Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #10a David Attenboroughs in cardies

In the lead up to our #uklibchat  ‘Putting the User first’  on the 7th November  we invited  Andy Priestner and Matthew Borg to write for us, and luckily they agreed!

Without ado-ing (much) here is the first of the articles.

David Attenboroughs in cardies by Andy Priestner


photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

‘Putting the user first’ is right at the heart of librarianship isn’t it? As we all know, one of Ranganathan’s five laws is all about meeting user need (well I didn’t know for sure, but trusty Wikipedia just confirmed this to be the case – the Fourth Law if you’re interested). So why the heck do we need guest blogposts and uklibchats on this topic? We all put users first all the time don’t we? It’s our raison d’être. Cut us in half and it reads ‘USERS FIRST’ right the way through doesn’t it? That is what we librarians do, nay are! Isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

Ah, yes, but what’s that strange whooshing sound I hear? Heralding the arrival of that amorphous cloud of what must be reality, with its terrible whiff of context and service constraints. Those procedures and policies that are in place because ‘we’ve always done them that way’ and ‘it’s too complicated, or too late, to change it now’; the collection not quite fitting on to one floor any longer, giving us no choice but to put the rest of it is upstairs, in the hope that the users will know where to go; not having the time or the inclination to teach a session interactively and instead reading off all the slides again and giving in to the temptation to tell users absolutely everything there is to know about our services in painstaking detail;  the fact that there are six, or maybe even seven, clicks before an ebook downloads; or that fun investigation of that new media tool or platform which is great to play with but we can’t quite think of its relevance for users yet, but hopefully it’ll come to us in time? Familiar?


photo credit: jisc_infonet via photopin cc

My point, simply put, is that often we think we are putting users first, or at least try to, but libraries (and librarians for that matter) are complex beasts and quite often we find we can’t, or we can’t be bothered to, or sometimes even don’t want to fulfil user needs (imagine!). But are some of the excuses we make fair?

Sometimes our hands might genuinely might be tied because we’re not senior enough to make a change that would benefit the users (as I was reminded just today when I tweeted something akin to ‘man the barricades’ only to be reminded by the receiver of that DM that she was not a man, nor  did she yet have access to the barricades, or indeed a map that would usefully take her to them); others, may have been in a role too long to see what the problems are with a service anymore (I always say to my new staff ‘question everything’ and that I’m relying on their fresh eyes); and still others, may not be naturally customer-facing or empathetic – the stereotype favoured by the meedja still survives in some quarters. Beyond staffing, there are of course product and supplier constraints. And also the ever present reality of lack of money and, in contrast, the abundance of politics, both of which conspire to put the user, if not second, then sometimes even third or fourth to other library concerns. There’s also a distinct lack of imagination, but I daren’t go there. Can. Of. Worms.

However much of the above is excusable by context and circumstance, I do believe we librarians are missing a trick, especially over here in the UK – yes I’m getting to my point now, get ready…

We just aren’t spending enough time trying to putting users first by actively discovering what makes them tick. Putting our preconceptions to one side and asking questions, like: Why they favour certain desks in the library?; Why are they are so bad at referencing?; Why they prefer some ways of contacting us more than others? How do we find all that, er, ‘stuff’ out? I wanted to say ‘shit’ but this isn’t my blog, besides as my 5-year-old says darkly to me: ‘it’s a very bad word’.

Yes, we can survey our users and many of us do so incessantly – we loves our stats so we does – but not nearly enough of us do some more simple easier things, like say: talking to our users; sitting listening to them; hearing how and why they circumvent the systems we provide; how they react to the colours, lighting and layout of our libraries; and sometimes just plain observing them and how they go about their time spent in our libraries. We too can be David Attenborough, albeit in a cardie, observing our users in our own habitat. What I’m talking about ladies and gentlemen is <drum roll>… ethnography.


photo credit: Collin Key (returned) via photopin cc

Ethnography. I’m always compelled to say it like Les Dawson with a quick shift up of a fake bosom in a whispered Yorkshire accent, emphasising certain vowels, but then I have many problems. But what is it? Simply put, a way of studying cultures through observation, participation and qualitative techniques. Oh you knew that already did you? Then why aren’t you doing more of it. Eh?! And no, just doing surveys doesn’t count, you have to do more. Lazy!

But hang on, let’s not start reinventing the wheel here because there are some lovely, lovely people who are already doing this stuff brilliantly in libraries over in the US. I will not pretend here and now to have done a thorough study of who the go-to people are in this field, but I can think of no better person to point you in the direction of first than Donna Lanclos.

If you know who she is already, you are either American or Bryony Ramsden – thanks for the tip-off Bryony – Donna is an anthropologist who in 2009 was hired by UNC Charlotte’s University Librarian, to be the ‘Library Ethnographer’. She tells us on her blog profile: ‘In and among all of the interviewing, observations, focus groups, and usability testing, she is still figuring out what that means.’ But don’t be fooled, she’s being humble, she absolutely know what that means and her blog is a great place to visit to start to piece together how ethnography can help us to improve our services, and especially our library spaces. Readers, there are maps there which show where her users choose to sleep the most, eat the most, and talk the most! She talks of Visitors and Residents – and it makes far more sense than it should. There are wayfinding tools that are the stuff of dreams. I shall not describe it further and suggest instead that you just go visit and spend at least an hour there. Embrace the ethnography, or at least the idea of it and the possibility that you too can apply it to your library and your users. Donna is the Anthropologist in the Stacks. But don’t click through to her just yet. I’m nearly done though.

There are other librarian ethnographers/anthropologists out there, including the award-winning Nancy Fried Foster. Matt Thompson, is also worth a look see, especially if you’ve already had your Weetabix today (some long complex sentences). The ERIAL project is very interesting as well. In fact, all three are worth dipping your toes into, but go to Donna first. She’s also on the twitters. Naturally.

Question: Are there any librarian ethnographers/anthropologists out there in the UK? Or any librarians actively engaged in ethnography at any rate? I know there’s service design work going on at the University Library here in Cambridge (@CamDesignSpark). And here at Judge Business School we’ve tried to engage in more conversation and observation and carried out ethnographic interviews in order to better determine user need as part of our move towards a more personalised library service. Any more for any more?

Statement: There really should be a lot more. Can you sort this out please? By quarter to 5? kthxbai


Andy Priestner (@PriestLib) is the  Information and Library Services Manager at Cambridge University’s business school.


About Ka-Ming

Librarian at a University in London and one of the founding members of uklibchat.wordpress.com Find me @agentk23

3 comments on “Feature #10a David Attenboroughs in cardies

  1. sarahcchilds
    October 30, 2013

    Hi Andy,

    It’s not an example of a library anthropologist as such but there is some dissertation research from Loughborough a few years ago which might be of interest to you: https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/2134/3136. It took an ethnographic approach to studying library space, and there’s some really interesting stuff in there…


  2. Pingback: David Attenborough in cardies | The Brunel Library CSES Blog

  3. Pingback: How far does a librarian stretch? Supporting students and their wellbeing by @lemurph | #uklibchat

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2013 by in Feature and tagged , , , .


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