Library insights from users

Recently, Wheaton College announced several new initiatives to be funded by its next capital campaign. At the top of the list (at least, in my view) is a new or expanded library building. As someone who works in the library, that is an exciting prospect, even though it will be several years before any plans (and the funds for them) come to fruition.

I am on a campus committee charged with developing a firm proposal for this new/renovated facility, and part of our work this Fall will be to visit other library facilities within the U.S. to obtain ideas about what we might want to incorporate in our proposal. In addition, at the moment we are interviewing selected people from our main user categories: faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, to provide us with background information on their needs to build into our plan.

We’re not finished with this interviewing process yet, but today I spent some time reviewing the interview recordings that have been collected so far. They are quite interesting. One of the main themes I’ve observed so far from this input is the desire for a library space that is aesthetically inspiring for the long term (as one person put it, think ahead to 100 years from now); a place that promotes intellectual inquiry; a welcoming place in which users want to spend their time. One person noted the example of banks as historically being places that express certain values and aims through their architecture; surely we can do the same with a library facility? Another person spoke eloquently of having a light-flooded space with inspirational touches such as portraits of famous authors or poets. Thinking of library spaces as inspirational will, I think, be a very important component to whatever we propose.

Another theme is the importance of resource access, and while that’s not surprising, what struck me is the firm desire for and commitment to physical resources. Online resources are also important, but in the context of talking about a new and expensive building project, user commitment to access to physical resources is highly significant. One person, when asked to compare ebooks to print books, said that ebooks have their benefits, particularly for searching for a particular passage. But this same person believes that ebooks are usually not read in their entirety, and notes that this is highly detrimental for the way in which scholarship is conducted.

It is encouraging to listen to this input, and I think it will play a significant role in defining and shaping our proposal. Although we regularly survey our users and pay careful attention to those survey results, this process makes me think it’d be desirable to do focus group interviews on a regular basis in addition to surveys. There is a rich amount of information that can be gleaned from spending 30 minutes face-to-face with a library user that cannot be as readily obtained in a survey response.

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