OCLC Research just completed a symposium on user studies for the RLG Partnership. The symposium, Hearing Voices, was held at The Boston Public Library and had a good roster of presentations that will soon be available on the website. A very full range of user studies in which libraries and archives invest was represented – understanding different age-based information and learning behaviors (Screenagers), shaping services for particularly important client segments (NYU graduate students), profiling the service needs of students and faculty (U of Rochester and its partners in extensible catalog project), determining the audience for a national library service (the BnF’s Gallica digital library), user testing of a catalog for selection (WorldCat Local) and user satisfaction measurement (Archival metrics toolkit).
I can’t summarize each of the presentations but I can try to convey some broad conclusions that resulted for me. One is about the relevance and repetition of users studies. The other is about the role of social and collaborative tools in the library environment.
In her opening statement, my colleague, Merrilee Proffitt, challenged the speakers and attendees to think about whether and how we can leverage the range of work that is being done at so many institutions. Can we share results? Share the data? At least share the instruments used? On those questions I observe that
user studies may be done locally but the results are relevant system-wide. Moreover the circumstances that justify local repetition are rare.
Recognizing that there may be national differences, the general conclusions that emerge from good studies ought to be adopted by others as foundations for their own local responses.
My screenagers aren’t fundamentally different from your screenagers. My graduate students aren’t fundamentally different from your graduate students. My students and faculty don’t do their work in a fundamentally different way then yours. My clients expectations and use of a local library catalog are not fundamentally different than yours. Why would we imagine that the willingness to go beyond the first page of results in a catalog search is going to differ by institution? If we can accept that there is a system-wide relevance to these studies then we are well on the way to a shareable profile of our different client segments (academic/public, undergrad/graduate, casual user, etc.). We’re well along on having a broad foundation on which to do further work that is more closely aligned with the distinctive services and impact that the library can have.
The urge to uniqueness that leads to studies being framed as applicable only locally may partially explain why we don’t publish and share them as much as we should. The other reason seems to be some form of embarrassment at the results. If I don’t regard my students as pretty much like your students then I worry that mine don’t show as well as yours. With that premise the study may be acted on locally but unavailable to inform system-wide understanding and action.
The other themes that emerged for me from the flow of the day were around passion and 2.0 social tools. The occasionally dispiriting observations about screenagers were offset for me by Nancy Foster’s report of seeing behaviors that we associate with serious researchers in undergraduates and graduate students. She observed that all eighteen year olds will have a passion and evidence these behaviors around that passion. Most of the time, however, those passions aren’t academic.
The core characteristic of these behaviors is around people connections. Passionate undergraduates seek out the senior academics that seem to share their interest and zeal. Senior academics seek out peers who share their interests at other institutions. And so on. Web 2.0 social tools allow those connections to be made and maintained. (See some of Lorcan’s good posts on this topic here and here.) As someone in the audience said, they support the people connecting to people while libraries have been in the business of connecting people to books.
The passion around an interest dictates where the provision of social tools to build community is likely to happen successfully. In general that will be wherever I am most likely to find a concentrated audience of individuals likely to share my passion and interest. That suggests the destination for me to exercise my passion has to have a dense concentration of people who define themselves by their passion – for example, a discipline-specific website run by a scholarly society or science fiction fan club site. Alternatively the destination has to have a very, very large user base such that even if even a small number share my passion there will be a reason for me to share my interest with them – for example, the various Flickr groups or a national archives site for genealogists. The library catalog, even the aggregation of many library catalogs, is not where people expect to share their passion and their interests. They expect that the library catalog will offer up library assets (things, services, authority, trust, etc.) that they can take elsewhere in service of their interest and share it where other passionate colleagues gather.
Community does not happen in the catalog.
Our investments in catalog-based social tools should be minimal. The valence of the catalog and passion don’t make for a combination. Our investments should follow the contour of expectations. Those expectations can be understood through good user studies. Those user studies don’t have to be done locally and rarely have to be repeated. Our resources should go to structuring our assets so the passionate can take them where they are best used. And users know best where that is.