Reaching out from L-Space

(This article is based on a presentation I made at Dartmouth’s Baker Library on February 7. I’m working from the outline rather than a transcript and have made some changes for the written medium. It’s split into two parts because of its length.)

Terry Pratchett wrote in Guards! Guards!:

It seemed quite logical to the Librarian that, since there were aisles where the shelves were on the outside then there should be other aisles in the space between the books themselves, created out of quantum ripples by the sheer weight of words. There were certainly some odd sounds coming from the other side of some shelving, and the Librarian knew that if he gently pulled out a book or two he would be peeking into different libraries under different skies.

All libraries everywhere are connected in L-space. All libraries. Everywhere.

Right now we’re in the L-space connection between developers and librarians, and the one between librarians and developers on the one hand and students and faculty on the other. L-Space can be a trap, though. If we stay inside it so much that we only talk to each other, we’re missing the whole point of the library’s existence. Pratchett’s Librarian falls a bit short on communication skills, since he’s an orangutan; then again, so do a lot of programmers. Maybe that’s why they call us code monkeys.

The issue of talking tech to non-techies isn’t just for programmers. Librarians are immersed in tech jargon these days: OPACs, MARC records, the OAIS model, etc. Communication levels aren’t just a binary issue. There’s a saying: “There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who don’t.” It’s easy to split the world into “us” and “everyone else.” We all have our own sets of assumptions, which we may not realize are there. “Everyone knows” certain things, and those who don’t must be “hopelessly ignorant.” Everyone but the ignorant knows the difference between an application and a file format, Java and JavaScript, what happens in the browser and what happens in the server. It’s easy for any in-group to think of the rest of the world as just outsiders, and for programmers to think of everyone else as computer-illiterate.

However, all people have their own specialties and knowledge. Faculty clearly have their specialties. Students are more comfortable with some kinds of tech, like mobile devices, than many of us are. A good friend of mine is a grocery clerk, and she can teach me things about product codes and scanners. It’s a deadly error to assume that people are too dumb to grasp the benefits of something. This assumption can be harder to work past than actual user ignorance.

For example: I live in a condominium, which is very well-managed on the whole. At one owners’ meeting, though, I pointed out a problem with the PDF newsletters that were being sent by email. They’re sent as scanned images, not as text PDFs, which means they aren’t searchable and people with vision problems can’t take advantage of technologies such as text-to-speech. One of the board members told me I was entirely right, but the owners just weren’t capable of understanding such issues, so it wasn’t worth doing anything. He said this in front of the owners!

People are generally better at solving practical problems than at abstract reasoning. We evolved to survive, not to fit any specific paradigm of knowledge. People understand what they need to understand.

Successful communication happens when the message received equals the message sent. It requires that the parties have a common language, and it can happen only when they share an area of understanding.

Developers need to understand their audience. “Non-programmer” doesn’t mean “non-computer-literate.” Communication needs to be in terms which relate to the audience’s purpose. This comes in two levels for library developers: Talking to library people in library terms, and talking to library users in the terms in which they use the library. We need the help of library people when doing the second.

We’re dealing with a knowledgeable audience: students and faculty. They understand the Internet on a user level. They know how to look for books, even if they do it mostly on Amazon. Students in particular understand mobile devices. Talking below their level is as bad as going over their heads. We need to know what their world is, and we need to address its needs. We need to make the library fit the users’ world.

We have to offer something that’s worth trying out and make it easy to understand. It has to offer something they don’t already have. There’s a saying: “The Internet is the world’s largest library, with all the books on the floor.” The users should get the sense not just that the books are on shelves, but that they control the shelving, that they can organize information the way they need it.

On the whole and on average, users think less analytically than programmers. They don’t see all the consequences of a proposed fix. For instance: Users may complain about having to log back into a system too frequently. The obvious fix for them is to increase session length and time out less often, but they may not think of the loss of security that results, especially on public computers.

Users like DWIM systems — ones that “do what I mean.” These have to guess what the user means. When they guess right, it’s great, but it’s really annoying when they guess wrong. If you’ve ever had a search engine rewrite your search, you know what I mean. Try searching for “droid file tool,” looking for results about the UK National Archives’ file-identification tool called Droid. On Google, you’ll get a bunch of results for “Android.” That’s not the Droid you’re looking for.

Developers need to explain the consequences of a design choice, that getting X implies also getting Y. Figuring out what will really meet the users’ needs, as opposed to what they initially say they want, can be a challenge.

Again, two paths through L-space are needed here. Librarians need to talk the users’ language, and programmers need to talk the librarians’ and the users’ language. Librarians need to assist us in talking the users’ language.

(Continued in part 2)

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