But what about us? Developing an inclusive approach to library insight.

Killick, Selena (2019). But what about us? Developing an inclusive approach to library insight. In: International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries, 23-25 Jul 2019, Aberystwyth, Wales.

URL: https://libraryperformance.org/


The Open University (OU) is the UK’s largest academic institution dedicated to distance learning, with over 120,000 students. The Library, based in Milton Keynes, was established alongside the University in 1969 to provide academic staff with access to the latest research in their field. The print library was designed to meet the needs of campus-based staff. The design of the teaching materials posted to students meant that they did not require access to an academic library service. At the turn of the millennium, as electronic publishing and home internet access grew, we commenced offering services to students and sought to establish a library that met their needs.

We have a strong culture in performance measurement and assessment, which helps to ensure that strategy and service improvement is underpinned by evidence. Since 2012, this effort has been helped significantly by our Student Library Research Panel, a dedicated community of students who work with us in partnership as co-creators (Dick and Killick, 2016). A rolling recruitment effort attracts 500 students annually who agree to work with us for a year to contribute to our programme of continual improvement. Although there is a natural self-selection bias to panel membership, many students who join have had limited or no experience of the library when they agree to become part of the community due to the nature of distant learning. This inclusive approach to our student insight research ensures that our service development takes into consideration both user and nonuser needs.

As our assessment culture has grown, one concern about our approach has continued to surface: the panel membership has been restricted to distance learning undergraduate and taught postgraduate students but these are not the only user groups that the library serves. When we developed the panel in 2012, a key objective was to ensure that we captured the views and experiences of these members of our community. They are the largest community we serve, and by their very nature difficult to gain feedback from. While some user experience research was conducted with the predominantly campus-based research students, insight from academic staff was provided only through anecdotal feedback. Feedback from our 9,000 associate lecturers, who teach our students directly and who are predominantly employed on a part-time distance basis, was even scarcer. We were concerned that we were planning service improvements based on student needs alone and not seeing a fuller picture.

In February 2018 we started a Library Needs project, seeking to gain a more detailed understanding of current and future needs and expectations of the Library service from the whole OU community by undertaking focussed qualitative research with:
• Academic staff based on campus and in other parts of the UK
• Associate lecturers
• Research students on campus and in other parts of the UK
• Students (undergraduate and taught postgraduate)

A total of 33 interviews were conducted as part of the project, using a directed storytelling approach to gain rich insights into the needs of our community. The conversations were recorded and transcribed before conducting Conversation Analysis (CA) and Thematic Analysis (TA) to draw out the themes in our very rich data. The findings were used by the library’s extended leadership team, coupled with their professional expertise, to develop the departmental operational plan and objectives for the forthcoming academic year.

While the insights gained from the students (and, to some extent, from the research students) corresponded with the research previously undertaken with the student panel, some wider insights from the other community groups surprised us. Positively, we are seen as a prized resource that is central to the work of the University. Participants spoke about the value of the Library in their work, research, and study. In line with our continual improvement culture, however, one area was singled out as in need of improvement: the physical library. Since commencing offering services for student the Library placed a strong focus on electronic resources and we moved increasingly towards a virtual presence. Understandably, this suits our largest community, the distant learning students, but in the process the Library lost some relationship capital with campus-based academic staff and research students.

In response to these findings, the Library has partnered with the Estates department to develop a new vision and strategy for the physical library. In line with our assessment culture this has been based on insight. Through observation studies, love letters and break up letters, and guerrilla interviews with both users and nonusers of the building we have identified the needs and expectations of the physical library. This insight, combined with our professional expertise has resulted in the new vision and strategy which we are now working to deliver.

The wider learning from this process, however, is the importance of capturing the views of our whole community, including the users and nonusers, from all user groups. To take this forward we are in the process of extending and enhancing the Library Student Research Panel which has served us so well, to become the Library Research Panel, to ensure we continue to gather insight from our whole community.

Dick, S. and Killick, S. (2016) ‘Delighting Our Customers : Building Services Collaboratively with Learners at a Distance’, in Baughman, S., Hiller, S., Monroe, K., and Pappalardo, A. (eds) 2016 Library Assessment Conference. Arlington, VA: Association of Research Libraries, pp. 543–548. Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/id/eprint/57807.

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