Gathering Evidence by Asking Library Users about Memorable Experiences

by Kathleen Reed
Assessment and Data Librarian, Vancouver Island University

For this week’s blog, I thought I’d share a specific question to ask library users that’s proving itself highly useful, but that I haven’t seen used much before in library assessment:

“Tell me about a memorable time in the library.”

Working with colleagues Cameron Hoffman-McGaw and Meg Ecclestone, I first used this question during the in-person interview phase of an on-going study on information literacy (IL) practices in academic library spaces. In response, participants gave detailed accounts of studying with friends, moments that increased or decreased their stress levels, and insight into the 24/7 Learning Commons environment – a world that librarians at my place of work see very infrequently, as the library proper is closed after 10pm. The main theme of answers was the importance of supportive social networks that form and are maintained in the library.

The question was so successful in the qualitative phase of our IL study, I was curious how it might translate to another project – an upcoming major library survey that was to be sent to all campus library users in March, 2016. Here’s the text of the survey question that we used:

“Tell us about a memorable time in the library. It might be something that you were involved in, or that you witnessed. It might be a positive or negative experience.”

It wasn’t a required question; people were free to skip it. But 47% (404/851) of survey takers answered the question, and the answers ranged in length from a sentence to several paragraphs. While analysis isn’t complete on the data generated from this question, some obvious themes jump out. Library users wrote about how both library services and spaces help or cause anxiety and stress, the importance of social connections and accompanying support received in our spaces, the role of the physical environment, and the value placed on the library as a space where diverse people can be encountered, among many other topics.

To what end are we using data from this question? First, we’re doing the usual analysis – looking at the negative experiences and emotions users expressed and evaluating whether changes need to be made, policies created, etc. Second, the question helped surface some of the intangible benefits of the library, which we hadn’t spent a lot of time considering (emotional support networks, the library’s importance as a central place on campus where diverse groups interact). Now librarians are able to articulate a wider range of these benefits – backed up with evidence in the form of answers to the “memorable time” question – which helps when advocating for the library on campus, and connecting to key points in our Academic Plan document.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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