EVERY STEP OF THE WAY
March 10, 2014
With a conference title about steps and conference location in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was surprised not to see Tarheel footprints everywhere.
Every year the Librarians’ Association at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsors a one-day conference. While there are occasionally public librarians in attendance, the majority of attendees and conference sessions relate to academic librarianship. This year’s LAUNC-CH Conference focused on supporting student and faculty research. As usual there were lots of excellent presentations on every aspect of the topic. This blog post reviews the keynote presentation.
Designing Academic Libraries for New Ways of Research
Nancy Fried Foster, Senior Anthropologist at Ithaka S+R talked about her work in helping design new libraries to enhance the work practices of students and faculty doing research. According to their website, Ithaka S+R is a research and consulting service that helps academic, cultural, and publishing communities in making the transition to the digital environment. Foster’s presentation contained three parts: participatory design and the use of ethnographic methods, work practice studies of research, and design beyond precedent.
In using the participatory design process, different experts (architects, graphic designers, faculty, students, leaders, and staff) work together through the following steps: gathering information (using ethnographic methods), analyzing the information, developing a concept, and building, testing and iterating the process. The most interesting part of her presentation was the ethnographic methods used in the process. Some of those methods follow:
- “Retrospective” interviews. Students were asked to draw out where they were physically and for how much time at different steps of the research process, resulting in comic strip-like frames.
- Coding sheets for observations. Where exactly were students located and what were they doing in the different parts of the current library at various times?
- Photo elicitation interviews. Students were asked to take photographs about how they do their academic work and also about their lives. In debriefing the students, the researchers gained insights into the lives of students doing research.
- Mapping diary. Using a large map of the campus, students plotted out where they went, for how much time, and how they used the campus and the spaces on campus to do their work.
- Design workshops where faculty and staff drew pictures of how they would use the space. The researchers were interested not so much about the objects included as what the items represented.
Using these methods, the design team continued with the participatory process by doing the following:
1. Co-viewing interviews and artifacts. They taped interviews with the team members.
2. Analyzing the transcripts by cutting and pasting, organizing commentary. There is also coding software available to use in this analysis.
3. Inspecting, categorizing, comparing and contrasting data. They used space where photographs taken of the library were posted on one wall and across on another wall were photos from 5 years later. The team compared and contrasted the similarities and differences.
4. Interpreting and developing requirements from all the information gathered. The team categorized student comments and needs and dug further into the drawings made by library staff.
The second part of Foster’s presentation dealt with work practice studies. For example, one study found that faculty were dealing with too much paper, had sharing problems with cowriters, lost files, and encountered problems with migrating their research data to new systems. Many of the brainstormed solutions now exist as Google products. In another study, the researchers discovered that the largest percentage of faculty used the recommendations of their personal network to find resources for their research. At another university, the team realized that the library staff’s drawings of private offices represented not only their need for quiet space to get work done, but also a core need for respect and job security that an office represented.
The last part of Foster’s presentation dealt with design beyond precedent. She explained the purpose of metaphors is to make new things seem familiar. Foster asked the attendees, “How would you conceptualize use of the library?” Some of the ideas suggested were a marketplace, museum (like the Library of Alexandria), a coffee house in 18th century England, a laboratory, the heart of learning, a sandbox, or an incubator. What metaphor would you use to describe your library? In sum, Foster’s presentation was different because she provided a non-traditional view of library use and design.
Interestingly, the day after the LAUNC-CH Conference, Ithaka S+R released their findings from a 2013 survey of American library directors. The respondents were “nearly unanimous” in their emphasis on teaching research skills to undergraduates as their top priority. The two core undergraduate services of widespread importance were “providing reference instruction to classes” and “providing a physical space for student collaboration.” All these findings tie back to the keynote address about redesigning academic libraries to support research.