Ethnographic methods: a student perspective

origin_345712329So obviously I’m biased.  I’m writing on here because I’m a firm believer in using in-depth qualitative data collection to learn about what people are doing in libraries.  When I presented in London at the end of March as part of the ‘Spaces, places and practices’ seminar, organised by UCL and IoE, I can’t tell you how excited I was to see so many people there interested in the same thing, in trying out the same methods, and most importantly a desire to learn about their patrons, their community of visitors, to try and provide the best user experience they can.  The following is roughly the same stuff I said at the seminar, but I’ve got more room here to add some qualifying information and some useful links/info!

I found out about ethnographic methods through a mixture of luck and the token ‘librarian skillz’.  Having graduated from library school and still working as a library assistant, I was appointed to work as a research assistant in a small scale internal project at Huddersfield conducting post-occupancy evaluation of the newly refurbished library facilities.  I’m a nosy person.  I enjoy people watching when the sun is out long enough to sit in the plaza outside where I work.  I’m really curious about what people are doing in library spaces.  I wanted to learn more about what we could do to improve our environments to support our visitors more.  You can read more about the work here if you really want to, but it is mainly quantitative:

Quantitative?  Yup.  Don’t go making any sudden judgements there, let me continue for a moment.  I started off the role by doing a literature search, and found some really exciting stuff out there:  Aimee Whiteside at the University of Minnesota was writing for Educause about some exciting research utilising ethnographic based methods, and citing that fantastic piece of research by Foster and Gibbons looking at library use beyond the library as well as in it.  However, due to the nature of the short time scale we didn’t have a chance to use them.  I would have loved to use design charrettes and the like, but the requirements of the project meant that data needed to be derived from mixed methods.  The project manager wanted to bring in some data collection methods used before for other purposes, plus a couple more, so she introduced seat counts to the mix and asked that I design a survey for distributing as students left the building.  We included staff ad hoc observations of interesting behaviours, and I added some student diaries and photo logs.  To cut an already long story short, we had problems engaging students with the diaries/photo logs for various reasons, so we ended up with a TON of numbers from seat counts and not much qualitative stuff.

To help support the qualitative data collection, a colleague and I went out and did a quick survey of students as they were using the library, asking what their purpose was and why they had chosen to use that particular spot in the library that day.  We found something interesting (that many already using ethnographic methods had already found out).  On asking what inhabitants were doing, we often got a very different story to what was visible.  Maybe they were telling us their primary purpose, or maybe they were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear, but they’d describe their study purpose (software use and the like) without covering what was obviously not part of that use such as social media, booking travel, shopping for clothes etc.  And who were we to say that these aren’t a natural part of their study day?  But we couldn’t find more out.  The scope of the project was too small to do more with that extra intriguing bit of information we were discovering.

I was hooked.

Someone suggested I do a PhD given I was so excited by the opportunities we’d tasted.  So I am.  I’m collecting data from a number of universities (who I’m endeavouring to preserve anonymity for), and I feel immensely lucky to be allowed into them.  I’m a few years into it part time, and I feel I should emphasise that I don’t consider myself an expert in the method – the PhD had some teaching on using ethnography, but it’s primarily through the support of my excellent PhD supervisor, book learning and practice that I’m putting the methods into use.  I’m using ethnographic methods to find out what we all probably already know – that all the stats in the world can’t tell you want is really happening in our libraries, on our campuses, amongst those we support.  Don’t get me wrong.  Stats can tell you important things that you often already know but need support for (e.g. ‘we need more PCs/staff/insert all the important things here!  Here’s the proof!’).  They can support decisions that help improve the comfort and use of our visitors.  However, to really learn about what is going on in our libraries, and indeed many other places, we really need to try and find the time and money to conduct in-depth qualitative data collection.

There is no other way to learn about hidden/unseen usage.

There, I said it.  Our library users won’t even always be aware of those little additional things that are second nature in their behaviour but we don’t have a clue are happening, or sometimes do but have nothing that proves it.  But most of the time we don’t realise it is going on.  And we can use things like observational techniques to learn what’s going on (don’t forget that ethical check though!  Don’t just go striding into your spaces and watching everybody!).  I have learnt a huge amount about expected and unexpected use to date, but I’ve still got a long way to go.  I’ll use the observational data I gather with interviews with staff and students to learn more about whether the behaviour is common, and how they’d react if they were involved/observing it themselves.  I’m also approaching my research from a feminist perspective for the simple reason that I don’t think our spaces are as enabling and equal as we’d like to think.  This isn’t a negative way of viewing libraries as some might suggest, although it might produce data that could be viewed in a negative way.  This is a way of making positive changes to improve things, a way of making libraries better for as many people as we can.

On a smaller scale, even something as simple as providing a way of library users to give feedback on specific issues or spaces such as leaving flip charts with questions on them in the middle of an area can help you find out all kinds of things.  And the fantastic cognitive mapping method used by many ethnographic campus studies including the ERIAL Project (one of the few cross-university pieces of research I’ve seen to date) is something anyone can try out with their students.  I’ve run simple workshops with university staff asking them to create their own ideal study environment, without any limitations, using whatever media they like (play dough, Lego, drawing, or even just listing the features) with fascinating results.  It helped them to see just how different preferences and usage can be even just amongst themselves, and thus think about the potential for variety of preferences amongst students.  And it was fun, too!

And if you think this kind of stuff is new in libraries, think again.  While the method obviously isn’t a new technique, as Andy Priestner has already discussed on this blog, you might be surprised to hear that some library behaviours aren’t that different either…  Ethnographic methods are most definitely not a fad method of data collection in libraries, and will be around for some time yet!

Bryony Ramsden
Subject Librarian
University of Huddersfield


Image credit: Jaybird via Flickr Creative Commons

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