Journal Clubbing – Understanding Academics: a UX ethnographic research project at the University of York

Summer edition of my team journal club this time we read

Blake, M. and V. Gallimore (2018). “Understanding academics: a UX ethnographic research project at the University of York.” New Review of Academic Librarianship: 1-25.

I picked this article as I was interested both in the methods used and the potential findings.  I lead on UX work and Uni of York consistently do interesting things in the liaison and engagement sphere so this was an easy one to select.

Overall it left us wanting more.  The methodology section was very light and did not address a number of questions that would have been useful to support the article.  There is no detail of the recruitment strategy or of the semi structured interview schedule for example.  We wanted to know more about the cognitive maps and it would have been great to see a bit of these. While we know that new contacts were made we do not know to what extent the data were gathered from already friendly faces.  They would at least have been sufficiently well disposed towards the library to engage in an extended interview exercise.

The description of academic lives was felt interesting but not surprising. We did wonder if there was a nervousness in writing something that would be published and visible to the interviewees given the emphasis on relationship building.  Generally we wanted to push further into the questions.  A colleague had recently attended a “secret life of an academic” talk where a number of important topics were discussed that have not surfaced in the article at all.  We wondered about the absence of research data management from a library perspective.

Finally we wanted to know more about the changes that had resulted.  This was clearly a major undertaking and the need to see impact from this was felt imperative.  The section on how the data was used to generate user requirement for a change of Reading List software would have been brilliant to read – how did they do this? what difference did it make versus what was known already? etc.

Having said all this – it was a good article for our journal club prompting lots of discussion.  We had useful thoughts on what we might want to know from academics and how we might ask them.  And colleagues at York definitely have expertise and experience we would value!



The Library in the Life of the User part 2 – a busy day then home

After a nights sleep of sorts we resume our trip to Chicago for the Library in the life of the user conference.

An early start today with conversation over breakfast (pastries not pictured – sorry).

The agenda was rejigged so we started with Mega Subramaniam from the University of Maryland on linking research and practice in LIS.  What was clear is that there is a lack of a research culture in many libraries which can make it hard to find collaborators.  When collaboration does take place it helps generate better research questions.

Next up were Rachel Fleming-May and Teresa Walker (both University of Tennessee) on the LibValue project.  This looked at values, outcomes, and Return on Investment of academic libraries. They presented three pieces of work (use of resources to support instruction and impact of library skills training).

The area of their talk I found most interesting was how they examined usage of a Commons space and used this to support arguments for improvement. They felt they could see patterns but wanted evidence. The Commons was created as a student centred space (working with IT) and is 24 hour with coffee and so on. Students were very keen right from the start. They had automated data on usage, demographics and student exit surveys but wanted more input from the students. They were also interested to see if they could link use to progress with degree.  A key question was establishing what success meant for the institution. For University of Tennessee it was particularly around student retention. Issue was one of belonging.  The survey showed the Commons made them feel more part of the university.  It helped them do better in class and it helped them meet people. Active users of the facilities had better Grade Point Average improvements than those who used it less.

The findings helped them get a seat at the table and articulate what they contributed to organisational priorities. This was key in securing additional investment to staff the Commons more robustly.  They also recognised things about what the students were doing and this lead to more partnerships – math centre, writing centre, statlab, supplemental instruction. I think there are good parallels with developments we are making at King’s.

In terms of ethnography they proposed that living with the students everyday is an accidental ethnography.

– make them comfortable in the space – created a landing space where they can adjust to where they are so they noted nearly everyone checking their phone as they entered the Commons before heading in so they added seating at the front.

– ingenuity – students stacked furniture to use as a stand for filming – so they added a studio space

– more opportunities to interact / creating community – student art, student research and stress relief initiatives.

After a quick break we were back to hear about some case studies of research in the field.

First up was Margaret Burri from Johns Hopkins University.  My big take home from this was how much I liked their website (see how many great ideas you can steal from the front page alone!).

John Hopkins have had a UX director since 2011.  They hired an urban anthropologist – not a librarian (and we need to be better at recognising when to use the expertise of other professions). An early project looked at “accessing the monograph” with a flow chart on how hard it is to find one. This reminded me of one I prepared on ejournal access for the NHS!

messy diagram

ejournals are tricky

They had a 50 year old library to redevelop so carried out a study of space use. 6 students walked through three times a day logging into a coded sheet – what sort of activity is going on, inactivity, stuff holding spaces, sleeping etc. some 400 observations. They carried out photo surveys – technology & after dark. What tech do you love/ hate? What do you use? What do you do in the library after dark?  They liked the change machine – needed change for laundry!

A good example was illustrated with a photo of large group meeting in a commons space. They had been working on a set of questions in small groups and alone. One student invited the others to converge in the library. Pulled together whiteboards and chairs creating a semi closed off section. Peer to peer learning driven. How do we provide this flexible space? Students reported issues with getting there at night. They felt unsafe due to dark spaces to walk cross. How safe do our students feel around our libraries late at night?  Something we need to keep an eye on as we are increasingly open 24 hours.

Finally they talked about how they worked toward the great website I mentioned at the start of this section.  Essentially they largely turned it over to students that the UX director had been working with. 132 students engaged with it.  This has to be better than us designing what we think people will want.  There is still too much jargon on library sites. They also found students wanted to know more about special collections.

Next stop was Yale with  Denise Hersey talking about understanding the research practices of humanities doctoral students.

One of their discoveries was how much photographing of special collections type materials doctoral students were carrying out and how little they knew about then managing these effectively. In many cases they were busy transferring paper models into the digital world – creating an online archival box.

They have some of the usual library spaces gripes – temperature, noise but also a particular wish to be able to leave library books and come back to them. But as at UT – they value the sense of community given by the library – it can be lonely work and they need to have a studying community to keep them going.  The full report is online.

Last up in the morning session was Andrea Twiss-Brooks from University of Chicago

They reported a “day in the life” exercise – mapping how third year medical students seek and use information in the course of daily activities – clinical in particular.  These are people seven years into their medical studies in the US where you have to complete a four year UG in related subject then a four year med degree! As such they are are fledgling clinicians. Working on core clinical competencies as well as communication and professionalism competencies. They generally make little use of physical libraries.

Protocol – map movement for a day – from waking to going to bed and noting arrival and departure at each location. Interview next day using map as prompt.  Generally they were on the same site all day so map not a huge help.

They took a qualitative approach and used students to transcribe the 69 interviews they completed.

So what does information seeking in the wild look like?

– Need fast paced clinical answers. First port of call is google. This was often to check facts they were fairly sure about.

– When google and wikipedia were felt to not be enough they move to UpToDate

– For high stakes events (ward rounds / exams) they felt they sometimes need in depth research and learning and would look at pubmed (Medline) and the Cochrane Library (systematic reviews).

– They look at the Electronic Health Records system a lot including on their mobiles.

– print vs ebook – print at home / in office. Ebooks for study.

– challenges – wifi, security of personal devices

I suspect these patterns are likely to be very similar in late UG medical students and early career junior doctors.

They made some changes driven by these results.

– added collaborative space during library renovations

– purchased UpToDate Anywhere (the app version)

– bought more ebooks

– placed a greater emphasis on responsive design to ensure things work on mobile

– partnering with medical school to integrate resources in EHR

For me this fits in the category of research that confirms what you might expect but it was good to see someone rigorously working it through.



Lunch was very welcome at this point featuring no less than four different pies of which I only sampled two.

We followed this with an interactive session on the Visitor and Residents model for which there is a very handy JISC guide. Essentially it considers how people engage when online – in some places we are a visitor so we pop in to do what we need to do and then leave again without leaving much in the way of traces (for me an example would be wikipedia – I pop in for very specific things from time to time) and in others we are resident so we hang around and have a visible social presence (twitter for example).  We spent some time mapping our online lives against these as opposite points of an axis and with the other axis being institutional and personal.

People end up drawing very different pictures and through this we can better understand how they might wish to engage with our services.  We also need to think about how we might support people working in different modes. The slide deck has lots of sample maps to give you the idea and then clippy will walk you through preparing your own.

Lynn Silipigni Connaway from OCLC Research then talked us through the results of some OCLC work in this area.

The last speaker I saw was Joan Lippincott who talked about asking good questions.  I think I prefer the slides to the talk.  She talked about how peoples feedback can be constrained both by how we frame the questions and their existing understandings of what is possible.  The slides have a really useful set of pictures of varied environments in and around libraries. So we have spaces for relaxation, for food / drink, art, creativity and novel use of screens.

I had to leave for the airport as Stanley Wilder was most of the way through his talk on mixed methods and mixed impacts but it was not really floating my boat.

If you want to follow up on anything in the conference you can see talks and view the slides and there is a report that recaps the event plus the research report that it launched.


Mandatory hotdog at the airport

Pint and read

Home from O’Hare

The Library in the Life of the User part 1 – destination Chicago

Hancock Tower

Hancock Tower opposite the conference hotel

I am looking forward to attending the LibUX in a day event this week.  In anticipation of that here are some posts lightly edited from ones I wrote for work…

As part of my work getting interested in LibUX I found myself dispatched on short notice to the other side of the Atlantic to attend the OCLC event “The Library in the Life of the user” in Chicago (a number of the talks were recorded and I will link these as appropriate). This is the first of three posts talking about what I heard and found while I was there.  Subsequent posts will talk through the second half of the event and detail a visit I made to an interesting local library.

I flew out to Chicago the day before the event and spent a happy few hours reading a range of books on ethnographic approaches that I had downloaded from EBL before departure (my user experience was the pages of one book turning black on me when the loan expired).  My favourites were User experience (UX) design for libraries which is a great short read on designing better websites for library services.  I also read the ERIAL toolkit – a practical guide to ethnographic research in libraries where I felt the information on coding data was particularly clear.  Alongside this I watched More than usable – library services for humans which was the closing keynote from the UXLibs conference in 2015 – a great broader discussion of why usability and user experience matter (with fun space travel anecdote).

I managed to find my hotel and meet up for a bite to eat with a mate from Library School who happened to be in town for the giant Society for Neuroscience Conference.



The next day I woke up bright and early (Chicago is GMT-6) answered a load of email and went for an early morning wander when it finally got light.  I then managed to talk my way into the Galter Health Sciences Library at the Feinberg School of Medicine – blog post to follow on this.

The conference kicked off after lunch with an opening talk by Lorcan Dempsey from OCLC.  This was an informative run through to set the context.  He was quite pleased with the title of the conference as a shift from the traditional model of considering the user in the life of the library to one where we are interested in the library in the life of the user – until two people sent him a 1973 PhD that used the same phrase.

He described shifts taking places in education models and the technological environment.  In a digital world the library needs to organize itself around the workflow of researchers and learners. We have been about outcomes but increasingly need to be about the process (reuse, data, copyright, revision and discussion).  He made use of some great infographics from to illustrate the players in the research flow.  For him there needs to be a big shift towards engagement.  This will involve innovation and increased collaboration.  He illustrated this with work that has happened around collections where discoverability has redefined collection boundaries and moved the focus from ownership to access. It is a hard to summarise the talk but I recommend it for people who want to better understand how changes to academic working practice will influence our future plans.

Next was a talk on what we can learn from research about online communities – specifically Wikipedia editors.  Aaron Shaw suggests that free culture communities have a two part mission – access to knowledge and empowerment that chimes well with library culture.  His research has shown that while access has been improving empowerment has not.  The marker for this is a decreasing number of active Wikipedia editors.  One very clear finding is that the introduction of login being required to edit was a big disincentive – it reduced the need to revert vandalism but saw a larger drop in content creation.  The discouraging effects of logins are a familiar story for libraries!  There is also a significant gender gap in the editing community.  I wonder to what extent we have tried to consider variations in usage in this way?  Do some demographics make additional use of our services?  Do they use them in different ways?

We were encouraged to learn from parallel worlds and to create user centric strategies.

After a quick break we heard from Andrew Asher (of the Erial project above) on Why Ethnography?  He explained how a library is like a tropical island

What are libraries?

Libraries are social institutions

Libraries are social relations. Social relations embedded in those of other social institutions

Libraries are technologies

Libraries are symbols and symbolic systems

Libraries are beliefs

Libraries are practices (people doing things)

Which all add up to what anthropologists call culture.

He went on to discuss three ethnographic approaches so watch the talk if you want to learn more about observing, mapping and interview approaches.  You will hear about what people include on their personal maps of libraries (in short – computers and social areas – never the librarians) and you can see how we might consider where students spend their time and how it influences the collections they need.

Last up for the day was Paul Jervis Heath from the Modern Human Design Agency with his talk on work at the University of Cambridge. For him design is more than the visual. Other parts of iceberg – information, interaction, structure, concept, proposition. The Microsoft Zune MP3 player – worked well as a piece of kit but had no itunes software equivalent so managing the music was basically your problem and it failed accordingly. He talks about some of the cool projects that Cambridge have been working on – like an appstore and theSpacefinder.  His point was that only by observing closely and then reimagining what we can do will we invent the future.

The day ended with a reception at theNewberry Library where sadly we only saw a function room and a temporary display on theatre in Chicago.  I popped off after for a drink on the 96th floor of the Hancock Tower with some nice Canadian Librarians.