Toward a Critical Turn in Library UX

Maura Seale, Alison Hicks, Karen P. Nicholson


In the past decade, cataloguing and classification and information literacy have experienced a critical turn, acknowledging the political, economic, and social forces that shape complex information environments. Library user experience (UX) has yet to undergo such a transformation, however; instead, it continues to be seen as a toolkit of value-neutral approaches for evaluating and improving library services and spaces to enhance user satisfaction and engagement. Library UX draws upon ethnography but is also informed by the principles and values of usability and design. Little attention has been paid to the origins or epistemological underpinnings of UX as a construct, the ways these inform UX practice, and, ultimately, how they impact what academic libraries are and what they do. With the exception of a 2016 article by Lanclos and Asher, the relationship among corporatism, UX, and the mission and values of academic libraries has yet to be acknowledged or examined. This paper seeks to address this gap by drawing upon literature from LIS, anthropology and human computer interaction to interrogate library UX. While a handful of library UX practitioners have started to promote a more thoughtful study of individuals’ activities and needs, in the main, library UX remains a theoretically weak practice, one that sets out to solve complex problems with practical “solutions.” The failure to interrogate UX as a construct and a practice necessarily forecloses the user-centered problems we address, the tools and strategies we use, and the solutions we propose. We contend that UX would benefit from a deeper engagement with user-centered theories emerging from Library and Information Science (LIS) and critical and feminist perspectives on practice, embodiment, and power or risk perpetuating oppressive, hegemonic ideas about the academic library as a white space and its users as able-bodied.

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