Why don’t libraries share the results of UX work?


While conferencing at ELAG 2016, Simon made this suggestion for improving collaboration among libraries doing user experience (UX) work on their systems:

I’ve been thinking on-and-off about the question implied in Simon’s second tweet – the reasons libraries do not generally share results of user experience testing of their systems. Below I discuss some of these, which are drawn from examples from people with first-hand knowledge from academic libraries.

“Not all libraries…”

I know many libraries do share their results and analyses, whether more formally in articles, books or book chapters and conference presentations, or more informally in blog posts, conversations, and social media. I am extremely grateful for any and all sharing of this type.

What about libraries that are doing such work but not reporting it? When I know about such work, though it requires extra effort I have had good success asking colleagues about their findings. People are usually generous with sharing – sometimes surprised in the interest, but delighted to be asked about their work. In my experience the trick to doing this effectively is:

  • Knowing that others have been doing something in the first place, for which an active stance towards professional networking helps enormously.
  • Finding the best way to engage colleagues on their terms, and making it easy for them to help you. If you’re nearby offer to visit, or set up a video chat; ask for an hour of conversation rather than anything in writing or a presentation. Manage the time and conversation effectively: focus on what you are asking about; be explicit about asking for honest opinions; always ask about lessons learned.

Why we don’t share

Time and money

By this I primarily mean a lack of time and money to refine the work into something publishable by traditional routes, such as a peer-reviewed journal or presenting results at conferences. I think this is a huge barrier, and I have no simple answers. There is an huge qualitative difference between libraries that invest time and money in this way and those that do not, which is only really apparent with experience.

There are alternative routes. For me the actuality of dissemination and sharing always trumps the esteem in which a particular route of communication is held. Some of the most effective project communications I have seen are blog posts that summarize progress and demonstrate the momentum and trajectory of the work simply with clear and engaging text. This is the kind of work I or a team member would expect to do as part of internal project communication, so text can be reused with reworking for an outside audience.

For events, workarounds such as unconferences and similar events are a lower-cost approach, but these aren’t without issues. Events with no registration fee still favour those privileged in various ways. Even if one can attend unconferences these don’t always attract an audience with enough specialist knowledge, or are not promoted in a way that will attract such an audience. This may sound contrary to the Open Space Technology principle that “Whoever comes [are] the right people” (Owen, 2008), but in practice OST principles depend on a lot of work behind the scenes and careful management on the day to be effective.


By this I mean the overall stance of the library towards engagement with their sector and understanding of the value of sharing, as a cultural factor. Having a budget for conference attendance and other development activity is not enough if your workplace does not value this type of professional engagement in and of itself, or does not have confidence in staff ability or value the work. In practice this may manifest more subtly in general discouragement and ‘lack of permission’ from managers in the organization, or not sending staff operationally involved in project work to events to speak and network with peers.

Competitive edge

I have heard an argument that we should not give away findings that could help competitors elsewhere in our sector, sometimes scaffolded by belief that as contemporary universities exist in a competitive market they should behave more like private companies. I disagree with the ideological foundation of this argument, but it is logical in acknowledging the reality of a market that has been deliberately created and fostered by government. At Library Camp in 2012, Liz Jolly and I argued that:

Universities have a culture of sharing both internally and externally, and also between those working in the same disciplines across institutions. Furthermore, both within and without higher education, librarianship is a particularly collaborative profession.

(Preater, 2012)

We could remove some of the ideological focus, and simply ask if the investment of time and effort to communicate our work might be less worthwhile than the other things we could spend it on. Above I argue that communication strategies in projects or otherwise should provide you with reusable material, but looking at this strategically I think skipping communication is ultimately detrimental to your library.

To be sure, there are benefits to individual staff in building their professional profile and to the library in being seen as a place ‘where things happen’ and viewed as forward-thinking, including in recruiting and retaining staff. Additionally though, I see an advantage in shaping the speed and direction of thinking as a form of technological leadership in the sector, creating the ‘discursive formation’ (in the sense Foucault describes, for example in part II of The archaeology of knowledge, 1972) of user experience rather than waiting for others to do so.

In communicating our work and engaging our community in discourse we define the content of the discursive formation, of the body of knowledge, in what is still a relatively new and not yet fully-established area. Communication has power in and of itself in bringing in to existence this body of knowledge, and while the practice of user experience is contested, early movers are able to establish how the ‘truth’ of this practice is created and sustained, in our particular context.

For me this idea explains some of the meaning behind practitioners such as Andy Priestner stating, two years ago, that “UX in libraries is a thing now” (2014, emphasis mine), and from experience I would gauge this kind of engagement as putting you between two to three years ahead of libraries that are not doing so.

External validity or being ‘too special’

In this I include disbelief in the external validity of the work, or belief in the necessity of such validity as a precursor to sharing. ‘External validity’ means the extent to which the findings from particular research can be generalized beyond the specific context of the work. I first heard this argument when I was a participant in a library usability study, and naively asked the librarians how they were going to share their results – turns out they weren’t. Some libraries are indeed unusual in themselves, or attract an unusual user base, or both, but there is also a cultural aspect to this problem. Without deliberately maintaining wider awareness, we can lose perspective and end up believing it ourselves: thinking our service is ‘very complex’ or our situation ‘highly unusual’ when it is not particularly so.

My counter-argument is the commonalities between library services and membership mean ideas and concepts are often very transferable. Include some caveats or ‘health warnings’ on your results by all means, but let us weigh things up. Let us include you in our ongoing analysis. This is one reason I value making the theoretical underpinning of the approaches we use in our work explicit when describing what we are doing.

Fear of criticism, lack of confidence in the work

In this reason I include anything in the general space of a wish not to have one’s work critiqued, research methods problematized, or particular choices judged by others in the community. Perfectionism on our part can also play into and amplify this. All engagement in professional discourse includes some measure of risk-taking as there is implicit openness to criticism: speaking at a conference or using a platform or network where replying is easy invites replies. Criticism is tempting as it can be relatively easy for a clever person to say something high-impact. You could do as Ian suggests and start a blog and turn off the comments, but people can (and do) comment on your work elsewhere…

I experienced this recently (with my manager and her manager in the room) when a recording of a user from a piece of UX research was shown that could be interpreted as strongly critical of my project team’s work. This was extremely difficult to accept at the time, but on considered reflection seeing an interpreted piece of feedback was valuable, as it spurred ongoing development and provoked questioning of design choices that had seemed well-founded based on our research.

My recommendation is to trust your judgement if you are on top of your professional development, spend adequate time reflecting-on-action, and test your ideas by taking a critical stance toward your methods and work – including opinions and perspectives from peers. On this subject I recommend Elly’s post on ‘professional confidence’ (O’Brien, 2015). This is a great post that really bears re-reading as part of reflective practice in judging our own expertise and focusing where best to develop skills.

Concluding thoughts

Simon is right in that there is no central location for sharing results of our user experience work. I would love to see something like this created, with low or no barrier to entry so all practitioners could contribute. I think for academic libraries a space on the helibtech wiki could be a good starting point for collaboration. This is a slightly selfish request as in my workplace we maintain a list (a wiki page) of reports, presentations, industry white papers and so on about systems user experience, and used these in developing and shaping ideas for our ongoing research and development.

Absent such a location, I want to encourage practitioners to share their work. We want to hear what you have to say – share your methods, results, and conclusions where you can, as doing so contributes to and shapes discovery user experience as a professional practice.


Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage.

O’Brien, E. (2015) ‘Professional confidence and “imposter syndrome”‘, Elly O’Brien, June 29. Available at: https://ellyob.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/professional-confidence/

Owen, H. (2008) Open space technology: a user’s guide. 3rd edn. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Preater, A. (2012) ‘Free and Open Source software and cultural change, at Library Camp 2012’, Ginformation Systems, 15 October. Available at: https://www.preater.com/2012/10/15/free-software-and-cultural-change-at-libcampuk12/

Priestner, A. (2014) ‘Why UX in libraries is a thing now’, Business Librarians Association conference, Leicester, 11 July. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/why-ux-in-libraries-is-a-thing-now-36899649

Feelings on critical systems praxis, for #critlib


I wrote this to reply to the ‘recommended writing’ suggestion by Kevin Seeber for the December 15 2015 #critlib chat on #feelings. I very likely won’t be at the chat itself, so I haven’t quite addressed the questions as posed.

Why practice critical librarianship?

I understand #critlib to mean critical theory approaches to library work as a whole so will say something about why I find this interesting, and why I think it is important and useful in the undertheorized area of library systems. In this piece I refer to #critlib, the idea of critical librarianship, and the critically-informed stance of Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) interchangeably.

I found out about #critlib chats when I was already aware of #critLIS, a critical theory reading group at the University of Sheffield iSchool. The students involved in #critLIS tweeted some of their discussions and I read the things they talked about. I could only join in minimally but what I saw of their discussion seemed thrilling in how they brought social critique to information work, but also intimidatingly erudite in the works referenced.

Later I attended a discussion on critical theory in LIS at an RLC event in London. On reflection at RLC I think the whole critical theory ball of wax was explained in problem-posing terms, which was both more useful, more challenging, and achieved more than a lecture on the same subject would have. At that session Kevin and Lauren didn’t offer grand solutions, but instead many new lenses with which to interpret and inspect practice and some practical ideas too (Smith, 2014). I realized I had some reading to do; fortunately, critical librarians (by all means imagine the ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes’ emoji here) are inevitably generous with suggestions.

Reading a text is learning the relationships among the words in the composition of the discourse. It is the task of a critical, humble, determined “subject” or agent of learning, the reader.

Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.

Freire (1994, p. 65)

I quote Freire’s uncompromising view from Pedagogy of Hope on the challenges of engaging with reading, as though I disagree with his presentation of study as an “always […] pleasant” struggle the last part chimes with how I feel on trying to be “an agent of learning” in understanding social critique and develop a #critlib approach with no background in theory. To be clear this is a personal reflection: I’m not telling anyone to do this, and I’m aware I speak from a position of privilege.

In discovering new these areas there is joy in exploring new contours of practice, and opening new discursive spaces. Given new tools for sensemaking, the materials of practice feel new themselves. I value #critlib most in providing a space to create and shape professional discourse, to disagree from a position of inclusivity and respect, and fundamentally to help us develop a reflexive praxis: that is, critically-informed action.

Well, how about it? I found Freire’s explanation of the simultaneous nature and equivalence of reflection and action particularly formative in doing this:

“[M]y defence of praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reflection may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action […] cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action.

Freire (1996, p. 109)

Working through the implications of this allowed me to reframe reflection not as an introspective after-the-event mulling over, perhaps somewhat time-wasting given there is “real work” to getting on with, but something central to action itself and part of an overall method of praxis.

So, this is why I participate in #critlib and RLC. I want to see the loop between theory and practice closed in ways that appreciate it is not just the job of LIS academics to develop theory and practitioners to employ it, but that theorizing from our practice and experience should be an accessible process for all of us.

Theory in an undertheorized field

One of Kevin’s questions for the chat asks if we think #critlib is “worth it,” that is, does talk about theory make any difference to your own professional practice, and more broadly? I argue yes, but…

I think #critlib starts with a set of challenging positions to work from rather than a set of agreed ideological fixed ideas or ‘how to’ guides for library work, management, and leadership. Even if someone wrote such a thing, the texts we read and discuss are steeped in and reproduce ideologies and this would remain a problem to grapple with.

#critlib offers multidisciplinary ways of seeing and interpreting our practice that are necessarily critically informed and framed in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but that might not be applicable to practice in straightforward ways. This bears analysis of our situation, and for me, giving up the idea of applying #critlib with a particular framing ‘context’ as this term obscures a great deal. I’m indebted to Clarke’s work on grounded theory (2005, pp. 71-72) in understanding this last point.

In my view systems librarianship is relatively undertheorized and ahistorical in its understanding of thought and practice; not obviously fertile ground to develop #critlib. As the head of a systems team I see systems as occupying an important nexus in two areas often claimed neutral in various ways: libraries and technology. Of course neither are neutral, when put like this it’s laughable to suggest they are, but it’s easy to slip into such positions by default if we don’t interrogate our practices and how we utilize technology.

It can be easy for systems workers to think if we are satisfying the requirements of library staff as clients and library users as customers that’s enough, and we needn’t over-think the technology we employ beyond compliance with law (such as data protection legislation), our professional ethics (such as CILIP’s Code of Professional Practice), the standards of our employers, and so on. I’ve heard very reasonable positions voiced in the profession that this is “just good librarianship”.

I argue that this is not enough and our response should be non-neutral as our technology and information management is non-neutral. But to exaggerate for hyperbolic effect, critically-informed ethical approaches are more complicated than lazily rejecting every new idea as “problematic” while maintaining our own comfortable, compartmentalized silos. A systems approach to #critlib (#critsyslib?) means delving into our underlying assumptions by using reflective practice as a technique, taking critically reflective and reflexive approaches in our implementations of new systems and technologies.

For me developing a critical systems praxis means reject instrumental or mechanistic approaches to information, its storage and indexing, its use and understanding by our users, and the stack of technologies that underpin all of these things. A #critlib perspective would mean taking critical approaches throughout systems work including in selection, procurement, and implementation of new technologies and systems, and using critically-informed methods in researching them and in directing their development. For managers and leaders in systems it means role-modelling positive behaviours, and taking an authentically #critlib stance in what we do in our work, including for example line management and hiring practices.

I struggle with these things and cannot claim to do all of them or that my team do all of them, yet, but referring to the Freirean equivalence of reflection and action, taking on #critlib viewpoints and approaches begins the necessary perspectival shift to move towards a critical turn in systems praxis hence, why I #critlib.


Clarke, A.E. (2005) Situational analysis: grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. Reprint, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (part three): critical theory’, Lauren Smith, 16 May. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

Reflective practice and critical reflection recommended reading


I was recently asked for some recommended reading on reflective practice in general and critical reflection in particular, and as several people asked me to share this I thought I would do so here.

Reflective practice in general

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner. New York, NY: Basic Books.

A classic text, and one that should be seen in Schön’s context of time, place, and employment. Heavily critiqued and interpreted in the last 30+ years; I’d argue understanding reflection-in-action vs. reflection-on-action remains core to effective reflective practice and that this is still a challenging work when considering professional technical skills for practitioners.

Finlay, L., (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/resources/pbpl-resources/finlay-l-2008-reflecting-reflective-practice-pbpl-paper-52

For me Finlay is the best starting point for a review article on reflective practice. Written for the Open University PBPL CETL (which dates it if you remember CETLs…) but presenting, effectively, a wide-ranging literature review on reflective practice useful to anyone. Very helpful for an overview of different approaches or ways of doing reflective practice.

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice : writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: Sage.

A useful overview of reflective writing. Its utility to you may depend on your view of the importance of narrative, but worthwhile if you have any intention of writing reflective pieces on your experience.

Brookfield, S. (1994) ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenology of adult critical reflection’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 13 (3) pp.203-216. doi:10.1080/0260137940130303

An interesting exploration of negative aspects (the ‘dark side’) of critical reflection for adult learners. Recommended reading for how to avoid or overcome these issues in practice. Sadly not available OA or free-to-read.

Argyris, C. (1991) ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’, Harvard Business Review, (May/June). Available at: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn

On challenges of applying Argyris and Schön’s single-loop vs. double-loop learning to professional practice.

Drucker, P.F. (1999) ‘Managing oneself’, Harvard Business Review, (January). Available at: https://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself

Not pitched as about reflection, but contains useful nuggets on ways of thinking about development. Warning: contains some problematic ideas and sweeping statements.

Critical reflection or critical reflective practice

I take critical reflective practice to mean particularly the ‘two stage’ approach of analysis and deconstruction followed by reconstruction and change developed and articulated in the 2000s by Jan Fook, Fiona Gardner, and Sue White, alongside contributions from many other researchers. Their particular combination of theoretical underpinning and practical method is the one I prefer because it chimes with in with my own values and preferred approach to thinking about professional practice.

These researchers scaffold their approach with four theories, this list is paraphrased in part from Gardner (2014) and Fook and Gardner (2007):

  • Reflective practice itself, including an idea of experience or practice knowledge that I would describe as praxis, eg. articulated in Fook and Gardner (2007 p.24), “[R]eflective practice can be seen as a process of researching practice theory, by developing it directly from concrete practice”
  • Reflexivity, emphasizing a consciousness of how users perceive themselves and us, and how we perceive ourselves and each other in context as practitioners and researchers
  • Postmodernism and deconstruction, in this case particularly emphasizing concerns with attitudes to and influences of power
  • Critical social theory, including an emphasis on social justice as a concern

One challenge for us is taking these ideas out of their original context of health and social care and making them applicable to library and information professional practice. Personally, I think this is entirely possible as the idea of praxis implies:

  • Applying theory to practice deductively
  • Creating theory from practice via inductive formation of knowledge and new theories of practice

My point, is we needn’t wait for someone to write the ‘Critical reflection in library and information science’ textbook but can work on these ideas immediately. 😉

Gardner, F. (2014) Being critically reflective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner’s is my favoured introduction to critical reflection concepts and methods. It’s written to work for students and both new and experienced practitioners, providing practical examples while referencing more complex texts for underpinning theory, some of which are below.

Fronek, P. (2012) Jan Fook: critical reflection. [Podcast]. Available at: http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/critical-reflection/

Fook, J. (2006) ‘Beyond reflective practice: reworking the “critical” in critical reflection’, Professional Lifelong Learning: beyond reflective practice, Leeds, UK, 3 July. Available at: http://medhealth.leeds.ac.uk/download/1404/keynote_janis_fook

This conference keynote and podcast can be combined with Gardner’s book on critical reflection as an overview for ‘core’ reading. Jan Fook’s keynote for a medical education conference includes both the ‘what it is’ explanation and a retheorizing of critical reflection. I really like her summary on p. 14 for the focus on the political aspects:

“In reworking a theory of critical reflection, I would now articulate critical reflection as involving the ability to understand the social dimensions and political functions of experience and meaning making, and the ability to apply this understanding in working in social contexts” (emphasis in original)

The podcast interview is meant as an overview – Jan Fook’s style and enthusiasm are compelling, start here if you are unsure about where to dive in.

White, S., Fook, J., and Gardner, F. (eds.) (2006) Critical reflection in health and social care. Maidenhead: Open University.

Lehmann’s chapter 14 particularly interesting as this links a reflective writing approach to critical reflective practice; the ‘five questions’ she poses are also very useful for unpicking underlying assumptions.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practicing critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University.

Other than Gardner (2014) I think this is the best introduction containing a more detailed explanation of the theory plus a plan for how to carry out practical reflective conversations as a group.

Vince, R. and Reynolds, M. (2002) ‘Organizing reflective practice’, Organization Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities, Copenhagen, Denmark, 28-30 April. Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wbs/conf/olkc/archive/olkc3/papers/contribution115.pdf

I include this here as Vince and Reynolds link reflective practice to critical management studies as a way of developing a model moving beyond Schön. Their overall view of ‘collective reflection’ is a useful expansion of, and critique of some limits in Schön’s work.

Ghaye, T. (2005) Developing the reflective healthcare team. Oxford: Blackwell.

Does what it says: the focus is on team-based reflection in healthcare, from a UK context. Much of what is here is generalizable and I think this is a particularly good starting point for managers or leaders looking at ways of developing reflective teamwork.

Critical theory and praxis

A major attraction for me to critical reflection was how Fook, Gardner, and White combine ‘traditional’ reflective practices with critical theory. With that in mind I wanted to include a few suggestions for starting points I think are useful in this area that may help in understanding the above. Lauren’s recommended reading list below includes these and much, much more: everything from critical theory ‘big names’ to specific library and inform recommendations.

Generally I’d also recommend Foucault, but struggle to pick one particular work. If pressed I’d include Discipline and Punish due to the focus on power and how disciplinary mechanisms were extended to the 20th century (Taylorist, Fordist) workplace, and the classic chapter on panopticism. It’s what I’ve recommended to my team as a starting point.

Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M., and Buschman, J. (eds.) (2010) Critical theory for library and information science. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

In my opinion the best general introduction to how critical theory can be applied to library and information work.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

A foundational work on praxis and critical pedagogy, quotable and inspiring. Of its time and place (citations include Lenin and Mao) so should be taken as a starting point for developing ideas.

Day, R.E., (2000) ‘Tropes, history, and ethics in professional discourse and information science’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469–475. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(2000)51:5<469::AID-ASI7>3.0.CO;2-B

Free-to-read preprint available at: http://info.slis.indiana.edu/~roday/articles/tropes.pdf

Reading lists from our community

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory’, Lauren Smith, May 16. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

This blog post links to Lauren’s critical theory in LIS reading list (Google Doc) but is worth reading for additional background and the wonderful top ‘All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts’ list.