Haarlem Oost is a branch library in the Netherlands that wanted to encourage visitors to add tags (descriptive keywords) to the books they read. These tags would be added to the books in the catalog to build a kind of recommendation system. To do this, the library didn't create a complicated computer system or send people online. Instead, they installed more book drops and return shelves, labeled with different descriptors like "boring," "great for kids," "funny," etc. This brilliant design allowed patrons to create new knowledge about the books in the library while only slightly adjusting their book-returning behavior. Read the original post on this project for more info.
This design inspires me because it creates new value out of what visitors already do. Too often, cultural institutions design participatory projects that require visitors to learn new tools or make sacrifices to contribute. The Haarlem Oost tagging return system wasn't one of these.
Or, so I thought. Two weeks ago, I decided I wanted a photo of the book drops and shelves in action for my forthcoming book. A Dutch friend volunteered to go snap the library. And then I received this email (bold mine):
I am afraid I have got bad news for you... This afternoon I went to the library in Haarlem Oost to take your pictures. When I arrived there, I noticed that they used 'normal' returning shelves instead of the tagging system. I asked one of the employees and it turned out that they quit using the system some time ago. Of course I asked her why. She explained that it more or less was a victim of its own success. First of all, particular shelves were overloaded in a short period of time (to be frank, I don't see the problem here, but to her it was a big problem, so I guess it influenced their working processes and confused them a lot)After I got over my shock (and the urge to delete the email), I realized that this depressing coda is a great illustration of the challenges of sustaining participatory projects.
Next to that, people were using the system so seriously that it took them a lot of time per book to decide where to place it. That caused some logistic problems in the (small) building, especially as they have some peak times. That meant that people often had to wait for other people to return their books - and then themselves again needed time to think where to place their books. There was an alternative system next to the tagging system to improve the flow, but people did not want to be rude and waited patiently on their turn- so the alternative did not work.
The woman I spoke to regrets that they do not use the tagging system anymore. She said that it gave them a good understanding on what the people in the neighbourhood like to read. She said that they are determined to introduce the system again when they have a good solution on the logistic problem, but unfortunately she could not give me a concrete term for that.
As it turned out, the Haarlem Oost tagging system DID change visitors' behavior--but arguably, it changed their behavior for the better. Visitors liked the activity, and it helped staff learn more about the usage of the collection.
The problem was not that the system was buggy or hard to use, but that it disrupted staff expectations and behavior. It introduced new challenges for staff--to manage return shelves differently, and to deal with queues. Rather than adapt to these challenges, they removed the system.
This is both incredibly shocking and unsurprising. Librarians--and all cultural professionals--address challenges creatively every day. But the challenges they solve are known ones, emerging from the services they traditionally provide. No librarian would get rid of all the Harry Potter books because they are "too popular." No museum would stop offering an educational program that was "too successful." These are familiar challenges that come with the job and are seen to have benefit. But if tagging creates a line or people spend too much time giving you feedback? Staff at Haarlem Oost likely felt comfortable removing the tagging shelves because they didn't see the tagging as a patron requirement, nor the maintenance of the shelves as part of their job.
These front-line staff also probably weren't involved when the outside architect designed the tagging system. If you want participatory projects to thrive at your institution, you must bring staff along with you in their development and listen to their concerns in the design phase. You have to make it clear that sustaining and stewarding these initiatives is as much "part of the job" as traditional functions. Just as you try to design for minimum guest sacrifice, you have to be conscious of potential staff sacrifice. You can't innovate by capital projects and brilliant ideas alone.
Do you have a story to share of a project that got derailed post-launch in this way? Share your thoughts in the comments on what makes these projects fail (and hopefully, rise again).