Who are your users?

July 17, 2006

[Hey! I made the ever expanding list of libr* blogs over at LibraryStuff!]

Who are your users?

No, I’m not kidding. I’m sick of decisions being made without (as near as I can tell) any sort of data driving them.

Let’s do a little exercise.

  • Think about everyone who uses your library resources.
  • Now eliminate all the people who never walk into the library.
  • Get rid of all the people who made it into the library, but didn’t talk to a library employee.
  • Cut out all the people who came into the library and talked to a library employee, but that employee was a student worker of some sort and not an actual librarian.

OK. NOW tell me how much sense it makes to have the public services librarians be the sole voice for “the users” when making decisions. For most of us in university libraries, the vast majority of our patrons never make it in the door. If they do, it’s usually just to pick something up, or use a public computer or something. It’s not hard to do the math. If you look at how many people are on campus, how many librarians are on duty at any given time, how much time you spend on average with a patron…it’s pretty easy to see that a tiny, tiny percentage of patrons are being represented when we just ask the public service librarians what they think “the users” would like.

Let’s play again:

  • Think of all the undergraduates you know and how much they vary.
  • Think of all the grad students you know and how much they vary.
  • Think of all the faculty members you know and how much they vary.

Now tell me why people insist on talking about library patrons in terms of categories used by the registrar.All grad students are not the same. All undergrads are certainly not the same. Faculty members vary wildly from each other, and when people step (even slightly) outside of their fields of expertise, things change completely. So don’t treat them as if they’re homogeneous groups! In fact, lose the labels entirely — they just confuse things, unless your only concern is how long they can check out a book for.

So…what’s a camel to do?

At least take the first step, which is to admit you have a problem.

After that, it’s a hard question. You can hire someone to systematize research on users. You can create annual surveys and things (provided through many channels) to see what’s what. You can, at the very least, really learn how to use the statistics being generated by your many systems.

Anyone out there with thoughts on this?

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Should web “conferences” be free?

April 29, 2006

Yes. And no.

A post at the ACRLog explores the issues of cost and conferences — in particular, web conferences.

“Free” is a bit much. The problem with offering something for free (or even really, really cheap) is that a lot of people will sign up and not come, and you’re left with a big bill for unused infrastructure based on bad numbers. This helps no one.

On the other hand — and this is the important point, I think — I don’t know anyone who considers going to a conference an excellent opportunity to donate money to the organization. Only the organizers think of a conference as a money-maker. For the rest of us, a conference is a money-sink.

I’m of the firm opinion that:

  • Conferences should strive as much as possible to break even
  • Anything that needs funding should be funded through dues increases, which provides for a much better mechanism through which ROI can be analyzed.

Obviously, nothing is this cut-and-dried. Profit-making conferences are the toll-roads of the professional world: those that make the most use of the resources pay more. That’s fair, in its own way, but it’s essentially a regressive tax and hence should be avoided.

I can postulate two ways in which this would hurt a conference. First, the obvious: a percentage of your population can’t afford to come. If you’re not concerned about losing the input of that group, well, you’ve got no business running an organization. You can’t lose money on everything, of course, and I know everyone believes they’re cognizant of financial issues, but I think a lot of organizers aren’t aware of how much that extra $100 is to a lot of people.

The second is a concern about presentation quality and the pressure to get butts in seats. I’ve seen conferences where I really, honestly wondered whether many of the papers/poster were accepted simply because it more or less guarantees that the presenters will show up.

The primary goal of a conference has to be to help disseminate information and provide professional contacts. Secondary goals should be just that — secondary.