Ethnography in Libraries: Definitely a Thing

Post by Deirdre Costello in User Research

I take it for granted that “user experience” (UX) in libraries is a thing now because it’s central to what I do. But that’s falling prey to the key assumption UX is meant to overturn: that just because you’re immersed in something doesn’t mean everyone’s aware of it.

Why Now?

Andy Priestner’s slideshow “Why UX in libraries is a thing now” has been making the rounds on my social networks, and with good reason – it brings up some very important points about the way UX in libraries is evolving and why it’s important:

  • UX as a discipline is moving beyond surveys, metrics and usability testing to include more in-depth, qualitative methodologies. (Woo!)
  • Libraries are a cultural institution, and the methods we use to discover how people engage with them need to embrace the role they play in the community.
  • Ethnographic research can change the way we look at how people want to engage with an institution.
  • It’s important to experiment with methodologies – there’s no bad learning!

Ethnography in Action

I can’t get enough of Donna Lanclos’ sleeping maps! While working with a grad student to map the behavior happening in the library, she discovered that not only were students sleeping in the library (which I feel like she definitely already knew), they were sleeping in noisy, high-traffic areas. This is exactly the kind of finding ethnographic methodologies are capable of uncovering:

  1. It keeps you honest: students aren’t necessarily engaging with the library in ways that were anticipated when it was founded.
  2. But it also helps you understand how they do want to engage: “Our students sleep anywhere, as they need to.  They are working hard, and sometimes need to recharge.”
  3. And it gives you a sense of where you stand in terms of that desired engagement: “If sleeping students are symptoms of successful spaces, then Atkins Library is doing very well indeed.”

EBSCO’s User Research team relies on the contextual inquiry research method for exactly that reason. Every time we use this method, it’s a humbling reminder of how important it is to try as hard as we can to understand our users.

Deirdre’s Excellent Adventure

I am so excited to meet both Andy Priestner and Donna Lanclos at the UX in Libraries conference (#uxlibs, @uxlibs) in the UK next week! I’ll be chronicling my Excellent Adventure to the UK using an awesomely simple newsletter tool called Tiny Letter. Subscribe here.

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