Over at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community they sponsored a webcast today that offered information about a unique project. The presenters were Susan Gibbons, Associate Dean, Judi Briden, Digital Librarian for Public Services, and Nancy Foster, Lead Anthropologist and Co-Manager of the Digital Initiatives Unit. You read that correctly. Foster is an anthropologist working with the librarians to help them learn more about their user community. In this presentation, titled “Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design In a University Library”, Gibbons, Briden, and Foster explained how they are using ethnographic methods to collect information about how students and faculty members do their research and use the library (or other non-library resources). The research is funded by an IMLS grant.
One of the things they do is have students draw diagrams that illustrate how they conduct their research process. We saw examples of drawings made by students (these use stick figures folks – the students aren’t expected to be artists) that show where they start and how they proceed through the research process. The research team members collect and analyze the drawings looking for patterns to provide more insight into student research methods. They also ask students to indicate on campus maps those buildings they use and what they do in those buildings. This can provide insight into which buildings the students feel most comfortable going to for their computing, research, and socialization. Students are given disposable cameras and are asked to take photos of their rooms, and their work materials. Research team members visit students in their dorm rooms and videotape them working on their computers. I guess ethnographic research can be a bit invasive at times. They described how they are using similar methods to better understand faculty use of institutional repositories, as they hope to learn more about ways to encourage faculty to make use of the repository.
The point of the webcast was to demonstrate how a user-centered design process can help librarians to better understand our user communities and how they do – and do not – use our physical and virtual resources. Design thinking suggests we can continuously improve our services by asking how our resources can better fill the users’ information needs. But if we fail to clearly understand those needs it’s not possible to design the approriate systems that best suit our students and faculty.
Perhaps the most salient point that I took away from the presentation is that the more we know about our user community – the more information we gather about their research workflows – the more things we will know that our information competitors can’t possibly grasp. That should position us to customize or frame services in ways that will deliver services to our users that should far exceed what they can obtain from generic search engines. Wishful thinking? I think not.
BTW, there are some sample documents used in the ethnographic research available within the University of Rochester’s institutional repository. They are pubicly accessible.
Sorry, but because of the confidential nature of some of the photos and illustrations shown in today’s webcast presentation, it was not possible to archive the program. But if you missed this today you should have opportunities to hear more about this exciting research program. The team members will be doing some conference presentations, and I hope they’ll publish some of their research and findings in the future.