Video Diaries, Mapping and Photo Elicitation; Ethnographic Research-a-go-go!

What do LibGuides, ethnographic research and 3D printing have in common?...

What do LibGuides, ethnographic research and 3D printing have in common? To my mind, these are some of the latest crazes to sweep libraryland, and guaranteed to cause eye-rolling or cult-like following, depending on your point of view. Naturally, I have my own opinions about these trends (LibGuides, bleurgh; 3D printing, interesting!) but the one where I admit I am a fully hoodwinked, blinkered, paid up adherent and member of the cause, is ethnographic research. (Wait, come back, eye rollers!)  And just as my first column tried to emphasise that Web 2.0 is not about the shiny new technological tools, this column will explore how participatory design fits into web 2.0, and how we as subject specialists can use this in our liaison and outreach work, among other things.

Also known as participatory design, ethnographic research comes from the field of anthropology and sprung onto the library scene after the publication of Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons' “Studying Students” book in 2007. In a nutshell, ethnographic research aims to study and understand user behaviour and experience in a specific scenario, not only to understand how users interact with a system or situation, but also to try and gain insights into the meaning people may ascribe to that process. By understanding some of these contexts as well as mental models, libraries can try and address common obstacles or troublesome sticking points to create, ultimately, more user-centered services. This fits in perfectly with the Web 2.0 focus of letting go of control to collaborate with patrons and create more user-friendly spaces and processes that will work for your community (wow, alliteration a-go-go too!)

Most ethnographic research has focused on large scale design projects, for example for a learning commons. However, there are other ways that subject specialists can get involved and bring user-centered principles to liaison and outreach work as well.
For quick questions, you can't beat the humble survey. Whether you want to know when or where to hold office hours, which core journals or magazines are valued most or what workshops students want to see, surveys can give you a quick idea of general feelings. These could obviously be done online using tools such as Survey Monkey or through social media such as Twtpoll or Facebook surveys. However if you have access to the department building, a surprisingly successful way to solicit feedback is to leave your questions on a clipboard or whiteboard for a couple of days and ask students to vote using stickers.
Focus Groups
For more complex or detailed questions, a focus group or group interview can provide a tonne of useful and insightful data. The group situation, especially when students are in the same department, can stimulate broad discussion and creative thinking, all of which provides valuable data on student needs and whether the library is meeting these goals. Some of the most useful questions could focus around current usage of the library, to help find out what is memorable or useful, as well as service gaps. Questions could also ask students to talk about current frustrations. This can often throw up interesting insights into the intersection of the library within the departmental or disciplinary culture. Future needs or how students see their information habits or practices changing is also helpful, especially to prioritize needs or understand where students see technology or research in their field going. Collected data can often indicate if there is a need to create more awareness of existing services, or possibilities for additional outreach opportunities, as well as information on how best to achieve this.
These ideas just scratch the surface, and for subject specialists who have their own library, the sky's the limit! Papers such as Andrew Asher and Susan Miller's “A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries” can help the planning process. Ethnographic research can be very simple, doesn't need a great deal of setup and students will often volunteer to improve “their” library without the offer of incentives. In return, you'll not only gather insightful data but it'll go a long way to improving community relations, with nary a LibGuide or a 3D printer in sight...

Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder