“Blow up the reference desk”, the Empathy Economy

April 21, 2009 at 6:53 pm 1 comment

KLA/MPLA 2009 (Kansas Library Association Conference, Wichita, KS)

Session from April 2:

May I Please Blow Up This Reference Desk? The Ten Social Trends that Can and SHOULD Change the Way that Libraries Do Business Tracie Hall, Good Seed Consulting

This was a very interesting presentation because it was about rethinking the services we provide and the manner in which we provide them, but technology was barely mentioned, and the phrases “Web 2.0” and “Library 2.0” were conspicuously absent (two-point-phobia?).  Two slide headings from the presentation put Hall’s argument in a nutshell:

· Libraries Worldwide are Being Compelled to Reevaluate their Services…And Modes of Delivery.

· Static, Inflexible, Fixed Models of LIS Service No Longer Fit Our Needs, Wants, and Expectations of Value-Added Service…To Remain Relevant Libraries Must Play an Expanding Role.

There were some examples given of real libraries doing things differently, but there were as many if not more from the business world. The most important social trend in Tracie Hall’s list actually comes from the world of business: “the rise of the empathy economy.” Starbucks transformed coffee from “from $.03 commodity to $3.60 experience.” This was done by offering a “safe third space” for its customers which was neither work nor home, but one in which they could feel comfortable and relax. Such comfort was enforced by having baristas learn the names of regulars. (In Hall’s view, Panera “trumped” Starbucks by taking this approach a step further by including a measure of table service.) As a business concept, the empathy economy is about designing and fine-tuning the consumer experience and Hall clearly sees the traditional library patron’s experience in drastic need of a makeover.

Some of the social trends Hall identifies are negative – problems to be solved. The most significant of these is what she calls “the platform nine and three-quarters effect,” after the train platform in the Harry Potter books which could only be entered by walking into what appeared to be a brick wall. She also calls this “the return of the mighty gatekeeper.” This gatekeeper effect is something that is well known in traditional libraries and an integral part of an archetype many contemporary librarians have long wished to dispel. For Hall, the effect is both exemplified and perpetuated by the reference desk. This bulwark of traditional library services projects in her view the attitude of an “omniscient Me and uniformed You,” implying a position of privilege behind the desk. While it would be easy to debate the extent to which this is true regarding the literal, physical reference desk, Hall’s argument uses this icon of the library as a metaphor for our traditional and habitual mode of ‘doing business’ as librarians.

Though not mentioned explicitly two of the social trends described in this session have some bearing on “Web 2.0”: The infallibility of the informal peer review, and the new generation Hall refers to as “the New Sensualists.” The “informal peer review” refers to ratings systems and comments on web sites such as Amazon and YouTube. Though not couched in the language of 2.0, this trend is made significant and practical by 2.0 tools. “New Sensualists” is Hall’s name for the new generation also called Generation Y or the Google or MySpace Generation, called “New Sensualists” because of their tactile relation to their computer games, cell phones, iPods, even YouTube and MySpace (audio, video). For this generation, leaving comments on an electronic posting such as a link, a photo, a video, or a blog or e-journal entry has become second nature.  These are the adults of tomorrow.  During the election last year, I found myself thinking:  Someday before too long we will have Presidential candidates who grew up on MySpace, who may have to worry about what they and their friends posting on their MySpace accounts when they were 13 years old — or will they?  What will that world look like?  Libraries have a chance to be on the forefront of these societal transformations.  Many if not most of us  — public libaries I’m thinking of — are still playing catch-up.

Hall’s presentation style lent an urgency and excitement to what she presented as a drastic need for change. In her introduction, she encouraged us to “lean into discomfort,” pointing out that on an air conditioner, the “comfort zone” is also known as the “dead zone.” “There is no lack of ideas in libraries….We have the technology accelerators!” We can rebuild him.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

KLA/MPLA Conference SLK ‘Unsession’ [SLK=State Lib of KS] “The purpose of the library is to preserve the integrity of civilization.”

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Erik Posthuma  |  October 19, 2009 at 4:06 am

    Hi Ben,

    I Googled the empathy economy because I just wrote a post (http://bit.ly/4aiUvK) about that and I stumbled upon your blog, which in turn enlightened me to a whole new field onto which the creation of an experience could change the fundamental approach of how a library operates.

    The raison d’etre of a library is changing. Information can be found quicker via the internet. The library is turning into a third place, a place where knowledge is transfered between its “patrons”

    I’m sure there is much more to think about and would love to hear your personal point of view on what can be changed in the operations of a library to give their customers a better experience.




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