Participatory design empowers both librarians and the communities they serve

Callan Bignoli is the Director of the library at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. She studies and speaks about participatory design, community building, and social issues in technology, all in the interest of fighting for a more just, equitable, and livable future.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the rapid deployment of computers and Internet infrastructure in public libraries by governmental and nonprofit organizations led to a new pressure for libraries to change what they do in order to stay relevant to funding bodies. As Daniel Greene demonstrates in his 2021 book The Promise of Access, libraries across the globe have been responding to this pressure for years, but library workers have only rarely been able to design the technology services they depend on intentionally and with their communities in mind.

Systems like public computer/printer use, event management, calendars, room bookings, and digital signage are now dominated by vendor monopolies and lock-in, leading to libraries paying hefty costs for systems that often do not support, or actively hinder, the end-user experience. These systems disempower and frustrate both the library workers maintaining them, and the patrons using them.

The usability - or lack thereof - of common library software programs is only one example of how participatory design could have led, or still might lead, to a different path. Participatory design is a cousin to user experience, user-centered, and service design; some of these terms might be used interchangeably. User experience, service design, and design thinking are commonly used and appreciated terms in the field of librarianship with many professional texts and frequent presentations on the topic, including Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches, Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach by Callan Bignoli and Lauren Stara, and Service Design by Joe Marquez and Annie Downey. The global design firm IDEO offers a “Design Thinking for Libraries” toolkit.

While participatory design is not absent from library literature or professional discourse - such as Mega Subramaniam’s 2016 article on cooperative inquiry with teen library patrons, and the Council on Library and Information Resources’ 2014 report on participatory design in academic libraries - it is somewhat less commonly invoked in the field.

Compared to these other design relatives, participatory design indicates not only a deeper understanding of end-users and their ecosystems, but also a shared ownership of a designed product or service. When applied mindfully, this approach requires a certain vulnerability in accepting that an end-user’s lived experience is often more useful expertise than one’s own experience as a designer (or a librarian, as the case may be). It involves methods from ethnography and even psychology, as well as those of user experience design.

Though there is not one set toolkit for “doing” participatory design, interviews and embedded observation (i.e., in the setting where a person works or lives) of end-users is essential. Other methods and strategies include affinity mappings or diagrams, which involves finding patterns across end-user subjects’ behavior and feelings and grouping them into meaningful themes, and journey mapping, which considers all of the various steps along the way in a given interaction with a person or a service. The most important and defining aspect of participatory design is the combination of getting to know end-users and designing with sustainability - the continued ability for end-users to do what they need or want to do - in mind. End-user empowerment is the key, and for readers interested in learning more, Sasha Costanza-Chock’s 2020 book Design Justice offers a liberatory and activist perspective for participatory design, helping readers understand the important interrelationships between design, power, and social justice.

Looking inward, participatory design with software providers could mean library workers get a chance to explain how an actual patron struggles with using a given application and together a more intuitive system is designed. Looking outward, a library leadership team interested in strategic planning could use participatory design as a chance to gain a robust understanding of the different types of patrons their library serves and work with those patrons as co-designers of their overarching goals, as well as new programs or services imagined in that goal-setting process.

Library workers are often reluctant to see themselves as designers or interviewers, but they are either already doing participatory design work and just don’t know it, or that they have an innate aptitude for it that they haven’t yet identified. After all, many librarians work at reference desks or other public service outposts fielding questions from their communities. Many spend time building their understanding of a given age group or municipality in order to create effective and fitting collection development policies. Turning back to the example of software, many no doubt understand exactly where, when, and how patrons are having trouble with signing onto a computer, printing a document, or borrowing an ebook.

Participatory design can be used to create an alternative to the world of unreliable proprietary software in libraries, and it can be used by library workers themselves to build closer and deeper relationships with their communities. It bears pointing out here that these two possibilities are connected: public library workers today spend an immeasurable amount of time providing computer and Internet access to their community members and troubleshooting common electronic resource access issues. What would happen if their time was freed up from this role and they were able to focus on literacy, community programming, or outreach?

When it comes to participatory software design in libraries, this is a fertile ground for exploration and potential grant funding for partnerships between library workers and programmers. Engineering and computer science students are looking for more socially beneficial job experience in civic or public interest tech, and libraries offer a unique environment for learning from different constituent groups and making meaningful change through the design and implementation of technology. Library vendors should embrace a participatory relationship with their clients, making informed product design and improvement choices driven both by library workers’ feedback and the feedback they convey directly from their end-users.

As a method of building closer and deeper relationships with their patrons, library workers can use participatory design to give community members buy-in and shared ownership. They can improve services, or brainstorm new program offerings based on what their patrons actually want to see the library do. Library workers have a certain amount of comfort and expertise with certain standard operating procedures that may not be as immediately apparent and intuitive to new users, or even lifelong users who are not trained librarians themselves. In order to advance missions of accessibility and inclusion, library workers need to see their work through the eyes of their own end-users, and to be true agents of communal change and stewardship, they need to be able to test their assumptions.

Participatory design is a way to make the library truly the people’s place and break down barriers that staff members may not even realize exist. These methods can also return agency and empowerment to library workers who have been struggling to respond to priorities and service expectations that seem ever-changing. It is a lifelong practice that takes time and effort, and it requires humility, empathy, and a mindset shift. As libraries continue to navigate an uncertain future, they will need to understand what their end-users want in order to build support and serve their unique communities in a way that transcends trends and expectations. Participatory design does not only make this possible; it can lead to whole new possibilities.


Further reading

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