"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

May 24, 2009

Imperfect iterations

I'm catching up on my professional reading this summer -- ALA materials come to my home (my parents' house), not my school address, so I had a 3" stack of magazines when I got back. Which is why I was reading the January/February 2009 American Libraries just a few days ago.

The article "Working in Beta: LibraryWeb Labs Let Users Shape Service" caught my eye. My personal philosophy of library work includes an emphasis on user participation as a way of increasing patron involvement with and investment in other aspects of the library, so I liked this article. Not only would I expect these kinds of online "labs" where libraries test new web services to help participating users feel greater ownership in the library, but it helps the libraries to make sure that their services really do respond to user needs.*

But what I found most interesting was the article's opening:
"Something libraries have not been great at historically is experimenting in public," Ken Varnum, web systems manager at the University of Michigan Libraries,** told American Libraries, noting the urge to make services 'perfect' before release.
I suppose my first question is: is this assertion correct? I quite frankly don't have the experience to know yet. We hear so much about innovations by this or that library these days, and I never thought to pay much attention to whether the staff and management/administration had invented these innovations in a back room and planned them out in detail before implementation or whether they had, to borrow Mr. Varnum's phrase, experimented in public -- invited and encouraged patrons' feedback during the process, listened, changed things mid-course. Of course I don't mean to draw the dichotomy that that sounds like. I would hope any innovation would spring at some level from observation of patrons' needs and wants. But for me, "experimenting in public" means something more than just being aware of what patrons want, and perhaps making small changes in response to feedback post-implementation. Experimentation involves a much more uncontrolled process. You think you know what will happen if you do something, certainly, but fundamentally experimentation is a process of discovery. A library experimenting in public is one that has plans, but permits flexibility in new programming or services to shift rapidly in response to patron feedback and staff and administration/management observations of the effects and effectiveness of the program/service. When you experiment you find out what's really the right thing to do as you go along. You make mistakes. To make mistakes in public is a brave thing to do -- especially when half of your profession seems to be suffering a crisis of identity/relevance.

* Of course this has to be taken with a grain of salt, since the specter of representative sampling rears its head here. But as long as the feedback through these labs isn't considered the be all and end all of patron input, I imagine it could be quite useful.

** (woohoo!)

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