‘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?


So, you want to study people? Ethics and library ethnography

girl with magnifying glassLibrary ethnography is a relatively low-risk field. We are, as researchers, observing public behavior in public spaces, and asking people about what they do in the pursuit of their academic goals. However, people’s lives are not always easily compartmentalized into public and private, academic/professional and personal, and there is a lot of grey area wherein private events in personal lives can have a huge impact on someone’s public/professional/academic behavior and choices.


Ethno-thingy stuff: stories or stats?

lego at teaathtreeThis will be pretty brief, because while thinking of what to write, I back-tracked to a blog post of mine of six months ago and I see that I have already stolen my own thunder. Hey ho!

But a word or two in any case about stories and the whole qualitative thing whilst I’m here. On the one hand I adore statistics especially the ones that improve year on year, and yet I actually thrive, and probably implement most change, based on qualitative ‘stories’.


Dear diary…

LearnServ105Learning Services (at Edge Hill University) have been interested in using ethnographic techniques for some time now to gather more meaningful information about how students are interacting with our learning spaces (and don’t worry…we still keep stats on how many people are coming in and out of the building as well!)

We were originally inspired by research undertaken by Bryony Ramsden for her PhD and she kindly signposted us to the extensive research on this topic in the States.

Our Learning Spaces team regularly use activity counts, non-participant observations, scribble sheets (and more!) to give us a better insight into how students are using our learning spaces and this type of activity is now embedded in our practice.

After reading up on the ERIAL project and The Library Study at Fresno State we decided to try using student diary mapping to give us an additional viewpoint – direct from the students themselves.  We did try this technique with a small group of students last academic year and what did we learn…?  Well – mainly that students need more incentive than ‘your views will help us shape the future of your learning spaces’ and so this year we tried a different approach…

In a nutshell we recruited 10 students and paid them for their time.  Students were asked to undertake three complementary activities:

  1. To write down all activities (related to learning!) undertaken in two days from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to bed.  We wanted details of the activity, but also any thoughts/feelings and any barriers they experienced
  2. To map out (to literally draw on maps of the building) their journeys within the University library learning spaces
  3. To take photographs of things that were important to them and vice versa i.e. photographs of anything that got on their nerves!

Students were also asked to take part in a semi-structured interview; our plan was to discuss their diaries in more detail, get them to reflect on their activities, probe them for more information.  Basically to open up a dialogue.

It seems that we got the incentive right this time!  Ten sets of diaries, maps and photographs have been submitted and we are half way through the conducting the interviews.

So what next…?  Well, as well as working through all of the data we have gathered (there is a lot) the plan is to invite all the students who took part in the diary mapping to take part in ‘design work shop’.  No idea what that will involve at this stage – but I picked up the idea from Paul-Jervis Heath following a really useful session at the i2c2 conference in March – so we’ll see how we get on…

I would love hear from fellow novices like me (or experts!) about your diary mapping, or other ethnographic techniques.  Get in touch, or even better –  write a blog post….

DSC_2853cropHelen Jamieson
Customer Services Manager
Learning Services
Edge Hill University

Photo credit: Learning Services, Edge Hill University

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!