Losing control and gaining knowledge User participation in library projects

Can we make use of the users when it comes to developing libraries? And if so, do the users even want to participate, or are we alone in thinking that they should be involved as a way of legitimizing our work? Jannik Mulvad, IT-Consultant and Developer with Aarhus Public Libraries reflects on user participation in the light of the project Unleash the Library Users, which also included the creation of a handbook, which is based on the experiences of five months of practical work on involving employees and citizens in the development of Aarhus’ Main Library.

The project

With the project Unleash the Library Users the central library of Aarhus let their users loose or, rather, experimented with methods which could unleash the users. The overall object of the project was to focus on the users’ creative and innovative potential and describe different ways of user participation. The project, which was supported by the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media, arose partly from a recent trend which dictates that user participation is beneficial, and partly from a real desire on the part of the library to further develop. Furthermore, the realisation that good ideas can be improved when tested in reality also played a part in setting the project in motion.

The motives

It goes by many names – user participation, co-creation, workshops, userdriven innovation, participatory design, focus groups, but it all boils down to viewing all user participation in a context, where the needs and desires of the users are prioritised. This is both financially viable as one avoids wasting resources on developing products of no use to the users, and it also helps refine existing ideas.

It really does make sense to involve the users; the only catch is that the library is rarely the place where people think to engage themselves, so it can be quite a difficult task to find users who want to participate. This also means that when libraries actually engage with their users, it should only happen, when true input is sought after. At the same time the users should only be asked to participate, when it concerns issues of importance to them. Otherwise they won’t participate. No matter what, user participation should never be initiated only in order to tick a box.

The atmosphere

When users who want to participate have been located, it’s immediately important for the library to take good care of them. They must feel welcome, which can be done by for example creating a pleasant meeting space for them with flowers, music, food and drink. Secondly, it’s important to ensure that the users aren’t confused about the process, which they are going to be part of. This can be done by planning well ahead and retaining a tight framework and sense of direction for the project.

A rule of thumb when it comes to the time spent on user involvement is to set 1/3 of the time aside for planning the process, this includes establishing contact with the users, spending 1/3rd of the time on the project itself, and finally 1/3rd of the time on follow up. It’s probably not surprising that the whole process of involving the users takes time, but the importance of setting time aside for planning should be stressed, as it will pay off in the end. This will in turn also help create a better project and the participation experience will improve for the users, as they will reap the rewards of all the time and effort spent. The ensuing review will also be easier, as one already in advance knows what the results should be used for.

Getting the users to participate is often a sign of an innovative organisation or an organisation which thinks about its users. This is a concern which should also be reflected internally in the library, so the same feeling of participation and development fostered by a creative environment also surrounds the staff. In this way, positive conditions for the creative growth of the staff are created, which in turn will is a prerequisite for fruitful user participation.

The loss of control

Any form of collaboration from marriage to user participation of any kind involves an aspect of loss of control. This requires that an organisation before initiating a project should have made up its mind whether or not to act on the feedback which is given.

A simple example which many people can relate to is decorating the Christmas tree. Every year when it’s time to decorate the tree, we ask our children if they want to take part in the process. This includes involving the smallest child, who will enthusiastically join in, even though she can only reach 1,5 meters up the tree. This results in the fact that all the decorations are placed within her working range of 1,5 meters all around the tree, creating a lopsided and awry impression. The question then is what to do? Should all the decorations be rearranged while the child is sleeping, or should they be left as originally placed, which means accepting an awry (and perhaps ugly) tree? For the sake of domestic peace and to keep the child happy, many will opt for the tree with all its lopsidedness.

Even an innocent example as this one illustrates quite well, that one must think the process through, when it comes to user participation. The example also illustrates that the result of user participation is seldom as we expect it to be. So if one chooses to involve the users, one should also be prepared to accept what they bring to the table.

The handbook

As numerous text books on user participation already exist, the purpose of Unleash the Library Users was neither to reinvent methods or models of user participation nor to describe them in a library context. The primary goal of the project has been to increase the knowledge of existing methods and increase the library staff ’s interest in the topic and encourage them to plunge into projects with user participation. To ensure this, a lightweight and nonacademic handbook was created as part of the project. The hope is that it can further inspire library staff in creating processes and projects in relation to user participation.

The handbook gives a short introduction to working with user participation followed by a description of 13 methods. The methods have been sortedin order of complexity, from thesimplest to the most complicated and cost- intensive methods. The 13 methods are divided into the following categories: Easy and Classic, The Quick Interview, Inquiry – at home with the user, The Creative Approach, The Systematic Approach and finally The Fictitious Approach.

The encounter

To much library staff, engaging in projects with user participation might seem a bit remote, as this topic wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the educational syllabus. But user participation doesn’t have to be more complicated than just talking to the users, which is actually what most library staff do on an everyday basis.When offering library services over the counter, the staff is in the perfect position to meet the users. This is an encounter, which should be taken advantage of, as it is a moment, where the user, who in many cases is difficult to otherwise get to speak to, is present and attentive.

It’s actually just a small step from the initial contact at the counter to asking the user a question, and suddenly one is on the path to user participation. Begin by applying the less extensive methods, where one gets acquainted with asking the users questions. Once one discovers how smoothly this goes, then one can continue using the more structured methods. The goal is just to get started!

The reminder

On my office wall hangs a picture given to me by a parti- cipant from a library project. He painted it after having taken part in a workshop on the role of the library, now and in the future. The picture – a Babel fish saying hello in many different languages – is his perception of what a library is, and goes to show that dialogue and communication are as important to him, as they are to the library. Perhaps the picture can’t be considered great art, but to me it’s the sign of a beautiful gesture, and a daily reminder that there are users who have the library present in their minds and who want to participate. It is also a reminder that when we involve the users, we should receive them and their input well, and treat them with respect. They invest their valuable time in us, so the least we can do is thank them!

Jannik Mulvad
IT-Consultant and Developer with Aarhus Public Libraries
jmu AT
Translated by Sophie Bruun

IT-Consultant and Developer with Aarhus Public Libraries