Kelly Mccomas

Public Libraries as Social Infrastructure

Experience Design for Teens

Project Overview
For my Masters thesis, I focused on the role of public libraries as social and community infrastructure. I researched and designed a team-based library program that encourages young community members to connect with library resources, librarians, and other users so that the library can be a trusted safe space for learning and gathering.

Dates - March 2020 - ongoing
My Contributions
Researcher - I conducted over 10 primary research interviews and extensive secondary research. I designed qualitative and quantitative evaluation methods and led 10 concept evaluation sessions with teens and library experts.

Experience Designer - I used my research insights to design and prototype my solution.

The Problem

Building Connections at the Library

Public libraries are an essential piece of what sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure: "the physical elements of community that act as a conduit to bring people together and build social capital through recurring interactions". In a global pandemic, libraries and their resources are more important than ever for young people, and also more difficult to access.

Problem Statement
How might we encourage young community members to connect with librarians and other users so that the library can be a trusted safe space for learning and gathering?

The Solution

Library Odyssey

I designed a library program that encourages teens to explore their library and forge social connections by grouping users into teams who tackle projects and activities together.

The Research

More Than Just Books

I interviewed library users, administrative staff, and librarians to understand the value their public library provides.
I learned that the library is a lot of things to a lot of people.

“The library was the only place my mom let me go after school...I would come back and tell the librarians about the books I read.”
“The library was where I could explore worlds that didn’t feel otherwise accessible from my Catholic home in suburban Texas.”
“I’m a people person...I like to see the same faces every week [at Scrabble club].”
“I can work in the library all day without feeling I am unwelcome or like I need to buy something.”

The Insights

1. Infrastructure for Connection

Libraries are uniquely positioned to connect community members to each other and to resources especially during a pandemic, but are currently forced to do so without physical social infrastructure.

How might we transfer the value of a library’s shared space to a virtual world?

2. First Steps to Engagement

Engaging with library staff and the library’s collection are often the first steps users take toward a more trusting engagement and a sense of belonging in library spaces.

How might we invite users to engage directly with librarians and feel ownership over library resources?

The Process

Learning at Low Fidelity

Using simple storyboards and sketches, I evaluated early concepts with teens and teen librarians to understand the feasibility and desirability of my design directions.

The Features

Guided by Design Principles

My ideation was guided by four key design principles.

1. Flexible

Adapts based on the users and their passions, because teens' interests are constantly changing.

2. Co-created

Builds trust, a sense of ownership, and excitement about library resources by inviting users into the creation of programs and curation of resources.

3. Social

Encourages connection, because libraries are uniquely equipped to bring a community's members together.

4. Community-centric

Brings the library, its resources, and librarians into the community because the physical library is not always easily accessible.


Library Odyssey

I completed my thesis in a series of design sprints, each aimed at increasing the focus and fidelity of my solution. The solution, Library Odyssey, is an experience for both teen library users and the librarians who design their library's teen programming.

I also developed a strategy for Library Odyssey's integration into library programming and funding models.

Key Takeaways

Leading a Team of One

1. Adhere to a Schedule

This project spanned 12 weeks, making it my longest continuous design project. Breaking my research and design goals into sprints and setting weekly and monthly benchmarks helped me stay on track.

2. Leverage Mentorship and Peers

Especially because I was the sole researcher and designer on my team, I got into the habit of connecting early and often with my thesis mentor and sharing ideas with my peers during scheduled check-ins and share-outs to bridge the gaps and break up roadblocks as we worked.

3. Adapt to Constraints

I wasn't expecting to complete my thesis in a global lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though I didn't get to shadow librarians in person and explore physical library spaces as I had hoped, I quickly pivoted to remote research and testing and designed a successful digital solution.

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