (a division of the University’s Information Technology Services) on developing a repository services platform, which we aim to have in production in fall 2012. For this platform we are leveraging existing technology and infrastructure that’s been developed and shared through the Hydra and Fedora communities. (You can find out more about the Libraries’ program of repository service projects here.) As we do this, we are engaging our liaison librarians to help us determine what our users want. Liaison librarians work directly with faculty and students. They respond to research inquiries through a variety of venues, striving to be where their users are. Liaison librarians are our lifeline to faculty and students – whom we all serve.

In the last few years, moreover, we in Scholarly Communications Services and Digital Curation Services have been consulting with our librarian colleagues and their faculty on a range of service inquiries. The following are a few examples of what we’ve discussed in these consultations: 

  • the publication of grey literature (including faculty papers and reports and various types of student research)
  • services for developing dynamic bibliographies and indexes that leverage aspects of social networking activities (such as crowdsourcing the addition and verification of entries)
  • the need for thematic portal environments to enable sharing of research and teaching materials
  • services for preserving and making available collected oral histories that are products of faculty research
  • web archiving services
  • services for managing, and providing access to, data sets generated from research in a range of disciplines

In other words, our faculty and students have been telling us “what they want from the library that they’re not currently getting.”

For this reason we are keen to create services people want. We invited 27 librarians to serve as stakeholders for the platform project, and 21 24 accepted.* We have representation from arts and humanities, business, communications, computer science, digitization and preservation, earth and mineral sciences, education, engineering, geospatial information services, information science, life sciences, physical and mathematical sciences, social sciences, and special collections and archives. While currently our stakeholders are all based at University Park, Penn State’s main campus, we intend to engage our colleagues at the campus libraries, particularly as test users are needed to try out iterations of the platform. We also view this set of stakeholders as an initial layer of users. In time we will ask stakeholders, including campus librarians, to recruit faculty and students, our core users, to help test the platform prior to its release in fall 2012.

What else are we asking of our stakeholders? We have asked that they attend a weekly meeting (to which they can send an alternate in their stead, as conflicts arise) to provide feedback on iterations of the platform. We already have screen shots of interfaces, provided by a web designer we’ve contracted with, as launch points for discussion. 

In addition, we’ve asked stakeholders to provide use cases, or user scenarios, in order to kick off a series of conversations about services. (Some of these are sketched out in the bulleted list above.) Our developers have a features list, divided into the categories “Must Have,” “Should Have,” and “Could Have,” to which we are mapping aspects of these use cases and beginning to discern commonalities across them. In addition, we have a “Features Wish List,” where we are documenting additional features that arise in these discussions. We may not be able to fulfill all stakeholder requests with this year’s release of the platform, but they will all be documented nonetheless to inform future services development. 

Also, our applications team lead, digital library architect, sys admin, metadata librarian, digital collections curator, and project manager are in the same room as our stakeholders – listening to them, asking questions, taking notes. This is something we’ve had success doing before. Take a look at the poster we presented at Open Repositories 2011, in which we described building a community of practice during an earlier prototyping project.

As our project progresses, we’ll use future posts to report on other aspects of services development, such as tiered services (how do we define a tier of service?); levels of access (what are our users’ basic expectations for access to online content?); and content strategy issues. 

Our initial stakeholder conversations have been invaluable. Each of us is learning what is important to the other in his or her role in the Libraries – i.e., what is at stake for each of us in this project. But what is most crucial: we’re learning what faculty and students want, and we’re learning more about their research practices. This common understanding bodes well for developing the services they need, and that they will use.

*Since the initial publication of this blog post, we have received confirmation from three additional librarians who were invited that they’ll be joining the stakeholders group!

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  1. Pingback: Open-source library software and the imagined user | Gavia Libraria

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