Norman Doors & More: Notes on ALA 2017

I went to the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago two weeks ago. Got to meet up with old colleagues, collect some sweet pens, and hear some interesting speakers, including the godfather of Hamilton, Ron Chernow. But most enriching were the sessions I attended. Here are some notes from the ones that enlightened me the most.

The Intentional Library: Creating A Better User Experience With Service Design And Design Thinking

Presenters: Joe Marquez, Annie Downey, Julka Almquist, Juliana Culbert

This session got me thinking about how to look at our library space as if I were a tourist seeing it for the first time. Would our service design make sense to them? If we aren’t intentionally seeking feedback from patrons and staff about how we can meet people’s needs and eliminate patrons’ “pain points”, then we’re not serving our patrons well.

Another key takeaway was that from a patron’s perspective, everyone who works in the library is a librarian; they don’t understand the professional distinctions. So regardless of job title, all staff should understand the library as a whole and be ready to serve the patron with good customer service skills.


  • “If the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, the designer has failed.” -Henry Dreyfuss
  • If seeking to implement new design, follow the process: empathize → define → ideate → prototype → test → implement
  • need fresh eyes on space and processes, like a tourist
  • there are differences between what people say, do, think, and feel
  • discover people’s needs and pain-points, and create solutions to those so users can get what they want
  • educate colleagues on user experience (UX) and what it looks like to put into practice
  • questions to consider:
    • what is the audience?
    • what is the goal, call to action for users?
    • what is the timeline?
  • mindset to have:
    • everyone is a designer
    • embrace failure
    • people are at the center
  • prototyping builds confidence and saves money
  • Inherited ecology: older things and systems that haven’t changed but should, need new eyes
  • libraries are “tightly coupled” system, so changes affect everyone
  • from patron’s perspective, everyone is a librarian; all staff should know library as a whole
  • understand needs and expectations of patrons: these are often unexpressed
  • everything is a service
  • establish reasonable duration and tempo for patron services
  • accessibility: a range of behaviors are available to patrons
  • ask patrons: what problems do libraries solve? why are we important?


What Do You Need to Know? Learning and Knowing and Libraries in the Age of the Internet

Daniel Russell is Google’s Über Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness and he studies “how groups of people think about, understand, and use the technology of information.” He expanded on the concept of informacy, or the literacy of information, which requires a deep knowledge of information as a domain and knowing how to work well within it. Three things he said librarians ought to know were: 1) what’s possible to find online, 2) what search capabilities allow you to find them, and 3) what do you need to know to be able to do this? Pairing these skills with curiosity and a skeptical eye will help librarians make the shift in mindset from things that used to be impossible to find to what’s now expected to be provided instantaneously.


  • Russell is a software engineer, research scientist, and a self-described “cyber-tribal-techno-cognitive-anthropologist” who studies “how groups of people think about, understand, and use the technology of information”
  • literacy: the ability to read and write in a symbol system and assumed, associated body of knowledge; defined with regard to a cultural group
  • “Pear Republic” hoax on Snopes is an example of the “false authority” fallacy
  • Need to perceive knowledge gap
    • skills of how to look things up
    • attitude of curiosity
  • Things librarians ought to know:
    • What’s possible to find online
    • What search capabilities allow you to find them
    • What do you need to know to be able to do this?
  • example of finding location of a photo using EXIF metadata (EXIF Metadata Viewer) and Google Maps
  • intuition/understanding of what and how often you do something is unreliable
  • informacy (like numeracy): the literacy of information
    • deeply knowledgeable about information as a domain, and knowing how to use and interact with it
  • Ctrl-F not used by 90% computer users: why?
  • Examples of untrustworthy sources on the internet:
    • fake author “Lambert Surhone” on Amazon
    • Clonezone
    • Italian Wikipedia article for Leonardo da Vinci much longer than English one: which one is better?
  • need to shift thinking from impossible to instantaneous
  • how to convert attitude from complaining to seeking out answers?
  • Social metacognition strategy of using “contact list intelligence”: know people who know things you don’t
  • “When in doubt, search it out”
  • “knowledge exists outside of yourself”
  • Three keys:
    • learn how to ask questions
    • know who can answer questions
    • know what tools are out there

Better Service than Amazon and Nordstrom: Secrets to How It’s Done

Presenters: Jane Martel, Linda Speas, Caroline Heinselman

This was presented by staff from the Arapahoe Library in Colorado, which gets very high marks in customer service rankings, even compared to popular companies like Amazon and Apple. I gathered there were 3 aspects of their customer service success. One was creating “exceptional experiences” for patrons that “surprise and delight” them and turn what would otherwise have been a good but standard library experience into great ones that they might tell their non-library-using friends about. Another was finding ways to “say yes” and avoid saying no in customer service situations, and documenting the times you have to “say no” so that you can pinpoint problems and get to yes. Another was rigorously training and supporting staff, not only in how to provide great customer service but also by allowing staff to feel fulfilled in their jobs by gathering positive stories of staff successes.


  • poor customer service acts as a barrier to access
  • library being essential vs. “nice to have”
  • what can we offer to bring in more non-users? Nothing to convince them to come.
  • who are we at our best?
  • get users to “tell a friend” via word of mouth; create exceptional experiences they will want to tell about — ”surprise & delight”
  • specifically ask people to tell their friends/family about good library experiences
  • find ways to say yes and avoid saying no
  • hire for people skills over library skills: harder to teach
  • train and support staff: CS training for all
  • Process: greet warmly and smile, introduce yourself, have good small talk, offer assistance in “let’s find out” attitude, say thank you, make known they aren’t interrupting
  • have someone intentionally look at birds-eye view of CS
  • have staff submit positive stories: recognition/morale, training examples, board (Desk Tracker or Google Form?)
  • new hires: welcome bag, lunch, etc.
  • October 3 Customer Experience Day
  • Tips for improving CS:
    • No log or Sorry/Thanks log to chart when have to say no and spot pain points
    • annual CS survey for patrons: look for things that either can be solved or are repeated
    • online anonymous comment form
  • staff see much more than patrons do

Desegregating Public Libraries: The Tougaloo Nine

Presenters: Michael Crowell, Geraldine Edwards Hollis, Susan Brown

This session was less about modern library practices and more about how past ones have failed patrons. Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of the Tougaloo Nine, a group of students in Mississippi who did a “study-in” at their local segregated library and were arrested. Hollis told the story of the experience, which I’d never heard about until then. The session was a good opportunity to consider potential blind spots we have in current library services and honor those who risked their livelihoods to challenge them in the past.


  • Hollis: a voracious reader
  • During this session was the first time Hollis had seen footage of the study-in and her arrest since it happened
  • Hollis: they didn’t want to just do lunch counter sit-ins or something mediocre: they did a library because libraries and reading mattered
  • Group started with 50 students interested, but once possibility of beatings, jailing, or even death was made clear, only 16 remained interested
    • many had parents who worked for state and schools, so those who remained had the least at stake
    • 16 total involved: 9 in the library, the rest on lookout
  • parents didn’t know until a few hours before
  • Hollis made her own clothes, was very meticulous; “I made sure I was well padded” for jail with lots of layers
  • Hollis: we were told all their lives we didn’t belong, but what what we were showing was “we belong where we want to be”
  • Read more: Wayne Wiegand’s Desegregating Libraries in the American South and the new journal Libraries: Culture, History & Society

Asking for a Friend: Tough Questions (and Honest Answers) about Organizational Culture

Presenters: Susan Brown, Richard Kong, Megan Egbert, Christopher Warren

This panel was comprised of one middle manager and three library directors, all of whom had taken over from long-serving directors and embarked on an overhaul of their organizational structure and culture. It was largely Q&A, with librarians voicing a variety of frustrations with their management, office politics, and other challenges that can pop up in the library environment. Key takeaways include: managers need to remember that some people view change as loss, and creating change means accountability combined with compassion.


  • organizational culture is something you can hope will change, or be intentional about it
  • moving people to different offices was “worst thing ever” (Kong)
  • can’t reshape OC alone: need evangelists
  • OC defined by worst behavior that manager allows
  • counter toxic culture with emphasis on serving patrons
  • accountability + compassion to create change
  • communicate a lot, but also hold people accountable to consuming it and responding; if there are complaints of communication lack, look for what’s underneath
  • find ways to help people contribute to positive culture
  • trust: say you’ll do something, then do it — performance tied to trust
  • directors/managers should give time to allow feedback, but once decision is made staff should follow it; everyone gets a voice, but not a vote
  • re: siloing, Kong resists designating one authority figure or chain: wants people and departments to talk to each other
  • mixed departments on project teams and interviews
  • “what’s broken, what’s the rumor” at meetings
  • Junior Librarian program to mentor high schoolers and get non-traditional people in LIS
  • technical change vs. adaptive change (mindset)
  • some view change as loss


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