Understanding and Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Special Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

November 17, 2020
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.

From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization” (McLeod, 2020, para. 1).

In other words, Maslow believed there is a sequence of things we need before we can move up the pyramid. For example, we need our physiological needs met before we can worry about safety and belonging. This theory is regularly used in education when seeking to understand motivations and behavior. 

So how can you use this in the library?

We can use Maslow’s hierarchy when we teach.  Many library users experience anxiety when they do not know how to do something. They don’t feel as if they belong in the library. Making sure patrons feel like they belong will help them reach the esteem and self-actualization stages.  Meredith Francis published an article in 2010 titled Fulfillment of a Higher Order: Placing Information Literacy within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  This article is geared toward academic libraries, but I think it has application for all librarians—especially the part in the article about library anxiety.  Regarding library anxiety, she wrote, “By working to decrease library anxiety in [library visitors], we will be increasing their ability to use the library. Comfort within the library often involves the creation of an atmosphere that is welcoming and accepting. This includes both the physical library and the disposition of the staff. The purpose of the library is not to judge a patron’s interests or need for information. The patron must know that we consider their privacy of upmost importance and feel no judgment in whatever question he or she may ask” (Francis, 2010, Library Anxiety, para. 5). 

Second, we can use Maslow’s hierarchy when we seek to understand the motivations of our users. Consider what is motivating your users to visit the library.  Why do they seek out the space? Why do users contact you for research assistance? 

Are users seeking information to further their career? Are they seeking information to keep their job? Are they looking for new information to help them deal with a problem that has arisen? Understanding needs-based motivation can help you provide better services.  

To understand the needs of users, develop a survey with questions that align to different areas of Maslow’s hierarchy. For example:

  • Do you use the library to complete your job responsibilities? [Safety–the user needs to keep their job]
  • Do you use the library to seek information for professional development? [Self-esteem]
  • Do you use the library to understand company knowledge in order to feel knowledgeable about the organization? [Belonging]

These questions can be reworked for your organization, but the idea is to ask questions that help you understand what motivates your stakeholders to use the library. Once you have a better understanding of what motivates users, then you can focus on support that meets needs. 

Additional Readings

This blog post does not get into all the nuances of Maslow’s hierarchy. Therefore, I recommend these additional readings:

Burton, N. (2012). Our hierarchy of needs. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/our-hierarchy-needs

Logan, J., & Everall, K. (2019). First things first: Exploring Maslow’s hierarchy as a service prioritization framework. Weave: Journal of Library User Experience, 2(2). Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.


Francis, M. (2010). Fulfillment of a higher order: Placing information literacy within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. College & Research Libraries News, 71(3), 140-159. doi:https://doi.org/10.5860/crln.71.3.8336

McLeod, S. (2020). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html 

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri. Please read her other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterpriseand GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all sizes and budgets.

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