25 Jul 2012

Are we talking to ourselves?

Users. Customers. Patrons. Clients. Subtle yet crucial semantic differences exist between these terms, yet they are often used interchangeably (I will reserve that discussion for a future blog post however :)). Regardless of such technicalities, the fact remains that library services generally aim to be user-centred, informed by patron needs, and responsive to the feedback and changing preferences of our customers. In theory, this of course is a good thing. However, sometimes I wonder if, in the rush to gather student feedback and to ask faculty or staff about their requirements, we spend enough time focussing on our non-users?

The unanswered emails, empty seats and poor survey response rates are frustrating for any librarian, but the silver lining of such obstacles is that perhaps they offer one of the most valuable channels for potential service improvement. Often those who are already frequent or heavy library users and engaged with library services are reasonably happy with the level and quality of service delivery and clearly some, if not all, of their information needs are being met or supported. Otherwise they would not continue to use the service. The feedback we get from these individuals is obviously still of great value and serves as an important mechanism for monitoring performance, particularly as it is arguably one of the most easily obtainable sources in this respect.

But what about the so-called disengaged? That is, those who obviously feel that the library offers nothing of real or unique value to them, or those who aren't easily reached through our existing communication channels.  How exactly we can target the seemingly untargetable is clearly not straightforward, and most likely a complex matter that which requires an innovative and creative approach. What is clear however, is that out current services and channels are obviously failing to engage these individuals, and so we must do something different. What can we offer to turn the non-users into users? Where can we create additional value to attract new customers? In the same way that a start-up targets a gap in the market - a latent need that is not being met - libraries must adopt a similar perspective. That is not to say that libraries have to expand outside their core functions and strategic objectives, but there is often still significant scope to reach these goals by using new approaches, marketing and mechanisms which may help to draw in these users, or at the very least heighten awareness.

So perhaps the question should not just be what do our users want, but also what do our non-users want?

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