Research News

Study to find better ways libraries can serve older constituents

Older man looking at a tablet in a library.

While there's plenty of research on what services young chldren and teens want in their libraries, little is know about the preferences of older patrons, such as baby boomers.


Published August 19, 2019

headshot of Valerie Nesset.
“What often happens is that programming for older adults either does not exist because they are grouped together with other adults, no matter the age differences, or the programming is based on what the particular librarian thinks the older adults want. ”
Valerie Nesset, associate professor
Department of Information Science

Librarians have no trouble designing programs to entice children and young adults. There’s an established academic and research history defining what preschoolers to teens prefer in a library, and how librarians can provide fun, useful programs and services.

But what about older people, such as baby boomers? Too often these mature groups are too diverse in culture, interests and occupations for librarians to do more than guess at what their older constituents would enjoy and use.

Enter Valerie M. Nesset, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and creator of the university-wide Faculty IT Liaison Program. Funded by a $451,667 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Nesset is working to answer this question, and give librarians a proven way they can find the best programs to meet their constituents’ needs.

Using a participatory design research method she helped create called Bonded Design, which is used to foster meaningful communication between two disparate groups in the shared experience of a design team, Nesset will use the three-year IMLS grant to establish empirical research that develops a process and tools to create “meaningful, targeted public library programming” for older adults.

“Unfortunately, unlike with children’s and young adult services that enjoy a long history of specialized research and education, there is little empirical research or education specific to older populations,” says Nesset, a faculty member in GSE’s Department of Information Science who specializes in digital media and learning, literacy, information science and information literacy.

“Practicing librarians may not be sufficiently equipped to determine what programming and services would best meet their older patrons’ needs,” she says. “Therefore, what often happens is that programming for older adults either does not exist because they are grouped together with other adults, no matter the age differences, or the programming is based on what the particular librarian thinks the older adults want.”

Nesset’s research sets out to change that.

The project establishes a partnership between the Department of Information Science and three libraries — urban, suburban and rural, chosen because of the diversity of the populations they serve — within the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system. The project will answer the primary research question: How can the Bonded Design framework promote communication and collaboration among librarians and older adults in the design of meaningful and relevant programming?

“The overall purpose of the project,” Nesset explains, “is to develop process models and supplementary educational resources — guidelines for best practices, resource checklists and online video tutorials — so that librarians in all types of libraries across the country and internationally can adapt the materials to their local and specific contexts so that they can plan and implement their own participatory design processes for their own specific patrons.”

One of the innovative aspects of the study is the Bonded Design methodology. Nesset first developed this method with a research team she worked with at McGill University in Montreal. Nesset and her co-researchers will adapt the IMLS library study from the Bonded Design methodology used in UB’s Faculty IT Liaison (FITL) Program.

The FITL Program was created to more deeply investigate the issues highlighted in a faculty survey to identify gaps in IT services and technologies, an initiative led by the Faculty Senate IT Committee, which Nesset chairs.

Nesset was appointed the inaugural UBIT Faculty Fellow to lead this project, the purpose of which was to bring UB faculty and IT professionals together in a shared experience of a design team to improve communication and interaction between these two groups.

“While both groups work for UB, they are quite disparate and rarely interact unless there is a specific problem,” Nesset says. “We thought the FITL Program would be a great way to fix that. It was run as a research project so that we could better identify gaps and needs to enable development of a process model that can be used more widely.”

The program has undergone its second iteration, and Nesset and UBIT personnel are busy analyzing the data.

Called Bonded Design because the team members were able to “bond” together to create programming that neither group could develop alone or with their peers, the process was used to develop a consensus of recommendations by design team members and shaped the team’s final recommendations — a list of suggested modifications to make the technologies more user-friendly.

Thus, the Bonded Design method not only provides a framework in which team members of different backgrounds can draw from those backgrounds to create something new, it also includes an “action component,” where all participants directly benefit from the research.

“The faculty members on the teams benefitted by learning different ways to use the technologies from the IT professionals,” Nesset says. “The IT professionals learned how the faculty were actually using the technologies. The two groups, especially the IT professionals, also learned how to more meaningfully communicate with each other.”

The latest study for adults using libraries includes this “action component.”

“In this case, older adults — experts in the kinds of things they like to do — will be working with librarians, experts in creating programs, in design teams to develop targeted programming,” she says.

“Not only will the results of these design team sessions inform programming methods and content for future initiatives, just participating in the team dynamic is of benefit.”

Nesset says those participating in the study will come from urban, suburban and rural libraries, chosen because of the diversity of the populations they serve. She says they are also hoping to recruit non-library users, such as adults from community centers.

“This research is unique in that it is, in effect, ‘by the people for the people,’” she says. “Indeed, all of the participants — librarian-researchers and older adults — have a stake in the outcome. It is not a matter of one group ‘studying’ the other. Instead, it empowers both groups to work together to create something new that is meaningful for all.”


This looks exciting and so important, since in my neck of the woods, older people are very involved in using the public libraries.  Making it even more relevant and useful for them would be fantastic.

Congratulations, Valerie and team!

Kathie McGee