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From Gatekeepers to Gate-Openers: Our Future Lies in Designing Meaningful Library User Experiences

Article excerpt

As gatekeepers we can aspire to only a limited professional role: making information accessible. But in today's crowded information-provider landscape, that role fails to distinguish the many great assets libraries bring to their communities. Our future may depend on our ability to differentiate what libraries offer and what library workers contribute to communities. The library profession should consider an alternate vision for our future: the library worker as gate-opener. In that role we shift from a focus on creating access to resources to creating meaningful relationships with community members--both those who use and those who don't use our libraries. One way to differentiate ourselves while building these relationships is by designing great library user experiences.

Last year, I attended a presentation to librarians by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, a leading authority on nontraditional marketing methods. One thing Godin said stood out in my mind as a critical piece of advice for library workers: "You need to stop being gatekeepers and start being gate-openers." He gave examples of profit and nonprofit organizations that created loyal and dedicated followers, groups he described as "tribes" that emerged as these organizations transformed their core purpose from gatekeeping to gate-opening.

Godin explained that people join tribes, whether as leader or follower, because it offers them something in their lives that provides meaning. In other words, they seek and find a unique experience. Likewise, Godin urged the audience of librarians to better understand what their community members need to accomplish, and to then open up the gates in order to deliver the resources they need for their learning, their research, their lifestyle, and their well-being, and to invite them to discover meaning through personalized relationships with library workers.

Delivering meaning

Our nation is still reeling from the Shockwaves of a severe recession. As homes, jobs, and invested savings were lost, our country experienced a cultural shift. In the years leading up to the global economic crisis Americans were on a buying spree, much of it fueled by easy credit. Individual meaning was often found in the acquisition of material objects. In the aftermath of the economic meltdown both consumer confidence and spending took a nosedive. Americans ended their buying binge, which ended the culture of "stuff" in which accumulating goods was highly valued, but failed to end people's need to find meaning in their lives. That's where the cultural shift happened.

On his Marketing Knowhow blog, Harvard Business School marketing professor John Quelch observed a new type of consumer emerging from the collapse of mass consumption, whom he called "Simplifiers." One of the four characteristics of the Simplifiers is of particular relevance: "They want to collect experiences, not possessions," Quelch noted, adding that experiences "do not tie you down, require no maintenance, and permit variety-seeking instincts to be quickly satisfied." A growing school of thought in the field of user-experience design promotes the idea of the experience as being about creating something meaningful for people, something that gives them intrinsic value for leading a better life.

The notion that libraries enhance the quality of life in their communities was central to the creation of www.atyourlibrary.org, launched this year by the American Library Association with funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Emphasizing services to families, youth, and job seekers, the @ your library website for the public encourages consultation, exploration, and multimedia as intrinsic parts of library use.

If Godin and Quelch are accurate in their perception of the shift from consumerism to experience-seeking, that bodes well for libraries. Libraries are organizations dedicated to enabling citizens to prosper from the accumulation of knowledge, and to leverage that knowledge for personal satisfaction, advancement, or to help others. …