Have you ever wondered where the large green button on a photocopier came from? You might assume it was a design or engineering decision made early on in the development of the photocopier.
In fact, it emerged as the result of an ethnographic study of office workers using photocopiers and their struggles in getting them to do what they wanted. The employment of anthropologists (those who study the science of humanity) to address this problem helped turn what was fast becoming an embarrassingly poor user experience into a simple and elegant solution. So elegant, in fact, my question probably felt like a very strange one indeed!
Increasingly, the distinction between services provided by libraries and the technologies of companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google, are blurring or disappearing entirely.
For users there is no distinction. The expectations of students using library services are measured against the services they receive from these corporate providers.For libraries (and the wider university or college) to meet and exceed expectations, the library needs to learn from and use the tools and techniques so effectively employed by these companies.
The future of libraries may depend, in no small part, on their ability to develop intuitive green buttons of their own and reconnect with students in innovative new ways.
The student experience will be critical to the future of libraries. If you want to find out what else will be part of the future library, why not check out this video…
Ethnography in the library
Libraries have moved from being the location for search, access and advice to playing a much smaller role within a much larger information landscape. The intimacy between the student or researcher and library has eroded over the last decade as students no longer view the library as the starting point for access to information and content.
While this relationship between student and library has become more distant, the expectations students have for accessing information and library services have increased dramatically. The library now finds itself needing to understand the behaviours and expectations of its students in a way it has never had to.
In contrast to the large and detailed studies of researchers, like Researchers of Tomorrow, little exists on the behaviours of UK academic students.
Understanding the information-seeking behaviours and motivations of students is arguably more complex and fluid. It may be that the future of libraries engaging more deeply with user behaviours includes approaches like those adopted in some US institutions, where anthropologists are employed and embedded within the library.
Examples include Donna Lanclos at University of North Carolina, Charlotte who is the library ethnographer and who blogs at Anthropologist in the Stacks. Donna’s role ensures the decisions the library makes about service, systems and space are all anchored by the behaviours, practices and motivations of the students at UNC Charlotte.
Such an approach may seem less feasible within a UK context. However, the opportunity for libraries to offer internships to local anthropology students and researchers seems one that could enable libraries to embed this kind of understanding of student behaviours deeply within the university.
Research such as Visitors and Residents provides critical insights into the behaviours of students in a digital information environment, as students progress through the educational system (from school to postgraduate). The Visitors and Residents work is already challenging the assumptions we have about how students behave in an online environment, how they learn and collaborate and is identifying new modes of engagement such as ‘learning black markets’.
If a greater role for longitudinal anthropological (human-driven) research forms a critical part of the future library, then so too does a more data-driven approach to understanding the behaviours of students and library users.
Realising the potential of data
Libraries find themselves in an enviable position of having large amounts of data about what their students are doing and the resources they are using. This data includes searches on the library catalogue, the content and resources being accessed, entrance and exit data from gates and so on.
This activity data can be augmented with data from across the campus: attainment data, learning systems data and course attendance data, for example. Bringing these diverse and disparate data sets together has the potential to drive important decisions and enable new insights to emerge for universities and colleges.
Innovative projects such as the Library Impact Data Project at Huddersfield andSurfacing the Academic Long Tail (SALT) at Mimas, University of Manchester are beginning to realise the potential of this data. It is easy to imagine a future where libraries’ access to this data is much more immediate and is informing decision making in real-time: collection development, student support, supporting student attainment and retention, and so on.
Indeed, we might imagine the potential for libraries to provide ‘data clinics’ where students receive one-to-one support in analysing and interpreting their personal data trail. The results help inform how they study, research and use the library and systems within the university.
These kinds of ethnographic and data-driven insights into student behaviours will become increasingly critical for libraries. The advantages for universities and colleges will emerge in the various ways this data is analysed and acted upon locally, enabling libraries to constantly test and refine services and new developments in an environment where nothing will remain still for long.
The insights from this data will help ensure libraries are able to integrate much more tightly with the teaching and learning functions of the university itself.
Reconnecting to teaching and learning
The effective integration of library services and systems with learning environments has long been a hope for libraries. While this integration has proved difficult in the past, disruptive developments, such as online or web based learning (the phenomenon of MOOCs) and the increase in student expectations, makes integration with teaching and learning ever more critical.
With developments like MOOCs, this integration has an urgency that didn’t exist before and points out many of the inadequacies that libraries currently endure with their systems. It asks fundamental questions about how libraries ensure that they have systems fit for purpose, both for now and in the future.
How do library systems enable resilient libraries and library service development, and not create barriers to the adoption of new technologies and ways of working? How do libraries ensure they are able to intimately understand the behaviours and motivations of their students, both online and in the physical environment and ensure the support services and resources provided by the library are available to students?
A cocktail of expertise
Underpinning much of this discussion is the assumption that at a fundamental level the skills and expertise of libraries will evolve. This evolution may take the form of new specialisms to complement the expertise of librarians, for example: designers, anthropologists, developers, user experience consultants and so on.
It may be that librarianship itself changes and that being a librarian means having a broad range of technical and/or other skills that mean you are able to cross the boundaries between technology, design and librarianship. Like Google engineers, it is not enough just to be a good coder, you might also be a designer, thinker and writer.
Having the right mix and availability of skills ensures a certain amount of resilience for the sector. Such resilience is essential in an environment where there is no roadmap or obvious transition from the way things are today, to some future point. The disruptions faced by libraries today are not the exception, but rather an indication of the constant nature of change that will be the norm from now on.
Developing green buttons...
The library no longer has a monopoly on the discovery, access and use of information. In order to continue developing services that will be of use and make sense to students, the library will need to study and understand how and what students are doing on and offline.
New developments like web based teaching and learning demonstrate the potential disconnect between the types of services universities, colleges and libraries think students want. If libraries, and increasingly institutions themselves, are going to be able to meet student expectations and enhance the student experience, then they will need to be in a position to develop green buttons of their own.
This article originally featured in issue 36 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).