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Surroundings and engagement

Recently I’ve been thinking about library websites a lot in the context of an article in a UX magazine (here’s the link: On Attention to Surroundings). It introduced me to the idea of surroundings as a field of experience that exists in between what you’re focused on and that which is purely distracting. Surroundings are an important part of an experience, but not in a way that you are conscious of. Surroundings affect your experience without costing you attention.  Although where the author goes with the topic isn’t that relevant to libraries, I’ve been thinking about how it relates to libraries for ages. 

I think surroundings are an important factor in what makes people feel affection for libraries. Collections and staffed services may be in the foreground but when you read people’s comments about why they support the Friends of the Library or protest a campus’s decision to close a library location, those comments often touch the unique atmosphere. There’s something uplifting about a library and I’d tie this to the fact that a library user is surrounded by other users and the other business of the library. Sometimes this other activity is indeed distracting but ideally other people’s presence as they browse, read, ask questions, and work remains in that middle ground where the user is aware of them but in a passive way. The hush of the library isn’t absolute silence.

There aren’t too many other places that offer the experience of doing something alone, but alongside other people. I’m not religious, but I enjoy visiting churches, and I think they offer a version of that. People in a house of worship are having their own religious experience, but usually with other people doing something similar around them and in an atmosphere that has been refined over hundreds of years to be inspirational and focus you on worship. The surroundings aren’t your focus, or doing your focus for you, but they aren’t distracting either.  

The more obvious example we talk about in libraries is cafes. People are attached to their cafes, and like libraries they can sometimes be distracting. But there’s research showing that the sounds of a cafe actually encourage concentration—the coffee machines, quiet conversation. One reason is that cafes are a place of routine. The sounds and movement of people ordering and adding milk and sugar are predictable. If someone burst in one day in a clown suit and the next day someone brought in a roulette wheel, it would ruin it. 

Many people have observed that while Google may be able to pull the answer to who’s in Grant’s tomb, nothing has quite replaced a physical library—and this essay gave me a new way of seeing why.  

The reason that the essay really grabbed my thoughts and wouldn’t let go is that I spend most of my time on digital libraries in various senses, and it looks to me like library websites are terrible at surroundings. We’ve spent all our time on the “focus” part of the experience, which isn’t unreasonable, but it hasn’t led anyone to feel affectionate towards these websites. You have our rather disappointing discovery layers, which are sometimes like having closed stacks with a not-so-bright page: you can request something, but you might not get what you want, and browsing or serendipity are supported only awkwardly. Then you have our reams of “about the library” material, which is often written without a voice or personality. Also, many users visit library websites to do very repetitive actions, like retrieve journal articles, which seems to make them inattentive to the website; the visit becomes something mindless like washing the dishes.

What you don’t have much of, on a library website, is a sense of other people using the library alongside you. Sure, we’ve attempted to introduce social features into our catalogs, but for some users this registers in the “unwelcome distraction” part of their brain rather than the “charming surroundings” part. This is probably because it occurs in the place where they’re trying to do their selection of materials and it may add distracting noise to the process of making a choice. Also, social elements on library websites are usually specific (PersonX saved ArticleY; PersonW reviewed BookZ), raising privacy concerns rather than offering a susurrus of combined activity. Recently, SPL has had some good experiences with “recommend-a-thon” type events on Facebook or Twitter, which has the flow of a many-to-many conversation that you can pay attention to, or not, or parts of. That seems like a step in the right direction, but I don’t know what it would look like in an academic library.

A physical library offers a work environment, but a digital library doesn’t. Could we offer an agreeable experience online? As I was writing this I found a post on the blog Computational Complexity where one of the commenters thinks not, but I’m willing to try (while they chip away at P = NP—fair enough?). What if we made a great app-like website that combined aspects of PapersScrivener, and Focus@Will? Or, to flip back to public library examples, a website that offered a librarian’s skill of identifying an unusual readalike, with a way to discuss with like-minded people over a virtual cup of tea? As I’m typing this, these seem like terrible, laughable, motley ideas that would be a mess if you actually built them. But I don’t think they need be, because people have been off building parts of them—that’s why I can name specific products. It’s just that they haven’t come together as an identifiably library experience.

In the Surroundings article, the author talks about how a lot of technology today is aimed at “distraction engineering.” I see this in mobile phone games, HuffPo headlines, social media alerts: they’re calculated to seize your attention, which is irritating because we each want to make our own decisions about where to direct our focus. (I’m sure there are staffers at, say, Facebook who’d protest that they work on engagement, but since they’re trying to get you to devote more attention to what your superego wants you to get away from, I’d chalk that up to doublespeak.) When I say engagement in a library context, I mean learning, researching, experimenting, fantasizing, exploring and so forth, and probably not in a way that immediately accrues benefit to advertisers!

Could surroundings be part of—let’s call it—engagement engineering—the reverse of “distraction engineering”? Yes, I think that’s why people like them. Surroundings occupy the part of your brain that tends to wander off and wonder about whether you have enough pasta for cook for dinner tonight, keeping those thoughts at bay so you can think about what you want to focus on. It strikes me that nearly every organization you deal with is trying to capitalize on your susceptibility to distraction in some way, and with each passing year they’re doing so with better science and more uncanny effectiveness. Who is out there trying to engineer freely and consciously chosen engagement?

The more I’ve thought about this, the more important it seems. As I’ve switched between public and academic libraries, I’ve felt committed to the mission of each, but haven’t seen a strong connection between those missions—particularly as each find new directions, with public libraries expanding into community services and multimedia, while academic libraries find new purpose in data management. But I think we could all embrace engagement engineering as a way of expressing our mission—leaving the users to pick the target of their focus themselves. It doesn’t have to be work; it can be research, curiosity, fantasy. It doesn’t have to be in person; it could be online or outreach to where the user is.

This is different than “library engagement” as I usually hear it discussed. Often we just mean “trying to get users to engage with the library” in the sense of getting a library card or attending events. What I mean is the library as a supportive environment for engaging with some other thing, when everything else in your world is conspiring against that happening.

The key points to me are these: The user chooses their own focus—we don’t have a dog in that fight. We try to use our skills to provide resources to feed that focus (an obvious, traditional mandate) and create environments that use surroundings appropriately to keep distractions at bay (less obvious). Perhaps we even give our users defensive tools against other onslaughts against their attention! Whether online or in person, the library remains a comfortable, accommodating, and safe space to learn and explore.