Evolution of Library Ethnography Studies – notes from talk

Today Susan Gibbons, the University Librarian & Deputy Provost at Yale University came to speak to the Cambridge Library community about her work for more than a decade on the ethnography of library users.

The premise of the work Susan has done in collaboration with anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster is that libraries should get to know their users better rather than assume that ‘we know what they need’. They recognised that often we base our assumptions of what students experience and need on our own experiences as students which are clearly dated.

The reality of a rapidly changing world is that we need to adapt to the changing needs of the students. It is easier for the library to change than to expect our users to change.

I should note that I have followed Susan and Nancy Fried Foster’s work for many years. I based the design of my empirical work for my PhD “The effect of scholarly communication practices on open access: an Australian study of three disciplines” on their early studies. I am a bit of a fan.

Ethnographic research

Their work began on 2002 and 2003 with analyses of ‘faculty’ (academics’) work practices, before moving to undergraduates, graduate students, analysing how people search for information, asking what is the point of science library buildings in the electronic age, before most recently returning to the undergraduate student body.

There is a circularity in this type of  ethnographic research:

  • Start with a basic question – such as what are the barriers to completion of a PhD, or why do people still use the buildings in science when the content is all online
  • Methods – These can vary wildly from photos to observations, and analysis of academics diaries
  • Data Gathering – these first three constitute the ethnography
  • Findings – which is getting into user design. Analyse the data to start looking for patterns.
  • Change – you can only do this process once maybe twice, and if you do not make a change that is visible to the patrons then they won’t engage. There is a huge investment of time and trust in the process. This needs a commitment from the top down not just the bottom up to have the changes.

At the end of the process, there needs to be an analysis of whether the change has worked and if not, start again. Susan noted that they do not presume to know what the answers were when beginning the process. The area is so unknown they would not even be able to create a survey to ask A, B or C.

We need to embrace experimentation. Libraries have to have a tolerance for failure and change – otherwise the whole process will not work.  We need to have R&D thinking – try it and see if it works. We should not worry about every contingency because then we have lost the opportunity because someone has stepped in and started something. Don’t worry about scale until you find it is an appropriate method.

Changing role of the library

Once of the big messages from the talk was that increasingly the literature and the technology re intertwined. As librarians it is not just good enough to know the literature. If supporting social sciences then you need to know statistical packages and data visualisation. If the librarian can’t help with that then there is a break in the service. There needs to be a fluency with the digital tools as well in the library staff. Libraries are defined by their services but not by their collections. If we don’t have the services to support those collections then we may as well not have them.

This observation raised the question from the floor – do we employ specialists or employ librarians and train them up? Susan responded by saying increasingly Yale University was employing more people who have a PhD in the specific area. That way there is no expectation that everyone is an expert in every tool but there can be a go-to person.

However there has been a push to training people up in the library to be ‘librarians as teachers’. There is an emerging program to teach librarians on how to be teachers – very focused on professional development.

Increasingly the university is asking librarians to have outreach as part of their role. Professional assessments ask if they have created any subject guides, how many classes they have taught. Outreach is valued in the evaluation process. For some existing staff this was not comfortable – they wanted to be curators. The feeling for these people was they ‘changed the rules on me’ – so the university helps them make the transition. Some have come along the outreach path, others have moved somewhere else – and the university helps them with that move.

Studies at Rochester and Yale Universities

Susan did describe two examples  – one from her current institution Yale University and one from her former, the University of Rochester. She prefaced these descriptions with the disclaimer that all institutions are different – these findings are not translatable. That is why ethnography is so important – it is very locally focused. The questions that can affect the outcomes include whether students live on campus or off campus.Are students full or part time? Is it an engineering based institution. In addition weather and climate impacts behaviour.

The question behind the undergraduate student study was: “How can we improve the experience for the students?” That behind the graduate student study was “What are the barriers to the completion of a dissertation?”

Despite her findings being fascinating I won’t go into detail here partly because of the specificity of the findings to her institutions. Susan did note this was not a talk where we should take her group’s solutions and adopt them, rather we need to undertake our own research to determine what we need to do. However for those who are interested there is a considerable body of publications about the various projects:

However the methods are instructive and some of what emerged from the work is universal.


With the undergraduate students they undertook a ‘retrospective study’ of students who were responsible for writing a big paper. They ‘followed’ the students by contacting them one a week or fortnight and asking basic questions on how they were going. Then the day they handed the paper in they interviewed the students. This produced two outputs – a transcript of the interview but also during the interview the students were asked to draw the process out as they were explaining their experience.

The graduate students were asked to do an in-situ interview – in the place they do most of their work. Sometimes a lab, a coffee shop, where they lived. Then they were asked all sorts of information like showing us when they decided to print out an article and how did they keep track of them, about the books on the shelves – how they decide whether to buy one or take it our of the library and how are things filed on their computer. Other questions included the tricks of the trade of how they got through the writing process, what software they were using and the time of day and when they work.

Findings that spanned both studies included what Susan described as ‘the magical summer’. This is the time between finishing their bachelor degree and start the graduate school. The researchers asked professors what they thought the abilities were of those that leave as bachelors, and what the expectations were of new graduates, which was much higher. Hence the magic of the three month summer – how did the students manage this raised expectation? They knew they could not change those expectation of the professors. But we could help the students reach their expectations and help them through the process. This was a good time for the library to say ‘we are safe, work with us and we can help you’.

Another question is what is the best time to introduce research tools? People working on a thesis will need to use some sort of research tools – but when do you introduce that into their toolkit. The group found that once the student’s dissertation prospectus was approved their toolbox was locked – they were not able to ‘take a risk’ at that stage. So the introduction of tools has to be early in the process. The library had to ensure that professors were encouraging students to use the library services when they were writing their shorter papers.

They also found the importance of the human network – learning from other students, following other researchers – people texting information or attending a conference and seeing a book that is perfect for a colleague so they take a picture and send to their friend. So the question is how do you get the relevant librarian into that social network so they see the librarian as another resource?


Susan summarised the talk by saying there are so many things that drive the students away including physical and other barriers. Barriers can include use of acronyms, the scattering of collections and not knowing  how to get access to them. The Library needs to ask of itself is this barrier still necessary? If not change it. Some things are necessary but if we can’t change it we should explain it.

There is a continued importance of libraries as physical spaces – when the students want a place to go to get their work done they go to the library because it is a place of intellectual gravity. There are important symbolic aspects of libraries. They had asked students to circle a map of the university where you don’t feel welcome. Students answered ‘I’m not an athlete and that’s a gym’ for example. But the Library is a place where we all feel welcome. There is neutrality there.

Published 18 March 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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