Students these days, part I

student working 4093135203_5908c952b2_oThis is a post about how, over a very short period of time and with no money, I successfully used a survey and some ethnographic techniques to sharpen the discussion about the users of my library. Part I of the post covers just the survey and Part II, to be published next week, will cover the ethnographic methods.

For better or worse, we carry around a lot of assumptions about our users, many of which are so commonplace, we almost stop thinking about them. One that I hear all the time is that ‘students these days come to university with multiple computing devices’ (i.e. laptops, tablets, mobile phones, etc.). Lots do, but do all? What are the implications if we start to design library services using an assumption like this?

To say that everyone has access to multiple types of the same sorts of technology seems to buy into a media-created notion about the supposed technological sophistication of ‘digital natives.’ We know that the notion of digital natives is overblown: it has been debunked in such places as the Visitors and Residents project and this stellar article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, yet it is so compelling, and it feeds our ideas (or fantasies) of living in a technologically-advanced world, that we rarely unpack it. I am just to blame as others — I regularly like to talk about the technological sophistication of my students, as if it makes me look good if they are teched out with multiple devices.

The Computer Room

So when important people at my college asked recently if we really needed a room in the library with 15 big desktop computers because ‘students these days’ all come to university with multiple mobile computing devices, my first reaction, internally, was ‘That room really is anachronistic — let’s do away with it and replace it with something whizzy and future proofed.’ You see, the room is a bit odd (see picture below): It’s a meeting room with some old tables for the computers, bad lighting and flooring, wires spilling out the back of the computers and monitors — not exactly a show piece of modern library space. But thankfully — and in part because of all the thinking I’ve been doing about ethnographic methods lately — I slowed down and said that it might be interesting if we stopped and asked why students use that particular computer room, because use it they do: It is almost always has people it in, very often over half full.

2014-01-13 08.54.28

So, I very quickly threw together a short 3-question online survey and gave it to students in the computer room over the period of a week.  The questions asked ‘What are you doing in the computer room today?,’ ‘Why did you choose to work here?’ and ‘If you could change anything about the room what would it be?’ I got 30 responses over Easter weekend when many students were out of town, so it was a fairly good response, certainly enough to see some trends. The trends were very interesting and, to many people at my college, including myself, quite surprising and illuminating. It turns out that some common reasons students were working in the computer room were because:

  • They needed to be out of their rooms, working in a space with other people;
  • The monitors in the computer room were bigger and more comfortable to look at than their laptops;
  • The computers have software loaded (such as SPSS) which they cannot afford themselves;
  • The computers have direct access to big printers (no need to configure your laptop for wireless printing); and
  • Their laptop had crashed and they couldn’t afford a new one at the moment.

Interestingly, most of the reasons above are shaped in opposition to (or at least in relation to) the existence of mobile technologies. But there clearly were compelling reasons to continue to provide access to big, old-school computers. The survey was so very interesting to me and the administration of my college that I think it saved the computer room. Without the evidence — the voices of the students themselves — it’s likely that the computer room would have been re-purposed to something perhaps not as valued.

The survey in itself was intriguing, but I felt it was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be learned. My sense was that despite the fact students were using the computer room for different — though somewhat related — reasons, the interesting underlying differences about why they chose that spot couldn’t be illuminated through a simple survey. This is where the ethnographic techniques come in and that, my friends, will need to wait for the next installment. Stay tuned.

Megcrop2011Meg Westbury
Librarian, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge
mw528 at cam dot ac dot uk

Image credit: UBC Library Communications via Flickr


  1. A very interesting experience I am sure many librarians will find familiar. It reminds me of a presentation about evidence-based librarianship I once attended – the idea that we must gather all the best possible evidence to make an informed decision, and that includes the real views of our users, not just our own opinion (though our expertise is integral too).

    Sorry for the slightly rambling comment. A very interesting post!

    1. Thanks, Ruth. You are so right: In my case, an ‘informed’ decision based on my assumptions would have backfired horrendously! I’m so glad I quickly organised to do the guerilla survey. It yielded so much valuable information.

  2. Always good to challenge assumptions and learn by asking directly. The computer room example reminds me of other technological evolutions – for example digital publishing has not replaced the printed newspaper (yet) or the book! I don’t use the computer room but I do use the library when in theory I could work from home. My main reason is for quiet, uninterrupted time and to provide a sense of focus. But I also find my attention caught by interesting book titles on the shelves, sometimes relevant to my subject but sometimes just interesting and a great way to stay outward looking.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Rick. I think that have a wide variety of spaces is key. As I’m discovering, everyone has a different combination of needs that they’re seeking to meet with they walk in the doors. Hope to see you around the library soon!

  3. Meg-thanks so much for the post. I am an architect specializing in public libraries in the US with an Anthropology undergraduate degree. I find the recent ‘ethnography’ based discussion for decision making and programming in libraries an extremely refreshing movement. Most of the research I’ve seen to date has been conducted in university libraries. I hope the trend quickly spills over to public libraries.

    1. Hi Michael. I am a US-expat with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Anthropology (and a lot of experience with public libraries), so our interests likely overlap a lot. Big public library systems are missing a trick if they don’t employ an anthropologist or two. It’s interesting that most of the ethnographic work in libraries thus far has been in academic libraries. I would guess that this will change in the future, but from now on, I will definitely be an advocate for it!

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