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Sunday 16 October 2016

My journey from practitioner to researcher to published author

By Edward Luca
Sign from Luca's & Narayan's article
I started working in an academic library three years ago. At the time, I was completing my Bachelor’s degree in library and information science. The job was not as a librarian, but rather a communication officer. If you were to take the position description at face value, you could quite easily find a marketing person to write some copy and talk to other marketing people around the university. But, I was training to be a librarian and the job got me working in a library, so I was pretty pleased about it.

As I walked around my new work environment, I became increasingly interested in the experience of being in the physical library. I’ve rarely, if ever, had a truly great library interaction online. The physical space brings focus, it inspires, and it welcomes anyone and everyone. And yet it was covered in pieces of paper, with words that don’t mean anything to the average person. All these rules and instructions, which made me feel like I was in the wrong for not understanding them.

Through my LIS studies I had been exposed to the principles of Human-Centred Design, User Experience Design and Design Thinking. Don Norman, a big name in this space, writes that design needs to put human needs, capabilities and behaviour first. The process of design starts and ends with the users.

There seemed to be a chasm between this research I had studied, and what was actually happening in the library; I’ve found this disconnect to be true of LIS research and practice in general. This was certainly true of the signage in the library, and my in-house project to fix the library signage has now evolved into a peer-reviewed journal article. So how did I get here?

One of my favourite observations in Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches' wonderful book Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library, is that often as librarians we’ll put up a paper sign when something isn’t working well. Instead, they argue, we should aim to address the core issue which will both improve the visual environment and make the library more pleasant to use. But how do we know when something isn’t working well, and more importantly, how can we fix it? Based on the literature, I decided to use the Design Thinking approach to solve the issue. What’s so valuable about the Design Thinking approach is that it’s not just for designers; it can be used for absolutely any product or service.The library is a tremendously complex user environment, with so many different systems and processes all talking to each other. And this confusion is evident in our users! I think that anything we can do to better understand our users is a vital for a librarian, but this sort of user research is not something that we often have time for in our busy schedules.

While working through this project, I began to realise that the problems I was attempted to solve were not problems unique to our library. In fact, they seem to happen everywhere! So many libraries are covered in paper signs, have troublesome printers, hard to find rooms, or awkward checkout machines. While the size of the collection, design of the building, and range of services on offer may vary from library to library, the fundamental issues that we are trying to solve are very similar. 

As I was executing the project, I thought that perhaps there was a value to documenting our process, so that other libraries could learn from our experiences and take advantage of some of the lessons we had learned along the way. I didn’t know how to go about this. Fortunately, an LIS academic at the university had noticed our signage work and approached me with the prospect of writing a journal article about the project. I was surprised to find out that many LIS academics are on the lookout for library practitioners to collaborate with.

This was such an exciting opportunity for me, and as I thought about how an article might be structured, I began to realise that in producing the new signs I had drawn upon so much knowledge gained from my degree - ideas about user experience design, information design, observations, interviews, and even slightly tangential things like visual communication and creative writing. Not only were we able to draw upon these theoretical frameworks, but we were also able to use practice-based evidence through our own findings and experiences at the library. The research literature gives us some guidance, but we needed to validate these findings with support and evidence from our own users. 

This was also a mutually beneficial process. My academic co-author was able to conduct some practice-based research, and I received academic guidance about how to structure the project into an article with a clear conceptual framework and methodology, as I had never written a journal article before. 

This project has had a significant impact on my own practice of librarianship, while it’s also given me a much clearer idea of some of the challenges facing academics in the writing process. My co-author and I are both huge open access advocates, so the decision to look for an open access journal to publish in was an easy one. We only sent in a proposal and not the whole article, and the immediate response was very encouraging, so we decided to write it, after all.

The actual writing was the easiest bit; the work had been done. Manipulating it into a piece of writing that would be of value to any library, whilst also foregrounding the research, was much harder. What surprised me was how much time we spent considering the article conceptually. We had a clearly defined project with a successful outcome, but many afternoons were spent thinking about the conceptual framework and structure of the paper.

Feedback provided during the peer-review process was especially helpful here. For example, in our first version of the work, we’d spent more time on the specific details of our case study. After the first round of peer-reviews, we needed to reorient the work to focus on the overall process/method, which makes a much more valuable contribution to the research literature as it provides a methodology which can be applied at other libraries. The whole process from start to publication took us about six months of working together wherein we put in a total of about 40-50 hours overall, writing together and in turns.

And the day it was published? There was this huge sense of accomplishment that’s hard to describe! 

I am still very surprised by the huge positive reaction to the work. We tweeted about the article and sent it out to our networks, but were very soon seeing it picked up by staff at other academic libraries and around the world, and even by design thinking researchers, some of whom want to translate it to French. This immediate reaction is gratifying for an author, and being open access, the article is immediately readable by anyone who stumbles across it. This was also an opportunity to put into practice much of the publication literacy that librarians are engaged in: ensuring an appropriate copy is made available in the institutional repository, adding it to our researcher profiles (e.g. ORCID) and using social media for promotion. I feel that making my academic publishing debut, and already understanding these practices, will stand me in good stead for future works. 

The article was only really possible through collaboration between an academic and a library practitioner. Libraries have always been required to evolve and adapt to changing user needs. Though we certainly have a host of new issues in today’s landscape, many of these remain under-researched. It is essential that library professionals work with trained researchers from universities and elsewhere to create a body of evidence that can support contemporary needs in the profession. This experience has convinced me that LIS needs much more of this sort of collaborative research; evidence-based practice creating practice-led evidence through a conceptual research framework.

Luca, E, Narayan, B 2016, Signage by design: a design-thinking approach to library user experience, Weave: Journal of Library User Experience, 3 (5), DOI:

Edward Luca (AALIA) is Communication Officer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Library, Australia

Dr Bhuva Narayan (AALIA) is Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia

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