Ethnography gives new perspective to the student experience

Strategies at Cambridge University's FutureLib programme reveal where the library fits within the wider student experience.

Ethnography – talking and listening to students, as well as recording and observing them – can play an important role in revealing how 'the library' fits within the wider student experience of university, and new approaches to serving student needs can emerge as a result.

FutureLib is a pan-Cambridge innovation programme which aims to deliver new products and services derived from ethnography and user centred design. Speaking at last week’s UKSG Forum in London, FutureLib’s Andy Priestner  explained how librarians can sometimes focus too much on the specifics of library use -- footfall, loan stats, survey data and the like. However useful insights can by piecing together students' whole learning landscape, and better appreciating where (and if) the library fits into that landscape. Important perspective can be gleaned from students who don’t use the library, as well as those who do.

A variety of techniques have been used to uncover the bigger picture, including ethnographic research, diary studies, collaborative design workshops, and unstructured and structured interviews.

Priestner described an exercise in which students were asked to use sticky notes to capture the detail of their entire university life, "warts and all" – writing one element per sticky note.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 'social' was the top category, 'course' (which included libraries as one element) was second and 'day to day life' (including elements such as getting around, laundry and healthcare) was third, followed by 'technology' (wifi and phone signal) and 'next steps'.

One finding was that students found it difficult to find study spaces that matched their preferences,  and had very diverse study needs (for example studying in groups, alone, 'together alone' with friends, or working in a quiet or noisy location).  

These insights fed into the creation of the 'SpaceFinder' service which aims to match study spaces to students' specific needs. The spaces suggested could include a library, café or pub near to the student’s current location. The service has been very well received, with the University’s  Students Union describing it as "an achievement which shouldn’t be underestimated… the general response has been one of sheer astonishment that the University have helped produce something so up-to-date and relevant to student life."