Space (library/learning)

Cognitive mapping and collaborating

Its been a bit quiet here of late but this excellent new post from Bryony Ramsden, with Kathrine Jensen and Megan Beech, more than makes up for the gap. Here in Cambridge we’re particularly fascinated to read it as we’ve just embarked on the Protolib project which is set to explore very similar territory: student use of library and non-library spaces.

Over to Bryony…

Having read about cognitive mapping being used by Andrew Asher and by Donna Lanclos some of us at Huddersfield decided to use the method ourselves. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll already know about the method and will have seen quite a few projects utilising it (like Meg Westbury for example). Ours is probably slightly different to what you’ve read here though as we carried out a cross departmental collaboration of people interested in trying out the method. It involved myself, a librarian and PhD student using ethnographic methods in my own research (and trying to encourage my colleagues to use them where I work!), Kathrine Jensen, a research assistant for the Teaching and Learning Institute at Huddersfield who is an anthropology graduate, and Megan Beech, a marketing officer in Huddersfield’s Research and Enterprise department who is currently busy in her ‘free’ time with both her doctorate and with her new-born baby! Kathrine and I both wanted to pilot the method for use at Huddersfield as part of developing our research knowledge and for use generally in our roles, and Megan first heard about it when seeing Donna present at Huddersfield and wanted to learn more and try it out first hand.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the method as others have written about them much better than I ever could (see the Asher and Lanclos links above), but we approached it with the idea that we’d learn as much from trying out the method as we would from data collected so considered it our own pilot project. We approached the method with the intention to learn about:

• What spaces students use for academic work (in the broadest sense)?

• What is their perception and use of library spaces (and other campus spaces)?

• What are the reasons students use or do not use these spaces for working in?

• Whether students use spaces in expected or unexpected ways?

Donna’s question was reused on the mapping sheet (thanks Donna!) and I wrote up a few prompts for the interview in case the map didn’t lead to the kind of discussion we were aiming for. The exercise/interview was carried out in rooms used by Student Services away from the library. We decided to reimburse students for their time with £10 of Amazon vouchers as well as the ubiquitous refreshment provisions, and Megan used her contacts to advertise the research via the University’s student portal. We received quite a few responses but inevitably some dropped out, didn’t respond when asked for confirmation of availability, or just didn’t turn up. But the 8 who did turn up provided some really illuminating information. But more on that later…

Coding was an interesting experience. As a PhD student I’m used to working on my own, on my own terms, but I’d read a fair bit about studies using multiple researchers to code data and was intrigued to see how we’d do with it. We started by coding the same interview, picking out themes without any prior discussion of the content. Then we got together, discussed what kind of things we’d picked up on, and created a list of themes to use for coding. Important note for anyone doing this is to remember to add a description of the theme, so that afterwards you are not in doubt as to what the theme covers. Otherwise you may find yourself questioning what exactly a coding theme means. This is especially important when collaborating on analysis to ensure consistency in coding. We decided to allocate a set of themes to each person and then go out and code the entire set of data from the interviews on our own using those themes only (although we could add to those themes if they were too broad or not broad enough as long as it stayed within our own area of remit). Once we had coded everything, we got together and had a chat about what we’d found and concluded it best to write up the results individually with the aim of combining our reports into one at the end.

Open questioning techniques are something that not all of us had used before and we found after transcribing that some interviews left unanswered questions or could have produced more discussion/information with a little prodding. This may have been due to a combination of inexperience and eagerness to learn about the very high quality maps the participants were producing!

Given our combined varied knowledge, the coding process needed to be well organised, and we met up regularly during the analysis phase to share how we were doing and how we were carrying out the coding. We learnt a lot from each other about the process and took tips from each other about formatting and logging the results as we progressed. Even so, writing up still produced three very different styles of report, which could have meant combining them leading to difficulties in creating a continuous ‘story’. However, we combined the best features from each report to use in the final version, and put together a presentation for staff at an internal conference on the method and key discoveries.

We were impressed with the amount of detail the maps provided and especially how helpful they were in the following interviews. It was easy to ask about the map and for clarification on aspects of it, which in turn led the participants to add even more detail. In one interview, a student mentioned in explaining the map that his current habits were different from when he was a first year student which led to us considering using self-development/student journey as a key theme. And we were impressed with the nature of the information students gave us: they clearly cared about the University environments a great deal and were primarily concerned with speaking to us about provisions over the Amazon voucher (although the voucher obviously helped!).

The data analysis identified three main themes around study environment, proximity and convenience, with study resources and a separate ‘library as study space’ theme featuring prominently. The themes overlap each other, so for instance choosing a location can be dependent on how convenient it is in relation to the access to resources that the location offers or convenient in relation to where a student might be going next to meet friends for example.

The need to consider the complex and often individualised context of studying is a clear outcome of the data analysis. It is perhaps an obvious finding that the where, when and how of studying is dependent on the prior activities, priorities, social networks as well as the material needs, like hunger and thirst, of individual students. It is the rich detail in relation to these practices that the mapping approach offers us and thus the method is an important reminder of the embodied and embedded nature of any activity.

Our analysis of the key considerations that students brought up in relation to their study practices correlate very well with what Gourlay, Lanclos and Oliver (2015) describe in their paper on study practices:

“The maps also show the fragmented and unpredictable nature of these networks of practice. Participants’ needs were seen to constantly shift depending on the work they are trying to do, the resources they have available, the time available, and the human networks they need to participate in.” (Gourlay, Lanclos and Oliver, 2015, 275).

The interviewees were passionate about what they raised with us, which led us to hope that we’d be able to bring their stories to the fore, conduct further research in the same way, and continue to pass on these stories to try and encourage developments across campus.

Bryony Ramsden, with Kathrine Jensen and Megan Beech








Reference: Sociomaterial Texts, Spaces and Devices: Questioning ‘Digital Dualism’ in Library and Study Practices (pages 263–278) Lesley Gourlay, Donna M. Lanclos and Martin Oliver Article first published online: 10 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/hequ.12075

Using a feedback wall at York St John University

Following on from Andy’s Speaking Wall post, Clare McCluskey has shared her experience of using a wall for feedback with users over the past few years in her library space at York St John University.

The feedback wall was introduced in 2011, as part of a wider project to increase dialogue between Information Learning Services (Library, IT, Media and Print) and the rest of the York St John University community.  A re-design project gave the opportunity to rethink many of the established procedures.  The library (as it was then) had regular questionnaires, feedback projects and user group meetings, but nothing to enable immediate dialogue.

We have one small wall of the library building covered in ‘whiteboard’ paint, but at the beginning of the project, we simply applied temporary whiteboard sheets to the surface.  This meant we weren’t incurring a lot of expense, should the project be abandoned quickly.  Pens are provided and anyone can leave feedback, questions or comments.  These are then responded to by ILS staff, depending upon who is best placed to do so.  This has become a core part of our strategy to engage with the rest of the community and improve our offerings for them.

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Of course, not everything written on the wall is positive.  Common issues include a perceived lack of resources in a subject area, which may indicate an actual gap that needs filling or that students are unable to navigate our systems to find what we do have:



More books on Buddhism in Thailand.  Thailand religion & Sri Lanka. Please ask your tutors to send orders through for these – we have money to buy them.
Could there be a Caribbean lit sub-section/post colonial lit sub-section. Books in the library are shelved using the Dewey system, so that literature of the Caribbean, or other countries, or different topics, are shelved together.  Always check the shelf number on Discover and watch out for interesting ebooks on the topic too!  If you are having problems locating items, please ask at the service desk.
More copies of the ‘New Collins Japanese – English dictionary’.  It’s the best one, but there’s only one copy.  Also the second edition of ‘The Routledge comprehensive Japanese grammar’ would be nice Yes, we will buy these texts ….thanks!


Another issue which occurs frequently is the old problem of misunderstanding what Athens is and how subscriptions work.  We use Athens as one authentication method, but the convoluted nature of logging in with local details often causes problems and we try to use EZProxy where possible.  The misconception that Athens is the magic answer to accessing anything with a paywall persists, however, and the feedback wall gave us further evidence that we need to explain subscriptions, open access and the whole issue of access to research much more:

Question/Comment Reply
Could we have access to OpenAthens.  Seems like they hog all the best articles. Athens is used here.  Please come to the service desk and ask to speak to an Academic Liaison Librarian who will be able to help you with this.
Why isn’t there access to ALL (mentions very large journal publisher) Journals online? Please ask to talk to your Academic Liaison Librarian, who can explain more about journal subscriptions.


An unexpected bonus is that the students now communicate with and reply to each other on the wall, often beating us to it in the speed of reply!  In terms of managing expectations, it is good for us to know that they are engaging with each other and letting others know that not everyone agrees with their point of view.

I don’t think there will be enough computers for all students in YSJ.  But can you be considerate?  If you are using your laptop instead of the computer in front of you, can you PLEASE move to empty tables instead?

Hard copies instead of electronic books.  They are annoying to read!  …Agree! …sometimes you can find copies, just change your search criteria! … Agreed, or try Google books …….This is the exact opposite of what I want  ..…  What if you can’t get to the library? E-books are easier to find your quote as well.


We keep a record of everything so that we can spot trends.  This has already resulted in a move-around of the book stock in the building and we are about to implement a wider laptop loan scheme, with self-issue.  Excellent work in noting all of the comments by our administrative staff in a single spreadsheet also means that we have a growing data bank to draw on.  We plan to use the NVivo package to analyse it as part of a large project on ensuring we understand the needs and concerns of the community.


imageClare McCluskey
Academic Liaison Librarian
Information Learning Services
York St John University

The Speaking Wall


‘funkandjazz‘ via Flickr Creative Commons

At Cambridge Judge we’ve long since abandoned any attempts to elicit views on our information and library services via email. Nor do we expect to receive many comments or opinions on our social media channels (Facebook Group, Twitter, and Blog) however good they might be. Until recently the most fruitful avenues have been our annual survey, usability interviews, and the termly student feedback committee (which deals with IT and building issues as well as library matters). However, we have suddenly found ourselves with a new kid on the block which has quickly become the most active platform for our users voices: a graffiti wall.

I was at a presentation at UCL last year in which an ethnographer working for LSE detailed how she had left flipcharts in various areas of the library there in order to gather informal feedback on use of the space. The simplicity and immediacy of the approach appealed to me.  I was put on to the idea of a wall rather than a flipchart thanks to the excellent book Universal Methods of Design by Martin and Hannington, in which the authors detail the use of a large format piece of paper in a public place for feedback. The example in that book is of a graffiti wall in a public bathroom which they consider to be an effective method to choose in that environment due to the natural presence of graffiti there. That may well be but I was immediately convinced that we should try the technique in our Information Centre. I also knew exactly where it should go.

For years I’ve been trying to find an appropriate use for our four large noticeboards. Having completely run out of ideas I’d even elected to obscure one of them with a large plant! The main noticeboard on our Mezzanine floor (or ‘first floor’) had been a place for random posters and more recently had a brief life as a place specifically for students to add their notices without the need for them to ask permission – an offer that none of them took up. This particular board has a large volume of passing traffic given that its situated next to the door – a fact also established by Georgina through her behavioural mapping when she discovered that most of our users visit the Information Centre in order to go straight up to the Mezzanine to study. Having chosen a location, all that remained was to order a roll of very large paper, attach some markers on string, and establish who was going to take responsibility for monitoring it – responding to messages left there, photographing it as a record, and replacing the paper when it was full. Sarah and Georgina agreed to monitor it between them, checking it first and last thing for messages every day.

In just over a month we are already on to our fourth refresh of the wall and not as you might be thinking because of lewd messages. The nearest we’ve come to that is the truly hilarious underlining of the first four letters of the word ‘analytics’ which we decided to leave where it was. All the other messages have been questions, suggestions, and responses thanking us when we’ve acted on their feedback and improved the environment as a result. There is no question that the graffiti wall has been directly instrumental in resolving many issues (some of which we would not have been aware of otherwise): the disturbance of this quiet space by the frequent bang of the Mezzanine and Gents loo doors – easily resolved by adjustment and oiling of the door jam; a request for more informal furnishings/comfort – cushions and beanbags were duly purchased; the noise of the aircon units – the motors inside are now being replaced due to the number of complaints on the wall; and the suggestion that the Mezzanine door out to the first floor be opened as a second entrance/exit to the Information Centre – we opened this door to users for the first time at the start of last week.


It would be misleading if I didn’t qualify the above by making it clear that we have been aware of some of the above issues for a long time. I should also add that some of the solutions discussed on the wall were generated by the ethnographic research that both Georgina and Ange have conducted. However, the wall has unquestionably had the effect of concentrating our minds, prompting us to take action quicker and has also helped to convince us that students definitely want those improvements that we had initially identified ourselves. As you can see from the examples in this post our users are choosing to remain anonymous on the wall but myself and Georgina are often signing our responses to give them authority and to reassure users that the matters raised are in hand.

As a low-cost method of gathering user opinion and engaging in user dialogue our graffiti wall has been a great success. It has played a significant role in resolving both known and unknown issues, and has been a very useful means of proving that the we are interested in, and open to, what our users have to say and pretty damn responsive too. The biggest test of the graffiti wall lies in the future as work on the extension of the business school is set to begin just beyond the Mezzanine wall. Can it still foster good relations amidst a soundtrack of drilling?

I’ll leave you on a lighter note, with a request for a real-life library cat, inevitably set to spiral into a wall-wide debate on cats vs dogs. I must check how this one has developed when I’m back in work tomorrow.

Dogs forever!

Andy Priestner



The student journey

At the University of Sussex, we’ve embarked on a collaborative venture with SAGE publishers, taking the ‘Child of our time’ approach to learn more about the student journey. We hope that by capturing evidence of the development of an undergraduate during their three years at university, we will be able to track changes in their behaviour and in their evolving interaction with the Library. We hope to gain a deeper understanding of how students develop their research skills, how they discover resources, how they use them, and also to gain some insight into how they want those resources to be delivered.

Students on the discussion panel for the Booksellers conference, Brighton 2014

Students on the discussion panel for the Booksellers conference, Brighton 2014


The three undergraduate students, from Geography, Psychology and International Relations, have signed up for three years with us. What do they get out of it? A scholarship (funded by SAGE) but also the opportunity to develop their communication and presentation skills, to use social media skills in a professional environment and the chance to work with an international academic publisher. All things that will look very good on their CVs when they finish at Sussex.

What were we asking of them?

  • A time commitment equivalent to up to 2 hours a week during term time
  • A commitment to writing regular blog posts and taking part in Library activities and events
  • Active engagement with SAGE


‘Tell us what you think’: engaging with students in library space planning


Library Services at Liverpool John Moores University is split across three separate sites. The two largest libraries, the Aldham Robarts and Avril Robarts libraries are based in the city centre with a third smaller library located at the remote I.M Marsh campus. The three libraries currently have subject specific focuses, based upon their physical location and the faculties that they support. Students are currently able to use whichever library they choose, although most students show a preference for using their ‘subject base’ library. Use of the physical library spaces is only part of the service offer with electronic library resources and services being offered by our virtual and electronic library services via the Library Services website and Blackboard.


Students these days, part II

student working 4093135203_5908c952b2_oThis post is a continuation of last week’s post in which I described how, with no money and very little time, I successfully used a small survey and some ethnographic techniques to sharpen the discussion about students’ technology and study-space needs at my college. It was remarkable how in very little time, such techniques illuminated a host of previously unconsidered issues and heightened awareness of things that could be changed. In this post, I discuss specifically the ethnographic techniques that I used.

Cognitive Maps

At the end of the computer-room survey (discussed in last week’s post), I asked if the students would be interested in doing a quick 10-minute follow-up interview with me, and about a third said yes. I felt strongly that there was likely more to be said about their use of the computer room than my simple survey could get at. I’ve been inspired lately by the idea of cognitive mapping, discussed by anthropologists Donna Lanclos here and here and Andrew Asher here and here as a quick, efficient way of describing students’ ‘learning landscapes,’ i.e., all the places where they do their academic work and why. What combination of factors contribute to making a decision about where and how to do work? My recent reading about digital literacies, and everything that I have ever studied about anthropology, led me to think that the answers were going to be interestingly, deliciously complicated and all different.

I was not disappointed. I used a structured 6-minute exercise in which I asked students to draw a map of all the places where they do their academic work, switching pen colour every 2 minutes, starting with the red pen, so as easily to be able to see the most important places first (the assumption being the first thing students draw would be the most important to them). I also followed up the exercise by doing a short interview where the student labeled the map and discussed the various points on it. The maps were beautiful and illuminating and clearly showed that even if students are using the same space, their reasons for doing so, how they feel about the space and how they make it uniquely their place is based on a combination of many factors: Discipline, degree, nature of work undertaking, maturity, age, preferences, availability of electrical outlets, proximity to amenities such as water and loos, proximity to friends and/or other people, availability of comfortable seating and/or natural light, noise level and very intriguingly to me, memories and/or associations with a space.

For example, we have a popular common room in the college where I work which looks like a nice, simple living room:

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Who wouldn’t want to work there? But students tend to feel passionately one way or another about this place. It is far more politically fraught than you might think. Here are two maps, both of which have indicated that this room is a place where they often do work (the room is KSJ or Karen Spärk Jones room on the maps):




The first student loves this room because she can sit comfortably with her laptop near a window all day, have coffee, and be around other people. The second student finds the room quite stressful: There are tensions for him about whether he can talk in the room or not (technically, you can talk there, but in practice it’s usually so silent that one generally feels uncomfortable doing so). He also feels a bit stressed out by the coffee machine, because it’s not clear how to work it and you have to purchase coffee for it upstairs at the canteen (when it’s open). Another student I spoke with just will not work in there at all because she associates the space with her interview day at the college (where it acted as a waiting room), and yet another student loves the place because a few years ago, he used to socialize often there with friends. Two other students I interviewed both find the furniture in the room incredibly uncomfortable: tables too low, backs of sofas too hard, etc.

Without taking the time to talk to students and really probe why and for what reasons they made a choice about work spaces, none of the problems, tensions and politics of this room would have been shown up. Indeed, until now, I had always showcased this room as an example of the sort of spaces that we need more of around college.

In just 10 of these mapping surveys, the amount of data that I got was so rich, it was stunning. These were interviews with students who were all relatively heavy users of the library’s computer room, and yet what they were doing in there and what they subsequently did afterwards, where and why were very different and complicated.

Closing Thoughts

As I do my daily rounds in my library and observe students working, it’s easy to fall back on assumptions about how they work and what their needs are. It’s exam time at Cambridge this term, and here are three usages of space in my library right now:

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Students have colonised these spaces, making them mini-offices and storage places, and it’s quite easy to label the usage with any number of simplistic stereotypes (like colonisation, for example). But it is important for me to realise that this usage is actually quite complicated and hardly neutral: it’s a combination of needs-meeting, performance for self and other students, and negotiation with limitations (perceived or real) of the space. Each student makes the space his or her place in different ways, for highly personal reasons. As I interact with students and design library services, I must keep this complexity in mind, for otherwise I will end up creating policies that are not flexible enough to meet a wide variety of their needs.

The small-scale study I did illuminated a complicated set of behaviors and will forever change how I think about the students who use my library. My hope is to build on the data this summer, perhaps concentrating on PhD students and/or investigating more closely students’ work flows for completing assignments.

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

Image credit: UBC Library Communications via Flickr

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?