March 29, 2006
Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design in a University Library - Susan Gibbons, Assistant Dean Public Services, Judi Briden, and Nancy Fried Foster, Lead Anthropologist for the University of Rochester's River Campus and co-manager of the Libraries' Digital Initiatives described several different ethnographic methods that they used address their key research question: "What do undergraduates really do when they write their paper?" They wanted to conduct field studies observing what undergraduates did, rather than have discussions amongst themselves about what they thought undergraduates did.

Once again University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries is breaking new ground and exploring how to create library services that meet undergraduate needs.

This is an excellent webcast and it will be worthwhile listening to it if you missed the live version. Not all of the slides (maps, sketches etc.) can be shared in the archived talk due to restrictions on use of materials created by participants in the study.

You can find out more at the study on their web site: Undergraduate Research Project: Shared Results

Steven Bell and John Shank have provided another great webcast at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community.

My Notes from the Webcast

Ethnographic Techniques

1.Retrospective Interviews

Undergraduates were asked to describe a specific paper that they had written in the previous semester. The researchers wanted the students' descriptions to be fresh and specific. Students were asked to walk the interviewer through the process that they followed and sketch out the steps on a poster starting from the point that they heard about the assignment and ending when the paper was submitted. The interviews were videotaped so they could be reviewed after the fact.

Recruitment method: undergraduate writing class

2. Engaging students as they wrote papers with a series of ongoing emails about the process.

3. Self reports

Students were asked to describe what their intellectual life is like and how did their intellectual life developed the way that it has.

Michael Moffat described the self-report method in Coming of Age in New Jersey

3. Photo Interviews

Students were given a disposable camera and asked to take pictures of 13 things such as who do you like to study with, where do you keep your books, something high tech, things that you always carry him (such as watch, cell phone, keys, ID card and wallet license) something weird, etc.

This method is based on work by Doug Harper and two of his books: Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop and Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture.

4. Visits to Student's Dorm Rooms

The researchers wanted to see what students had open on their computers, but were also interested in how they were doing their academic work. Researchers took 2 camcorders - one to record the interview and the other was given to the student to record whatever they wished.

5. Mapping diary

This technique was also inspired by Michael Moffat, Coming of Age in New Jersey.

Students tracked where they went through out one day on campus. They marked the time when they left each location on the map. At the end of the day, the map was brought back to the researcher and a brief interview was recorded. The interview helped researchers understand the map and can explore what students did with their time - how did they fit in studying or going to the library.

6. Map of "zones"

Students were asked to identify 3 areas on the campus map where they felt comfortable or that they belong.

Then students were asked to use a different color marker to identify areas where they would not go / feel at home.

With a third color students indicated places where they spent a lot of time.


These methods generated quite a bit of data. The team of researchers and interviewers was comprised of a dozen staff from across the library system and working in a variety of jobs.

Several analytic techniques were used to mine the data including:
- Going over the videos and materials;
- A lot of co-viewing and talking about the videos/artifacts. Anyone could stop the video at any to discuss something.
- It was important to jot down insights and ideas throughout the process. These insights were used as the team moved forward and were a good source of ideas.

After digesting the material, the team would try to get inside an undergraduate's head and brainstorm what they thought the student would want to do / have happen if he/she were in the library. Ideas were jotted down on sticky notes and people could add to them. They generated dozens of ideas. After the meeting, the sticky notes were transcribed into long lists.

Next, the lists were organized into groups and annotated. They were shortened and condensed down to the ones that the research team wanted to discuss more or prototype or implement.

At this point the research reached a major transistion point - moving from ideas to several co-design approaches.

But first more data was gathered.

1. Interviews conducted during late evenings during the paper writing time

The researchers wanted to talk to students at the time that they had papers due and it was believed that the students would benefit the most from talking with someone from the the library. The researchers were not sure that the students were asking for help at the library.

The researchers talked to students on Tuesday evening from 9-11 pm. A lot of students were doing research at this time. In order to reach a full range of students the recruiting was done outside of the library at Student Centre.

The researchers asked students what had worked or not worked in finding resources and who had they asked. They asked students how they felt about asking librarians for help.

2. Designing library facilities

The researchers also asked groups of students to draw the library facilities based on how the library could be designed to suit them. This exercise only had to take 20 minutes but many students spent much more than that time.

Ideas from the research and facility plans are going to be incorporated in some of the plans for an upcoming library renovation.

Project Update

They're choosing the best ideas to develop.

#1. Night Owl Library

Currently the library is piloting reference outreach with a Night Owl Library
project. For 2 weeks from 9-11 pm during the time when papers are usually do, they are offering Instant Messaging for research help and they're seeing if students a) will use it and b) feel more comfortable.

The researchers also took some idea for signage from Maya Design. (see Blended Librarian webcast with Maya Design on February 7, 2006)

Does signage lead to more requests at the point of the need? They're adversities the Night Owl Library in newspapers, with posters and library student workers to spend the word to their friends.

#2. Library space

They're taking ideas into the redesign of library space.

#3. Library web design

Already done one change and added IM links on the library course pages so the classes that each librarian works with can contact them


It is important for librarians to go amongst students and learn about them rather than rely on our college experiences.

The future of librarians is to cater to what is going on your campus - no one else can do that.

The research study was partly funded by grant. But also internally, freeing up staff time, was done to make this study possible. It was seen as a priority.

Q: As librarians we ultimately hope is to integrate library resources in the teaching and learning processes in our community - so we want to connect with faculty? What did we learn about faculty that they can use to influence students during this study?

AL At the beginning of the study, liaison librarians went out to faculty members and asked them what constitutes a good research paper and what were the problems. This was a great icebreaker and opened the doors to more dialog about what librarians can do. Faculty are key influencers for how students use resources.

Q: Were participants paid?
Yes, usually pay students between $5 and $10 and snacks.

A: Did anything that surprised in the results or leapt out at you?

Different comments from each of the three speakers:

-I found something very early on fascinating - every single one called mom and dad and went back to parents for assistance. I'm thinking we should be sending a message to parents what the library has available.

- I have the anthropology perspective - not really sure I had expectations about how students used the library. We know there is a circulation desk, a reference desk, a place to pay for printing. It was great to reminded about the student point of view. Students don't break up the world like we do - from the student point of view there is a new for service and they don't differentiate these and don't assume these would be different desks. I was surprised by how much they want coffee right there, hot in the library.

- A couple of things struck me - how organized students are. Some used day timers and some kept in in their heads. They would say "oh yes I know when it's do and keep up in head". I had an older memory of student life being laid back existence. The other thing as they work via the semester they put higher priority on some assignments than others. They take a different approach. It's not that they don't care - just higher priority is given so they may want to get one assignment done more quickly to spend more time on another.

Q. How does it change the Reference Desk and Instruction services? Are the other librarians hearing what you found out?

A: We have been sharing this research and we're still in the process of working through how it might effect what we're doing. The pilot is one of those during essay writing time period and IM.

We're still pulling ideas out of this and looking at teaching and learning and how we relate to that - still in process.

Q: What would you do anything differently if you did it again?
A: We would go straight to the dorms directly. I'd start there - took us several months to do that and we learned so much.

Q. What were some of the challenges?

Making sure we got a good variety of students - not just the ones that we saw in the library. Some team members were a little uncomfortable interviewing. Now it's easier to do this.

Related Resources:

An Interview with the University of Rochester's Susan Gibbons (30 minutes) submitted by Matt Pasiewicz (EDUCAUSE) on 2005/12/19

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Many thanks to Darlene for blogging these excellent notes!

I'd like add that Merrilee Proffitt of RLG helped us get started on our "retrospective interviews" by generously sharing experiences and artifacts and giving us detailed and very useful guidance.

If anyone else out there is doing this sort of work, please get in touch with us at University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. We want to know about you!
Our slides for the Blended Librarian webcast--with images we could not share removed--is now available at along with other documents related the project. Thanks Darlene!
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