What do writers and readers expect of the library?

Lorcan 3 min read

Birte Christensen-Dalsgaard visited OCLC earlier this year, and gave an interesting presentation Developing Denmark’s Next Generation Digital Library: Work Underway at Statsbiblioteket and DEFF [ppt]. One of the most interesting things she talked about was a study being carried out under the auspices of a DEFF project, User expectations and requirements in relation to the hybrid library. (Deff, Denmark’s Electronic Research Library is a national Danish initiative which builds shared infrastructure and other services.)
The report [pdf] of this study has now appeared in English and I enjoyed reading it. The study took an ethnographic approach, using a variety of qualitiative techniques to try to build up a rich picture of library perceptions and expectations. There were ‘field studies’ at several libraries, contextual interviews based on these, interviews with library staff, and followup workshops where earlier results were used to shape questions. The field studies were organized around a ‘cultural probe’ where library users were given a notebook, a camera, a scissors and gluestick. In the notebook were pasted various ‘provocative’ statements. People were asked to record impressions in the notebook and to respond to the statements.
Here are some things that struck me as I read the report. This is not meant as a summary; it is a very selective sampling.

  • The group defined three behavioral patterns or persona: the drive-in user (uses the library in a very goal-oriented way – execute practical tasks, pick up books, print, photocopy, …); the worker bee (usually students rather than researchers, who use the physical space that the library provides to do work, but do not necessarily use other library resources while there); the library enthusiast (knows about and uses library services, and interacts with library staff). Library staff tend to be disappointed that the drive-in users do not make use of other services; not unsurprisingly, they ‘express delight’ about library enthusiasts.
  • The report notes an interesting distinction between searching for literature, and actually retrieving it. The authors report that people tend not to use the library for searching, but, once something is found, they do look to the library to get it. There are three key strategies for finding resources: colleagues’ recommendations, chaining from bibliographies and citations; and search engines and other web resources. Users tended not to turn to librarians for support in the search phase; they are most likely to ask for assistance in the retrieval phase. In this way, it is suggested that Google and the library are not direct competitors. The report notes that the ‘vast majority’ of users will state that Google has a ‘sparse selection of literature’. Two things here. One, I wonder will Google Scholar and Google Book Search change this perception. And two, this distinction, between searching and retrieving, echoes the discussion in these pages (and here) about discovery and disclosure, and the use of the catalog as a ‘location’ tool, rather than as a discovery tool. The report notes that users do not use ‘library staff, the local library catalog, or to any great degree during the selection process’.
  • There is a gap between some librarians’ views of users as ‘happy amateurs’ and users’ own views that they do not need assistance.
  • It is difficult to identify some use of web resources clearly, because users will not always distinguish what the library provides from the general range of resources on the web.
  • Staff based services were ‘invisible’ to many participants. In some cases it was not clear to them what staff had to offer, or they did not want to disturb staff who were sitting at workstations. The report notes that there were two main groups of remarks about library staff. The first was that they could appear busy or unapproachable. The authors note that ‘during the interviews, many users expressed genuine surprise that they could actually ask library employees for advice’. The second was that they were not seen as having academic expertise. It is suggested that better signalling of different library roles, and of the expert advice that is available would help here. In one followup workshop, the idea of a personal contact for each unit was welcomed.
  • Users expect library instruction to be goal-oriented: focusing on the literature selection in their subject area. They report some support for the idea of ‘bookable’ library advice at the point of need, as, for example, when writing an assignment.
  • Generally, students appreciated the physical locale of the library as a workplace which can help structure the day and interaction with other students.

As noted above, the project also ran workshops to develp and test ideas about future libraries based on the results of the field studies and interviews.
A popular issue here was the future of the catalog. Users were enthusiastic about embedding links to relevant staff in results, based on a match between search terms and a librarian profile. There was a desire to see abstracts and tables of contents. And responses to the idea of a ‘people who borrowed this also borrowed that’ type of service were positive. User reviews were seen as less useful than expert reviews. This section also talks about responses to sugestions about better visibility for library staff and their specialities, and about the physical library.
Well worth reading …..

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