Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Darien Library

A big thank you to the Darien Library & the CT Library Consortium for coordinating a tour of Darien's wonderful new facility on Tuesday (for those of us librarians who hadn't had the opportunity to see it before). (CLC put up a virtual tour via Flickr, btw.) My boss, of course, had been there on the grand opening. I asked him what he'd liked best, assuming it would be something like the RFID for self-check-out & automated check-in with the materials handling system. But he was right on target to say that what he liked the most was the thought process behind the changes made in the new Darien Library.
Here's a slideshow of the CLC virtual tour:

BTW, this is not to say that the old Darien Library wasn't wonderful. In fact, it sounds like it was because the old Darien Library had a staff that was already so centered on their users' needs & desires that the community was supportive enough to create such a great new facility. Positive customer service, cultivation of a lot of goodwill and a number of deep relationships over the years - these things translated into significant funding from the community. Yes, Darien is a well-heeled community, but even so, there are a lot of excellent organizations out there that its citizens could support. Yet the library clearly held such a place in their heart that the library did not even need to partake of state construction grants -- it received that much financial support from its own patrons. This also seems to have given the library some freedom in designing the project. No state funding = no state constraints = fewer bureaucratic hurdles along the way? Just a guess. I actually don't know much about that process, so I may be incorrect, but it seems to be a fair assumption. (And yes, the good people who work the state grants process do so with great efficiency & expertise. I just mean that state processes are necessarily fraught with policies and constraints.)

It's easy to be envious sometimes, but what works better than devoting energy to envy is to see what worked for Darien conceptually and port it to our own environments. We always need an "outlier" library to serve as an example to those of us who work in more conservative surroundings. It's more like an inspiration for all of us. Look at what Darien has done and think of what you can emulate or improve on in your own community. It's not all going to fit in your community the way it does in theirs, anyway. Be creative, up the ante, come up with your own innovations (and yes, it may take a bit more creativity if you have to find ways to innovate with fewer resources behind you, but that will make your achievement even more exciting!)

So what are some of the things I noticed?

Chief among the points of interest for me is something that was not a specifically architectural feature, though it informed all of the architectural features we saw - it was the philosophical underpinnings of the library. Collaboration, transparency, permanence (or should I say sustainability?) were key factors. Even more excitingly from my perspective, Darien has an organizational structure that centers on the user. It has a "user experience design" team, that informs all aspects of the users' experience with the library - on the ground or online. This means that everything - from the self-check-out & self-check-in experiences to the web-based resources, roving reference, organization of the collection into "glades" wherein books on the same subject/topic are shelved together in ways that most people think of (much like the organization of a bookstore), rather than solely being organized via Dewey (or god forbid, LC or Cutter!) Dewey is still on the spines. But below the spine stickers with the broad topical area (e.g., "Home" or "Places"). The User Experience design team keeps the library streamlined - no signage is developed willy nilly. The UX group comes up with the proper means of guiding people through the physical spaces - sometimes, for example, it might be through the use of the many flat screens on the "main street" level's brick pillars that are the equivalent of (dynamic, like today's electronic billboards) the printed signs that libraries have traditionally used, but unlike the printed ones, these are changing all the time, automagically.

The concept of not having a separate "IT" department, as such, but integrating technology into the user experience design team's role (if I understood Jon Blyberg, Louise Berry, and Alan Gray correctly) is really revolutionary. This concept seems almost the opposite of having a "digital branch". Instead, it assumes that all things in the library these days have a digital aspect and thinks about the library at a higher conceptual level, always harkening from the perspective of the user's experience. Because the users' experience of Darien Library is really centered on the physical presence of the library building, particularly now, with the new building, a lot of the efforts made by the UX team at Darien relate to the physical collections and signage. I spend so much time immersed in web usability these days, I hadn't really thought about UX on the physical level (well, also because I have no ability to affect anything re: the physical UX). This way of organizing staff may not be appropriate for all environments, but it should give library administrators pause - give them some space to think more openly about organizational structures. (More on this when I discuss this AM's "where we live" from WNPR on "reorganizing government"...)

Think about the concept of not hiring "catalogers", as such. From the user perspective, as long as the books are findable, the "quality" of the MARC record is of no interest to them. You can't get so enmired in details and traditions that you miss the ultimate outcome. The overt focus on "cataloging" in many libraries may mean losing sight of the forest for the trees. The point of cataloging and classification was always management of the collection and findability. You have a collection of materials. What are they and where are they are the questions you need to be able to answer. Some level of consistency & quality in describing those materials is important, but is a perfect MARC record (is there such a thing) needed?

Reference at point of need is also a key concept here. Armed with a cell phone and a Netbook (ultralight, ultraportable computer that hooks to the internet via wifi) with an "Ask Me" label on it, the reference librarian can bring themselves to the patron. There is also an (impermanent) reference desk available to the librarian in the main reading room. Again, the wifi, the cell phone, the Netbook are all bits of technology, but they are solely in service of the user experience - so this project didn't need to be an "IT" project. It's just the way Darien thinks they can serve their reference users best.

Certainly, the multimedia focus and small business support via the community and conference rooms' setup, the IT labs & videoconferenceing rooms, etc., are all worthy of consideration. There is a teen lounge area with Macs & books, a children's area with everything from program rooms using warmed cork flooring to a Microsoft Surface table for the kids (and their adults) to play with. The "green" aspect of their building is also worth noting. They reclaimed the land that their building is on plus they use geothermal heating and cooling, water-saving measures, and so on.

In summary - yes, it's cool. Go forth, be cool. Innovate. (see the pics from iPhone, such as they are:)

1 comment:

CogSci Librarian said...

awesome photos & description, Sharon. Sounds like a great tour -- and a Very Cool Library.