ethNOTgraphy in libraries: cherry picking for success

ExamWhy does it matter that we look at how students are using their libraries? It doesn’t. You read that right- considering ethnography in libraries is a waste of time. Truth is, libraries haven’t been been paying much attention to the “whys,” “whats” and other cultural mumbo-jumbo of their users for centuries, and yet, here they are in 2014, still going strong. Obviously, considering the ethnographic implications associated with library and information services is merely a flash in the pan and will likely be considered passe by the time registration for the Cambridge UX Conference opens. I’m afraid that ship has sailed. Oh wait. Did you say you were actually interested in providing a personalised service aimed at offering users the support they need to grow academically, professionally and intellectually? Well that, my friend, is an entirely different story.

As librarians (however you choose to define yourself), we spend a great deal of time trying to justify the importance of our role within our institutions and communities. We try to find ways to better communicate with those using the space, asking for feedback about seemingly mundane aspects of service and support, or foolishly, for many of us, often more by force than desire, distribute surveys with the hope that, if anything, our response rate will be large enough to publicise the results. Of course, meaningful feedback would be appreciated, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Many of us are caught in a vicious cycle of survey distribution, collection, and analysis- followed by explanations, excuses and theories to defend ourselves for getting it “wrong.” It’s not us, it’s them. They just don’t have enough information to see all the great things we do and have for them. If they came in for a session we could clear the whole thing up. Oh, how naive we all are! It IS us. Not only is it us, we’re not even giving our users a chance for it to be them.

We think we’re listening and asking the right questions to our users in order to gauge the type and level of support they need, but, in doing so, we’re (unknowingly) setting ourselves up for failure. It’s improv night and suddenly we’ve given them a script. We want them to spill their guts, but have constructed the parameters in which they can do so.

And if that weren’t bad enough, we’re also guilty of vetting what students we talk to when we collect data. Of course our intentions are not to only gather information that sheds a positive light on what we’re doing- let’s face it, we all know a handful of students who would be “perfect” for a project we’re working on- and so we are more likely to contact them, knowing they either have an engaged relationship with the library, or at least don’t have a bone to pick about mounting overdue fines. We feel more at ease with how we’re going to progress with our data collection, we feel more secure- only we’ve now lost the point of collecting information in the first place because we’ve set ourselves up for success by deciding who gets to participate. Don’t be too hard on yourselves now, I know you’re doing your best, but you may want to consider that engaging with your regular library users, although more common place in our practice, is lazy. Not only that, it’s misleading- and we’re only fooling ourselves.

So how do we move past this? What is the most effective way to go about gathering information about users that represents an accurate sample? We can’t just ask people who come in to the library to participate in our projects, as that discounts those who don’t frequent the physical space. We can’t send an email to all students within the university, asking them to participate because that is both annoying and ineffective. I think our only option here is to just try several approaches, fail miserably at them and then try something else. You were probably looking for a more useful answer, but I’m afraid this is all new territory for me, so whilst I have plenty of bad ideas for gathering information, I’ve yet to devise a particularly good idea to share. Aren’t you glad you read all the way through this now?

Ultimately, my point is that, if we continue to look for “love in all the wrong places,” we’ll continue to recycle ineffective practice- which you may be fine with. Truly exploring the experiences and cultural behaviours of our users is taxing, takes a lot of time and doesn’t present an immediate, quantifiable impact of what we do (and what some of us live for) as a library/information service- which is why I understand criticism about integrating ethnographic methods into library practice. So if you are still of the opinion that none of this matters, that perhaps some of us have too much time on our hands, let me ask this: would you rather know how many times The World as Will and Representation has been borrowed, or how users discover texts like that when they aren’t included on a module reading list- and what answer tells you more about your own service, practice and influence on the development of those engaging with your collection and space?

We think we can justify ourselves, our jobs and the validity of libraries within our institutions if we are armed with statistics- but I fail to see how much of it will matter if we can’t even share the stories of our users- all because we fail to venture past their cover page.

 

image, Exam by Alberto G. available from Flickr CC BY 2.0

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