Sunday, October 16, 2005

Gonzo Librarianship:
Understanding Users By Experiencing the User's Perspective

In the I-World, librarians, particularly librarians who've joined the profession in the last decade, have been trained to examine the information-seeking behavior of users as a means to meet their ever-changing information needs.

For those who've lived under a rock for the past few decades, libraries are no longer about simply providing patrons with the latest trade paperbacks or research materials. Libraries are expected to serve as the community cultural centers, to provide access to not only books but the World Wide Web, audiovisual materials, children's materials, archival material, and the like. Libraries are increasingly called upon to provide space for informal learning opportunities as well - places like study rooms, public meeting rooms, coffee shops, etc.

I'll skip the rest of the professional mumbo-jumbo for now. The point here is libraries and librarians must continously reevaluate services and products to gaurantee they're meeting the changing needs of their users.

While many academic and public librarians advocate the adoption of often complex surveying methods to conduct user needs analysis, most libbies have little or no time to actually conduct such research. The professional literature is full of examples of years-long research and analysis articles, some of which provide very valuable insight into the world of Joe-Sixpack and his reading habits. Others, however, often leave the reader scratching their heads, wondering how much free time the research authors had on their hands or asking "damn, getting tenure at XYZ University must be easy."

While such methodology is indeed valuable in the hands of the right iCowboys, I prefer a more personal, immediate approach to understanding the research behavior of my patrons. Since librarians also have this nasty habit of citing the most obscure scholars as inspiration for their methods, I'll add mine here...

Hunter S. Thompson.

Like the great Doctor Gonzo, I don't want to simply understand what users want or expect by writing boring articles about it. I want to feel what they feel, to put myself in their shoes and to walk the untold miles. When I need to answer a question, say, about what patrons think about my institution, I simply go to where the patrons go when they're not in the library. It can be a bar or a houseparty on the weekends. It can be a club meeting or a concert. And it can be at a nightclub, dancing wih a girl and asking where she likes to study or why she uses libraries.

I know there are a lot of libbies who still buy into the "library science" crap. The science part is often trivial and watered down, a weak sister version of the more vital field of information science. (Information science, for those non-iPros, is in its simplest form the study of the asking and answering of questions. It is the field of study where intelligence-gathering, espionage, librarianship, computer science, psychology, and anthropology meet on equal ground to understand the human quest for more knowledge.)

While Information Science provides me with the meat-and-potatoes hardcore research, I treat librarianship like a fine art, inspired by that area of scholarship. Librarians are not researchers, we're artists, painting our masterworks in the bright Technicolor of the Information Age. Librarianship is just as sensual and seductive as any D.H. Lawrence novel or Miles Davis recording. Properly harnessed, I believe libraries can expose as much passion and subsequent orgasmic energy in populations as an all-night dance club or a Mardi Gras ball. And I think, though many of my colleagues may disagree, being a librarian sometimes feels just as damn sexy and smooth as a Grey Goose martini at a blues concert.

Librarianship is not about hard science. Librarianship, for me, is about the calming of nerves, the conveying of firm confidence and reassurance, the negotiation of a question to get the simplest answer. There should be lots of eye contact with patrons. There should be smiles and even laughter. And there should, above all, be a since of fulfillment by all parties involved.

So, to better understand what my clients need from me and my library, I go to where they live. I meet them as an equal about town to meet them on more level ground in the office. I don't want to have to rely on often boring and complex research as my sole source of user needs analysis.

Rest in peace, Hunter. And thanks for your contribution to my professional training. Makes for some interesting information literacy training sessions...


Anonymous said...

You are obviously a young librarian and your youthful energy is wonderful. But is associating with your users the best use of your time and skill as a librarian? What good does dancing with a girl do? It gives you no hard data with which to work, no possibility for seeking grant funding from various agencies, and diminishes the credibility of the profession as a whole.

As for the sensuality of librarianship, I'm again not sure why this is an important element of user needs analysis. My concern is that you may be feeding into some of the more negative aspects of our profession.

A Fellow Librarian

Lupe said...

Nice! Libraries are damn sexy! I know absolutely nothing about tha information behavior stuff, but I know I just got all hot and bothered finishing my paper for my history class in a library ;-) I see nothing wrong with adding some sensuality to research.

Morro Bay Wake Girl said...

That's so cool! the librarians i know all like want to tell me what books to read andlook at me funny because of my piercings...

The ZenFo Pro said...

Fellow Lib:
Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your candor. But I think associating with users is just about the best way to actually understand at least a bit of their prospective. Dancing with someone is merely a way to get some answers and also have a bit of fun while doing it. As for grant funding, I'm not seeking it. This isn't about gathering data on a massive scale. I'm very well aware that research requires more than just fun. And what, per se, is negative about sensuality in librarianship?

Thanks. Glad you finished your paper. Sounds like an exciting time ;).

Hey, thanks for stopping by. Sorry you've had some negative experiences at your library...I know librarians with piercings who get the same looks from patrons ;)

Leigh said...

Libraries often have a unique energy about them. I love just sitting down and reading a magazine or book and passing the time in a library. I have noticed the variety of services now being offered at public libs and I think it's move, because it provides the community with a one-stop shop for resources (internet, meeting spaces, and most importantly, information-via www, newspaper, or books). What a great professon you have!

Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

That was a great write if not to be a sensual librarianship to what end I say.

Phallicus said...

Wow, and I thought blogs were vapid and shallow. I look forward to reading more of you.