Lisa Spiro and I have worked for the last couple of months on an ethnographic study of a new building at Rice, the BioScience Research Collaborative, or BRC. Libraries have been closing branch libraries for years, but this month, Fondren Library opened fondren@brc. Ethnographic study, ala Nancy Foster, allows librarians to get out into the field, and actually find out what users are doing and thinking. Fantastic approach! There was a bit of paperwork to do–we had to file for IRB approval at our institution. Not entirely necessary, but since we thought we might publish something about this at some point, it is a good way to cover your bases.
We identified a number of researchers, postdocs, staff and graduate students in the BRC that we wanted to interview. I kept a spreadsheet in Googledocs, with their information, links to their c.v. and date for their interview.
We had a script of questions that we asked and we were able to understand their work in their new environment much more clearly than we had previously. In some instances we recorded with an mp3 recorder, and in some instances, we just took notes. The process was entirely dependant on what the interviewees would agree to do.
So, the bottom line? We completed a report and submitted it last week to the executive team of our library. In it, we give an overview of life in the BRC, and recommendations of services that the library could offer to them. Were we surprised by some of what came out of the study? Absolutely! They requested some services that we had no idea would come up, and some of them very easy to accomplish, what we call low-hanging apples here at Fondren.
Ethnographic study is gaining in popularity in the library context. For me, as a user experience librarian, it is an invaluable process to gain insight, not only for understanding the current experiences that our users are having, but to start to see the future a bit, and design experiences that will be fantastic for the users tomorrow, and next year.