Monday, April 17, 2006

LibQual and the Librarian's Dilemma

Today, I received an email requesting participation in a LibQual survey. LibQual provides "institutional data and reports that enable you to assess whether your library services are meeting user expectations." Armed with this information administrators and libraries allocate resources, set goals, and change or expand services.
This brought me back once again to Clayton Christensen's book
Innovator's Dilemma.

In my Librarian's Dilemma post I wrote that Christensen states that with few exceptions hard drive businesses with great managers who listen intently to their customers failed. The dilemma is that an organization structured to facilitate the design and support of its dominant product and current customer base allocates resources towards sustaining the current technologies rather than investing in the development of disruptive ones.

The purpose of the LibQual survey is to query current library customers to see if current services and technologies are meeting their expectations. Many of the "great" library administrators use LibQual results as a foundation for service change or even for strategic planning purposes.

According to Christensen, innovations are often targeted towards current customers because their needs are understood. In supporting sustaining services plans must be made before action is taken. However, with disruptive technologies action must be taken before careful plans are made. So, by following the LibQual model I fear that unsuspecting library administrators may be falling victim to the Librarian's Dilemma.

In order to deal with all the disruptive forces in today's environment library planning and research must focus on, and serve, a different purpose. Library administrators need to gather knowledge about their new customers and new services through discovery-driven expeditions.

So, if LibQual is not the best method for learning which disruptive and emerging technologies would best strengthen the library, which method is?

At the CNI Spring Task Force meeting I listened to a presentation by Nancy Fried Foster on the Ethno Project, which focuses on using the principles of user-center design for developing library services. Ms. Fried Foster is an anthropologist within the University of Rochester's River Campus Libraries. (An anthropologist on a library staff. That's a disruptive idea.)

Traditionally, the basic question that libraries ask themselves when assessing services is "what do our users need?" With user-centered research, or ethnography, that question changes to "what do our users do?" It is a qualitative research method that involves a high level of contact between the researcher and the researched that includes participant observation and interviewing.

The methods used by Ms. Fried Foster in the development of their institutional respository included interviewing students in dorm rooms and studying faculty work practices in their offices included:
  • Participants were provided cameras and ask to photograph "treasure hunt" items that they could interpret anyway they they wished.
  • Maps were provided in which participants were asked to keep track of where they went during a typical day on campus, places where they felt comfortable and uncomfortable.
  • Once all the materials were gathered they were reviewed in groups.
  • Team Brainstorming sessions were then held in which storyboards were developed based on research cycle.
  • Role playing was used where team members imagined that they were faculty that could magically have and use any tool that would make research easier or more effective.
The use of ethnography techniques may place libraries in a better position to deal with disruptive technologies than traditional survey methods which focus on current customers needs.


Design Research Resources

Ethnography (Web Resources)
Sphere: Related Content


Anonymous said...

Your post would benefit from a spell-check. And your statement "Traditionally, the basic question that library's ask themselves when ..." should be "Traditionally, the basic question that libraries ask themselves when ..."

You're using a plural, not a possessive.

Nancy Fried Foster said...

Many thanks for blogging our CNI presentation. I hope that anyone interested in this type of research will get in touch with me at the University of Rochester or check out the website.

One clarification: when we ask students to make maps, they map their real movements in the course of an actual day. So, the maps are better than "typical" inasmuch as they tell us what students really did during one day of their lives, rather than what they think they might have done.

Finding out about what students really do, not what we think they do or what they say they do, is the hallmark of the anthropological methods we use. Thanks so much for highlighting these methods in your blog!

Liz said...

I found this post by searching for blog posts about LibQUAL. I find your discussion of LibQUAL here and in other posts very interesting. Perhaps some of LibQUAL's failings are similar to the mistake of a reference librarian who fails to conduct a reference interview. The patron says that want one thing, but after a few questions we determine that it is really something else that they want.