Learning From The Work-Practice Study

This past Friday I attended the LACUNY (Librarians Association of the City University of New York) Institute 2007. On hand were two speakers from the University of Rochester Library, Nancy Foster and David Lindahl. ACRLog has previously posted about projects in which both Foster and Lindahl are involved. Foster, as Lead Anthropologist at the River City Campus Library, is a leader in the ethnographic studies being conducted by the Library. Lindahl, as Director of Digital Library Initiatives, participates in these projects with Foster and also heads up the XC Catalog research project.

Their presentation was titled “Studying Students: Identification of Student Work Practices and Applications to Technology Design”. Foster and Lindahl described the process by which they conduct what are referred to as “Work-Practice Studies”. The studies are designed to allow the library staff to better understand the practices and behaviors of students as they conduct their school work. Foster and Lindahl showed how they explore the world of students by visiting their dorm rooms to examine how they use technology and do their research. Students are given single-use cameras and asked to take photos of specific things. The students also participate in Co-Design Workshops in which they are asked to draw or build models of their preferred library workspace. They shared videos of students in their dorms and at work to provide a better idea of how the Work-Practice Studies are conducted. The real work takes place when librarians and anthropologists analyze transcripts of interviews, review hours of video looking for clues, and brainstorm ways to use what they learn to improve library services.

While it helps to have a team of professionals to lead a project of this nature, Foster told the audience that it is better to do some level of work-practice study than to do none at all. It can be as basic as having a librarian work with some students to observe their work practices more closely. I learned some valuable techniques for conducting these studies. I also learned that Foster and her colleagues will have a book published later this summer that will provide more details and photos on work-practice studies. I will look forward to reading it.

6 thoughts on “Learning From The Work-Practice Study”

  1. ACRL will be publishing a book edited by Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons of the University of Rochester later this summer! Watch the ACRL Publications page! This book will be published in print and will also be a downloadable open access book. We appreciate the University of Rochester’s willingness to share their experience in observing undergraduates through publication with ACRL.

  2. It seems ethnographic studies in libraries are growing – or coming to light, – perhaps out of info seeking behavior, persona, and usability studies, but beyond them. I hope the book provides tips on managing & analyzing these types of projects!

  3. I imagine that ethnographic studies are growing in libraries as part of the broader movement over the past 20 years toward qualitative models for research, e.g., focus groups, interview studies, case study. Combine the mainstream recognition of this research tradition with the wide-spread dissatisfaction with purely quantitative study (esp. in the form of simple reporting of input data as a measure of library excellence, as with the ARL rankings), and there’s a powerful brew!

    Of course, it begs the question: how many academic libraries are prepared to engage in a rigorous approach to qualitative inquiry as part of their overall assessment program? This brings another dimension (and another skill set) to the already crowded table. As Rochester shows us, though, there’s a lot to be gained by the library that makes the investment in these projects.

    Looking forward to the book!

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