Monday, 30 March 2015

Breakout Session Group A: "Through a behavioural lens darkly: how ethnography can illuminate research into users"

(NOTE Mon 30/3, 3pm: this session will be presented again at 11am Tuesday 31st March - do attend if you can, it was fascinating! cheers, Paula Cuccurullo, EDINA)

Through a behavioural lens darkly: how ethnography can illuminate research into users
Presented by Bryony Ramsden (University of Huddersfield - Twitter @librarygirlknit) and Gareth Johnson (Nottingham Trent University - Twitter @llordllama)

Bryony's presentation:

Bryony Ramsden started by telling the attendees that both presenters will be talking about how they might use ethnographic research for their own libraries.  She told a ‘once upon a time’ story about the library being renovated at Huddersfield; she was appointed as a research assistant to see how the library changes had impacted their users.  She then got in touch with ethnographer Amy Whiteside (University of Minnesota) who had done similar work and helped Bryony learn what she could do with her data.  The research project was small-scale (with a short qualitative amount of data), studying their library, use, seat counts etc.  The library spans 5 floors, with 4 floors holding study areas - some more popular, and some soft furnishings not used.  But why?

Survey data was collected at the door of the library and in various sections - SO MANY NUMBERS - the people who were collecting data complained about this, but Bryony points out she had to type it in ;)  Some students were identified, and asked to fill in diaries but not many really did it (even with a gift given) - students weren’t engaged like US students often are.  There was also an opportunistic survey of students in the spaces they were using, asking why they were where they were.  It was noted that people don’t equate what they’re actually doing with what their stated purpose of use is - 'I'm studying' often meant 'I'm playing with my phone sending email'.

After her interest was piqued, Bryony is 4 years into her part-time PhD continuing this type of research into space issues - she is taking a qualitative approach, and getting away from the numbers.  She is looking at user behaviours in several different libraries across institutions, considering how students interact with each other, and with staff.

So, what is ethnography?  It's learning about cultures, but keeping in mind you’re not the same as the people you’re studying, plus you can never truly understand if you’re not part of the group.  You can use consideration of differences to inform your observations.  Also, you don’t want to change those you study.  She quoted Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world'.

What goes on with cultures in environments we create for them?  Have we created the right environment?  How can we improve what we create?  No matter how much you use the library, you aren’t connected in the same way via a work purpose as via a study purpose.  You can also take a critical look at the relationship between environment and culture (considering approach to gender, race, disability etc).

Conducting observations is really important - people in the library environment are aware of what they’re doing but maybe not consciously, or may not feel that you want to know the full story, so that’s where observation comes in to see what they don't say.  Interviews aren’t the same in ethnography as you imagine when you hear the word 'interview'; they want to go deeper, and they’re semi-structured with few questions to dive deeper.  It’s really important to give voices to the people being interviewed, to bring their stories out.  When doing space research (how people use spaces - still small scale in libraries) as Bryony is, observation and interviewing are especially important.  Libraries who have done space research on a formal level often make large changes to layout, admin etc - they are usually looking at improving user experiences (though perhaps not always).  It's not just space issues though - for those looking at open access and the ref, her research and methodology can show what works for academics (and what is difficult) in helping get their research out.

There are always difficulties in ethnographic research; it’s always going to involve much time and staffing resource to carry out the methods, and in an ideal world you would hire an anthropologist to do this work.  This is also very context-specific based around the people you speak to and the observations you conduct - you can’t really generalise across the board.  At the end, it’s completely up to the people who look at your data what they do with it, so it can be frustrating when it’s out of your hands - what they do may not be what you wanted to happen.  That said, what seem like minor changes you make based on your research can add up to big changes and make major differences to the user experience in the long term.  If you can talk to people, give them the voice and share their voices, this makes people feel involved in the process and empowered

Gareth then picked up the narrative, looking at emerging open access academic paradigms for his PhD work.  The whole idea of dissemination is entwined with current academic practice, but rank and file are still reluctant to deal with ‘the open’.  Gareth is interested in the qualitative rather than quantitative, the perceived ‘mundane’ things which are actually shaping institutional environments.  For example, he started looking at and working with open access in 2006, when it was a niche idea; it’s now gone mainstream.  The UK has a rich history in the infrastructure that props up open access, as well as producing a great amount of the world class research output, so we should be leading in this field.

Ethnographers can find interesting narratives and trends, but they can’t say ‘things are so’ - it's only 'so' with the people you work with.  Ethnography is the framing around which he hangs everything else; he is ‘the research instrument’ through which the voices speak, but with context and further information added.  No one can be truly subjective in research, but ethnography admits that the researcher is coming at the subject from a certain direction.  He discussed the neoliberal context of open access in a marketed sector, and got into the theory and intellectual framework that frame his research, including that of Foucault and discourse (shaping behaviour).

In his research, there were qualitative semi-structured interviews which permitted genuine perceptions and serendipitous insights.  He has 220000 words of data to transcribe and analyse through Qualitative Comparative Analysis. [I will add a photo here of Gareth's slide of all emergent themes he found]  He focused on the theme of barriers - in this case, why aren’t academics adopting open access.  His narrative reflections include the following:
- Academic deficiencies in OA awareness/knowledge are perceived.
- Positive engagement is more typically found in the STEM sector.
- AHSS lag can be attributed to dissimilar dissemination practice.
In Gareth's next phase, he wants to do further research across groups and disciplines and develop a bigger picture.  Finally, he reflected on ethnographic methods: time demands are not trivial for gathering (or analysis), but there is great value in generating a rich narrative and dataset.

Audience questions:
- How many times did they have to change questions?
Gareth kept his questions the same (or kept them of a similar theme as he modified) but he will move on to new questions that came up at a later time (questions should first be tested on a small subset? he didn't have that much time though); Bryony had very specific questions - you do get led a bit by the data but again you can always come back to it later.
-How do you balance asking the questions with what you observed your clients doing in the library?
Bryony got her data to work with to prompt questions, so she goes into interviews on the basis of knowing these things - whether what people tell her goes along with that is another thing!
-Bryony, are the library still collecting all the seat count numbers at Huddersfield?
Not that she knows of.  She can’t say where she’s collecting now, as there are issues of institutional anonymity.
- Health studies are dominated by quantitative data - how do you feel about ’no stories without data’ / ‘no data without stories’?
Gareth has always been told that there must be qualitative data - it's interesting how they work together in different sectors.
- Gareth, are you going to propose ways to destroy the current networks of scholarly access? ;)
He was told that he should show the data and leave it to others to do the destruction! Though he’s seeing how he can work in advocacy - might have some of these things in his final work…
- What is Gareth’s timescale?
He’s in his 3rd year hoping to finish interviews over 3-4 months, writing up from September and available next year (via open access of course!)
- So Bryony, why don’t people like soft furnishing?
She suspected that they didn’t lend themselves to PC use but were often located near them, so it wasn’t condusive - if we’re designing environments with comfy seating, it should be more of a lounge environment and other comforts are more welcome than PCs.  She also thinks libraries are guilty of not playing around enough, changing little things and seeing what happens!
- What about anonymisation?
For both, some people really wanted to have their names included, but that option was there; Gareth was worried about what he does with data after it finishes (AHRC will want that but as he said it’s an issue in the academic culture!)

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