Visitors and residents: different roads, different maps

2017-02-21 Visitors and Residents Roads and maps1

“The map is not the territory.”

That phrase is probably the best-known quote of Alfred Korzybski, the famous Polish-American semantic scholar. He was making the seemingly obvious point that the words we use to describe something are not the thing itself. Nor does a description change the thing itself. Why does this matter? Well, the more layers of abstraction we put between ourselves and actual things, the harder it becomes to relate them back to the “nonverbal domain” as he called it. We can fall down a rabbit hole of concepts and constructs that, while interesting, may not be, well…useful.

That’s why, as we’ve spread the word about our “Digital Visitors and Residents” work, I’ve been gratified to see librarians and institutions look at our tools not as clever metaphors or abstractions. Instead, they are using them in a variety of ways to make real, valuable changes in how they interact with their library users and potential users at the point-of-need.

In short, as long as you look up from the map often to take in your surroundings, it can function as a useful guide rather than an intellectual exercise.

Direction over location

First, in case you’re not familiar with our work, here’s the shortest version ever of what we mean by “Visitors and Residents:”

  • In visitor mode, people are performing tasks.
  • In resident mode, people are being people.

A bit longer explanation can be found here.

Why is this important? Because people in different learning communities may use the same tools very differently depending on the need and situation. And if you’re setting up a “residential” service for people who really want only to anonymously get the necessary data, you won’t satisfy their needs.

With the variety of services available online—and the different types of users out there—how do you even know where to start?

That’s why we put together the Visitors and Residents App. It gives people an easy tool to start mapping their online behaviors and can help them realize how they engage with and use online technologies and information. The app also has been used by librarians to identify users’ and potential users’ preferred online behaviors from their personal perspective.


The information you’ll get from this tool isn’t meant to be definitive. But it can be very helpful directionally. If, for example, an academic library finds that most of its faculty is using a group discussion tool (nominally a “resident” service) only to post and find links (“visitor” behavior), then they may want to rethink how the tool is positioned.

I’ve been surprised—and delighted—at how much fun people have had with this simple concept and the online app.

But what if you want to go further and build a more detailed map?

Local research, better detail

Several institutions decided to partner with OCLC Research on user behavior studies. I’ve worked with researchers and librarians at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan to conduct semi-structured interviews with undergraduate and graduate students and faculty. These institutions were eager to put in more time to get more granular about how different types of users and potential users engage with technology and how well (or badly) library services fit into their workflows.

At the Università Cattolica, for example, we found that:

  • design resources should be focused on distance, self-service activities,
  • home access should provide more free resources,
  • there was a need for information literacy about the value of different sources,
  • students had better technology and language skills than expected, and
  • Google tools are used equally for personal and school projects.

Please note: while these results may be interesting to all readers, they are localized! Your results will vary!

Next steps

What’s important is to do something. For your library, that may be as easy as using our app with some faculty and students. At the Università Cattolica, the study was led by practitioner librarians—not trained information scientists. OCLC staff provided some training and guidance. And the Barcelona and Madrid studies were conducted by information science researchers. Different levels of detail for different institutions—and that’s just fine.

The point is: you don’t need to hire an outside consultant or survey bureau. Identify what you already know and what you want to know, and start asking questions. And be sure to let us know what you find out!