User experience in public and academic libraries


User experience treasure map © Peter Morville


A couple of recent events got me thinking about differences and similarities of public and academic libraries in the digital age. I used to think that current and future digital developments would in the end result in public and academic libraries moving closer to each other, but now I’m not so sure anymore. Let me explain how this happened.

On April 1st I attended the UgameUlearn 2010 symposium organised by Delft University Library and DOK, “The library Concept Center“, a public library. Two of the speakers there were David Lee King, Digital Branch & Services Manager at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, and Michael Stephens, Assistant Professor Library and Information Science at Dominican University. Have a look at David’s and Michael’s slides.
A week before that I had the opportunity to see Helene Blowers speak at DB Update 2010 about “Reality check 2.010 – 5 trends shaping libraries“. She is Digital Strategy Director for the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the inventor of 23 Things. Also John Blyberg was there, Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience of Darien Library, another well known innovative public library. He presented SOPAC, “the Social OPAC”.

© UgameUlearn – Geert van den Boogaard

The central topic of the presentations of these four people, all working for, or mainly dealing with, public libraries, was and is “connecting with the public“, both in material and digital ways: by creating inviting, welcoming and collaborative spaces, both in physical library locations and online.
What particularly hit me was the fact that David Lee King’s official title is “digital branch manager“, meaning that the library’s online activities, or web presence, constitute just another branch beside and equal to the physical branch locations, which has to be managed as one front office in a coherent way.

Judging by all four people’s job descriptions and presentations, public libraries appear to be very much involved in improving user experience (UX) and web presence. How is this in academic libraries? I think it’s different. I started to think that university and public libraries are moving in different directions the day before UgameUlearn, when I participated in the final session of a brainstorming and discussion track about the future of the library, more particularly of the Library of the University of Amsterdam, the institution I work for. Some of our conclusions are:

  • 90% of the university library’s material will be digital
  • Physical library buildings will disappear
  • Library tasks and services will be more closely tied to the university’s core business, education and research.

Only the Heritage and Special Collections departments will still have lots of physical books, journals and other objects, and become a separate museum-like entity. I think they should have a look at Michael Edson‘s UgameUlearn slides about the efforts that are being done at the Smithsonian Institute to engage their audience.

The “digital branch” concept was not identified as a separate development in the future of the library discussion, probably because effectively we will see separate branches developing per subject area. Currently, at the Library of the University of Amsterdam, managing the Library’s web presence is the shared responsibility of the three main central divisions: Acquisition and Metadata Services, Public Services and Electronic Services, and a number of Faculty/Departmental Libraries. Still, the digital branch idea is an interesting concept to investigate, at least for the short term. But at university libraries a digital branch should extend its tasks beyond user experience alone.

Anyway, the day after UgameUlearn Helene Blowers, David Lee King and Michael Stephens were guests in the live stream show “This week in libraries”, organised by Jaap van de Geer and Erik Boekesteijn, both DOK, and also two of the four UgameUlearn organisers.

I took my chance and asked them the question: “What should a digital branch in an academic library look like? Different from public library?” If you’re interested, you will find the question and answers towards the very end of the stream.
Helene, David and Michael agreed more or less that there probably isn’t much difference, that you should ask your community what they want, and that, just like with public libraries, every community has different needs. A clear distinction is that in universities there are three groups of customers: students, faculty and staff, with somewhat different needs. University libraries should at least support the learning process, for instance by creating spaces for collaboration.

Since then I had the chance of giving this some more thought, and I came to the conclusion that there are probably more differences than similarities between public and academic libraries. Not in the least because Aad Janson of the Peace Palace Library commented (in Dutch) that their library is an academic library too but without students and scientists. This made me realise that there are several different types of libraries, distinguished by a number of important characteristics (audience, subscription, collection type, funding) that influence their position in digital developments. I have tried to compose a, definitely not complete, summary of these library types in a table. I guess the Peace Palace Library would qualify as a “research/scientific library” in this classification scheme.

Library type
local community voluntary local, mostly physical subscriptions, public (local)
national, global voluntary national physical + digital public (national)
specific professions, students voluntary local physical, remote digital pubic, private
Museums/archives global community voluntary local physical + digital public, private
Special explicitly defined voluntary, automatic local physical + digital public, private
staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital private
Governmental bodies
staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital public
International organisations
staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital public, private
University/higher education students, faculty, staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital public, private

I presume that libraries that are dependent on voluntary subscriptions, like public and research/scientific libraries, will put more effort into improving “user experience”. This will be reinforced if the library’s collection is not a unique selling point, and funding is partly based on patron fees. Public libraries have to compete for customers (and not with their collections) and at the same time satisfy local city councils.


On the other end of the scale we see university libraries that get there customers “into the bargain”, customers who need their affiliation to get access to restricted databases and e-journal articles. Contrary to public libraries, the collections of university/higher education libraries consist of more than the local catalogue: numerous local and remote repositories, databases, e-journals, etc. Consequently, these libraries will put relatively more effort into consolidating and linking all these databases, especially when they have the technical staff to do so. The contributions by academic libraries, and also some national and museum libraries, to linked data and mashup developments for instance seem to confirm this.

Libraries between these two extremes will probably merge both approaches in various ways, depending on the actual mix of audience, subscription, collection and funding type.

This is not to say that academic libraries are not interested in improving user experience at all. But it’s just different. Unlike public libraries, academic libraries don’t have to attract new customers with staff recommendations, themes of the month, etc., because students, teachers and researchers each have their own fairly well described subject areas. They just have to provide them with the right finding aids. And these finding aids do not necessarily have to be provided by the libraries themselves, as long as they do offer their patrons efficient delivery mechanisms.

Of course all types of libraries can learn and benefit from each other’s work and even cooperate. After all, good data structures and relations are indispensable for an optimal user experience.

5 thoughts on “User experience in public and academic libraries

  1. As you I went to both meetings, and what struk me afterwards (also due to a discussion with Esther) was that our University library meeting was more focused on what we as a library wouldnt have anymore (paper, buildings..), while the focus of Ugame Ulearn was more about the amazing things you can do to assist/help/inspire your customers and the passion the speakers had for their line of work. Dont know why that happened..

    Also, I know we are very different (public lib vs univ. lib) but i think what we have in common is that we both should focus on customers. We can learn from the public libraries since their job is slightly harder when it comes to attracting and keeping customers. We get them, AND know exactly who they are and what they do (well..what they study anyway) we are lucky that way but that doesnt mean we should stop working for them (not that we’ve stopped, I still feel that we have great people doing great things at the UvA library)

  2. Do you know any library that is both academic and public?

    I’m a director of academic library in Israel that spouse to combine the public library inside the academic one,
    and I’m looking for other library like

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