Helping users when they help themselves

As I was reading Robert S. Taylor’s article, Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries*, I drew a lot of parallels between the librarian-patron interactions that he discussed and the human-computer interaction that is important to consider when creating web content and navigation.

rows of card catalog drawers
Back in Taylor’s day, the card catalog was a great way for patrons and librarians to find resources.
Source: University of Michigan Library Card Catalog by dfulmer / CC BY

Taylor discusses the negotiation process between a librarian and a patron, where a librarian and patron need to ask each other multiple questions to determine the true information need that usually begins as an intangible concept in a patron’s mind. This is generally a great way for patrons to become familiar with library resources and research. However, Taylor also examines the library system which many users choose over asking librarians for help. Back in Taylor’s day (1968), this system referred to the stacks of books and card catalog. In 2015, this library system has expanded to online resources. With our dependence on the omnipresent internet, it has become easier and easier to search for needs without asking others for help.

4 students sit at a library table using laptops
Libraries have changed so much in the past few decades. Source: Laptop desks in the computer science building by maebmij / CC BY

Because many patrons go directly to the library’s electronic resources, librarians miss out on the opportunity to help patrons find information through a negotiation process where librarians uncover the patron’s explicit research objectives. Therefore, libraries have a new challenge of educating users through electronic help guides. Because person-to-person interaction is lost in this setting, websites have the responsibility of guiding users to beneficial resources. Subject-specific guides, easily findable lists of resources, and help links are a great way to show users how to find library resources. Additionally, Ask a Librarian chat tools provide an outlet for users to ask questions without going to a reference desk.

Because patrons are increasingly using electronic resources to conduct their research, it’s important for libraries to understand patron needs and how they search for library resources. In this way, users can have a pleasant experience in finding their research needs even when they do not visit the physical library or ask librarians for help.

*Taylor, Robert Saxton. (1968). “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.” College & Research Libraries, 29 (3): 178–94. http://crl.acrl.org/content/29/3/178.full.pdf+html