Studying Patrons Helps Libraries Across the Globe Reinvent Themselves in the Digital Era
Say library and people think books—stacks and stacks of them. But as most information moves online, accessible from any location with an Internet connection, librarians are being forced to reevaluate their institutions. As Michael Seadle, editor of Library Hi Tech, bluntly frames the dilemma: "If we don't have stuff, what are we here for?"
To answer that question, librarians at the University of Rochester turned to the people who come through their doors. Eight years ago they hired Nancy Fried Foster, the nation's first anthropologist employed to focus on library culture, and launched an unprecedented series of systematic and in-depth studies of faculty, staff, and students.
Part ethnography, part workplace research, the "Rochester method" they developed for understanding patrons has proven so valuable that academic libraries all over the world are adopting their techniques. Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester has become a best seller in the library world and these days Foster spends about a quarter of her time traveling to places as far-flung as Prague, Beirut, and Dubai giving workshops and consultations on the methodology.
Today, more than 40 university libraries in the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East are involved in projects that build directly on the Rochester model, ultimately using their findings to guide everything from software development and new construction projects to how late the reference desk stays open.
"The impact is global and uniquely Rochester," says Susan Gibbons, University Librarian at Yale University Libraries and former dean of the Rochester's River Campus Libraries. "The ripple effect out there is really tremendous."
When Foster, Gibbons, and their team at River Campus Libraries first launched their investigation, they didn't mean to start a seismic shift in their field, they just wanted to get a better handle on how undergraduates wrote papers and how librarians could help. As they later explained in Studying Students, "'Papers happen,' but we did not know how they happen." So they took a page from industrial history, drawing on a participatory design method pioneered during the 1960s by Scandinavian labor unions and used more recently by the University's Rochester neighbors, Xerox and Kodak.
"The grounding philosophy of this approach," explains Foster, "is the desire to preserve people's control over their work." The idea is that the best way to improve the tools and design of a workplace is to involve the people who actually do the work. The practice harkens back to the preindustrial era when artisans typically retained controlled over the tools of their trade. But as manufacturing and technology have transformed jobs, workers in many cases have lost such influence. "The expert designs it and you use it," says Foster. The result, she explains, is that sometimes peoples are forced to use software or spaces or equipment that "just don't go with what they have to do."
A Toolkit for Engaging Users
To avoid this disconnect, Rochester's collaborative model begins by trying to understand the people who use the library and how they go about their work in as full a context as possible. The method employs an arsenal of unconventional research tools, from work diaries and camcorders to construction paper and munchies.
For example, in one of the exercises used in the undergraduate study, participants were given cameras and told to photograph 20 different areas of their campus lives, such as their favorite place to study, their dorm room, and their favorite part of the day. The photographs then became a springboard for discussion. "Having the images elicited a lot of detail that we could never have framed questions to find out," says Judi Briden, who worked on the original undergraduate study and wrote the chapter on the photo exercise. "We got a very good sense of student's environments and what worked for them, where they went in the library, and why."
Put these insights together with findings from charrette-style workshops, "mapping diaries" showing where participants go during their day, formal observations, and other techniques and you start to build a deeper, more nuanced view of users and to learn surprising things. For example, when five academic libraries in Illinois (Illinois Wesleyan, DePaul University and Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois's Chicago and Springfield campuses) conducted their own Rochester-style anthropological study this year, they found that their students are not nearly as computer savvy as assumed and that most would never think of asking a librarian for help finding resources. And when Rochester conducted a study of its faculty, they discovered that researchers often rely on peer networks for finding new resources more than digging through professional databases. So much for the stereotype of the lone wolf professor.
It is this kind of qualitative understanding of library users that makes the method so transformative and meaningful for an organization, says Briden. Before the original undergraduate study at Rochester, when a student showed up in the library in a panic the day before a paper was due, it was easy to chalk up their last-minute rush to poor-planning or slack work habits, says Briden. "What we found out through the study was that students were juggling sometimes four papers and needed to give some projects less attention," she says. "So now we are a lot more understanding of their whole work load."
For Foster, such relationship building underlies much of the method's popularity. "It gives librarians a rich connection to their patrons and that means the world to them. This is what librarianship is about – making the connection."
Kornelia Tancheva, director of the John M. Olin Library and Uris Library at Cornell University agrees. Her library has worked with Foster to conduct its own studies. Compared to surveys or anecdotal data, "what ethnographic studies add is actually this richness of data. You can't do one-on-one interview with 1,000 patrons, but the 20 one-on-one interviews will be richer than a survey. And in an interview, you can always ask for an explanation," says Tancheva.
Workshops Around the World
When Studying Students was published in 2007, Seadle, professor and director of the Berlin School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt University in Germany, wrote in his review of the book that the "Rochester study should serve as a wake-up call for librarians that imagine they understand their user-base." Colleagues clearly have taken that advice to heart.
The paperback version has sold out of its first three printings – even though it is available free for download and Foster's talks and workshops on the method are equally popular. Through the American International Consortium of Academic Libraries, Foster has worked with many American universities abroad from Yola, Nigeria to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Stateside, the Council on Library and Information Resources offers her workshops up to four times a year at different sponsoring institutions around the country. To date, 218 librarians and information technology professionals from 74 institutions have trained in the Rochester techniques and sessions always have a waiting list. "I have people breathing down my neck saying, 'Where is the next one?'" says CLIR's Alice Bishop who organizes the two-day courses.
Bishop attributes some of the method's appeal to its scalability and low cost: "It doesn't matter if you have a zero budget or a bazillion dollars, you can use these techniques. You can do a small study and still come up with powerful results."
But ultimately, says Bishop, it's Foster's knowledge, enthusiasm, and ability to engage participants that has earned the approach such a following: "The workshops are extremely fun and that has everything to do with Nancy. She teaches a lot of techniques in a very packed schedule. People come away with hands-on, specific training that they can use. They feel empowered. They begin to look at their library in a totally different light."
Adapting to a Digital Future
Looking at libraries in a new light is critical for libraries in the digital era, says Seadle. Libraries used to think of themselves as repositories for printed material — "dead tree objects" as he puts it. Now, "university presidents are asking, 'Why do we need a library when everything is on the Internet?'"
"Thinking anthropologically," he says will help provide the answer. What is it about the library that continues to attract users when they can access most of their resources remotely? Is the environment calming, he asks, like going into a church? "Is the library a place where students feel they ought to be using analysis, working, and thinking?" Foster and her team are the first to provide libraries with a clear blue print for systematically exploring such cultural questions, says Seadle. If we want to understand the new intellectual mission of libraries within the university, that's where we have to look.