9 Nov 2015

Usability Versus Identification

We've made some changes at my library since I became Director in February:

  • We now have a single loan rule – everything in the library, whether it's a book, a DVD, or a ukulele, circulates for two weeks, can be renewed twice, and accrues fines at a rate of 10 cents per day, with a maximum overdue fine of $5.
  • Having a single loan rule means that we no longer have a non-circulating reference collection. The reference collection is now integrated in our normal non-fiction collection and circulates just like everything else in the building.
  • We now buy multiple copies of most items, and many copies of our most popular items. This reduces the time patrons have to wait before they are able to borrow the item they want and also helps to keep the shelves stocked with in-demand materials.
  • We plan our events a full year in advance, allowing us to print and hand out a paper schedule and notify patrons well in advance of events that might interest them.
  • We're moving from desktop computers to laptop computers, so patrons can use a computer wherever they want to in the library, whether that's at a table out in the open, in a private study room, with peers in a group study area, or in one of our big comfy chairs to watch movies.
  • We're about to launch a new website that is better organized and easier to use and matches the minimalist aesthetic of our physical space.

These changes have been successful – our numbers are up and feedback has been uniformly positive, from staff and public alike. I think the reason these changes have gone over so well is because they make the library easier to use. That's one of my constant priorities – ease of use. I think about usability whenever I consider a new project.

However, I did make a change at the library, even though I knew it would make the library a little harder to use. We now require patrons to present their library card if they want to borrow materials. We won't look patrons up and we won't let patrons check out without a card even if we know them by name. We're doing this to protect patron privacy, to prevent the misuse of cards, to ensure equal service for all, to prevent mistakes, and to comply with network regulations.

These are good reasons, good enough that I went forward with this policy change even though I knew that it would the library a little harder to use. But usability is a priority, so we took steps to mitigate the difficulty of this policy change:

  • We no longer charge for replacement cards, so if a patron has lost their card, we'll give them a new one for free.
  • We let patrons check out with their driver's license or state ID.
  • We let patrons check out using a free card management app like CardStar.
  • We started advertising the policy change two months before the policy went into effect.

Even with these steps, on a handful of occasions, we've had to turn people away because they didn't have any form of ID with them. This kind of situation leaves everyone involved unhappy. After this happened a few times, we changed our policy slightly. Now, the first time someone forgets their card, we look them up, let them check out, and add a note to their account saying “forgot card on <DATE>”. We tell them about the policy, show them the app, and let them know that if they forget their card again, we won't be able to check them out.

Whether or not this adjustment is the perfect solution, this situation is an example of tension between ideals (usability) and practice (the need for identification). This theory/practice tension shows up in libraries frequently. For example, a group of patrons might want to work together (and, in doing so, make some noise) in an area where other patrons want to work quietly. As a librarian, you want to accommodate both needs, but can't.

It seems like, by their very nature, these types of situations demand ad hoc solutions. We do our best and when our best isn't perfect, all we can do is explain where we're coming from, ask for feedback from the patrons, and adjust. Have you run into a situation like this where your goals are in conflict? Do you have any suggestions?


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