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Book Review: Creating the Customer-Driven Academic Library

Creating the Customer-Driven Academic Library, by Jeannette A. Woodward

I think I’ve mentioned that I asked my Web Team to read Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think together. We talked about a different pair of chapters at each meeting until we were through the book. And I’ve heard that another group on campus, also working on a website, is taking a similar approach! That made me happy.

Another group within the library is also reading a book more or less together, though I think we’re just each individually reading the whole book as we get to it. The book is Creating the Customer-Driven Academic Library, by Jeannette Woodward. I finally got to it, over the course of the last week or so. With the exception of about half an hour between my work and reference (those of you who have read the book, see what I did there?), while eating a snack in the library’s coffee shop (bam!), my reading has been entirely on my own time, on top of an already busy work week, which I acknowledge might make me a little less receptive to some of her points. I found myself really slogging through the last part of it, today, honestly. I just wanted to be done.

Which brings me to my first point: it’s a little bit repetitive. I feel like this book could have been much shorter. Maybe, because I’ve already bought into the idea of trying to see my library through its users’/patrons’/customers’ eyes, I didn’t need the same kind of cajoling that others might need. But I’m not convinced the repetition would even be that effective in convincing someone who hadn’t bought in. It just should have been edited down in length.

OR, perhaps (after the repetition was removed) it could have been expanded to include the library’s digital face, at least a little bit. The author makes it very clear that that isn’t her goal, but I think she’s setting up a false and potentially damaging boundary. I think, by minimizing her readers’ focus on the library’s web presence, she’s ignoring an opportunity to benefit library users, for instance by making terminology and signage match up better, between the physical and virtual. Furthermore, even the most effective libraries she points to in her book get more online visitors than in-person visitors per day, and an off-putting web presence certainly won’t bring students through the door!

OK, my biases on that front are clear; no need to harp. Except I do feel compelled to add, her point about not overwhelming students/customers with information in the lobby—give them just what they need to get to the next place they want to go, at the outset (p. 74)—is well made and would easily fit in a discussion of front page design, or segue into a discussion of an academic library’s virtual offerings.

Last down-side, before I get to the positives: I had a vague feeling of the book being the tiniest bit outdated, as I was reading, but I think that may be unfair; it was published in 2009, after all, and academia seems to be undergoing massive and rapid change right now. I assume that if she wrote the book today, she wouldn’t insist that every freshman researcher needs Boolean logic right away, or that an embedded librarian would need a shelf of ready-reference books.

All of this said, it isn’t as though I didn’t get anything out of the book. If nothing else, I had no idea that “it was once standard library practice to interfile last names beginning with ‘Mc’ with ‘Mac’ in catalogs and indices” (p. 67). I could digress into discussing how, customers aside, more experienced librarians might not even be aware of what their newer colleagues don’t know, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

Woodward and I agree, firmly, on the idea of making different spaces in the library suit different needs, have different furniture, and offer different ambiances. I forget her term for that, but I have used the term “microclimates,” when making a pitch to do this, to the rest of my library’s staff and faculty. It’s something that the University of Virginia’s main library did really well, when I was a student, and I think our library could very easily adjust to do the same. We already do, a little bit.

Also, although this would definitely be controversial where I work—and maybe most places—I found myself nodding vigorously when reading that staffing reference from all library departments isn’t necessarily a good move; “all librarians are not natural reference librarians, and real expertise is needed to be truly effective” (123). A recurring theme in my career—and in this I include my work as an engineer, not just as a librarian—is that “every Marine a rifleman” is a terrible model. People’s strengths should be emphasized, in their work assignments. Or, actually, let me rephrase that, because I believe the organization’s needs trump the individual’s: people should be able to specialize, with an overall eye to what is needed within the organization, and every effort should be made to let them specialize where their strengths lie.

I’m going to use my own job as an example (because, hey, that’s what I know): At four hours a week (plus 8-10 hours of weekend shifts per semester), I will never be a great reference librarian. And you know what? I wasn’t hired to be a great reference librarian; I was hired to be a great web librarian, which absolutely is within my reach, though my reference hours do take away from that a little bit. As do my collection development hours (and the hours I spent reading this book, instead of a book on content strategy). Which isn’t to say that I resent or dislike reference or CD work in and of themselves—I just don’t like knowing that I’m providing less than great service to our patrons, which is necessarily what happens when you put someone on something part-time. I am already working hard to become great at all of the many aspects of being a web librarian—knowing about web best practices; knowing how to do usability testing; knowing how to design; knowing how to write and manage written content on the web; knowing about information architecture; knowing how to code; knowing how to talk to my colleagues about web best practices, design, writing for the web, and usability; knowing how to maintain an effective social media presence; and knowing the ins and outs of the various web-based software I support—and, to be totally honest, there’s nowhere for me to pull the time from, to also learn how to be great at reference and great at collection development, as much as I would like to. I am far more effectively helping our users when I’m making our website better than when I’m sitting at a desk or buying books. I guess I should say, I’m not that bad at reference or buying engineering books—if the organization suddenly decided that our web presence wasn’t important, and I need not spend time on that, then, sure, I absolutely have the capacity to become a great reference librarian or a great classroom instructor or a great collection developer—or probably a combination of those three. I just can’t get good at all of that, on top of (with apologies to Ms. Woodward) my real job, at least not within a reasonable timeframe.

Here’s a list of things I’d love to see us implement in my library, ASAP:

  • Popular fiction/leisure reading area (90)
  • Japanese garden (99)
  • Circulating digital cameras (101)
  • Computer workshops for nontraditional students (104)

Two other points, and then I’m done: First off, I liked the section on marketing—especially having a list of deadlines for all of the possible venues for publicity. I’ll steal that for MPOW’s marketing plan, when I get around to working on that, assuming nobody else gets to it first. (If someone else does get there first, great; I’ll check to be sure that such a list is in their document!)

And, finally, I think she summarizes the biggest problem in all libraries, academic or otherwise, with the following quote: “What seems to be the problem is that sometimes individual librarians establish goals and set priorities that are separate from and possibly in conflict with the library’s goals and priorities” (p. 26). We should all be working toward a common vision, or set of goals, or whatever you want to call it. And, too often, I think we aren’t. Our organizations must be effective for our users, and sometimes that means each of us must put down that pet project, stop doing things the way they’ve always been done, and really try to look at what our users want and need from us, rather than what we most feel like doing. That was the main value of this book, in my opinion—reminding people of that.

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