Hi, my name is Jo and I'm a newly qualified librarian working in several academic libraries in Cambridge.

I originally created this blog as an electronic learning journal whilst participating in an extended shadowing programme prior to starting the MA in Information Services Management at London Metropolitan University.

The views expressed here are entirely my own.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Twelve - Participation in Library Focus Group Meeting

Yesterday afternoon I was originally due to observe one of the Subject Librarians (Science & Technology) at the Enquiry Desk. However, as I have already had several sessions at the desk, I was invited to attend the second of two focus group meetings instead. Each year, students at both of our main sites are invited to give their views on our services and facilities in order to help us make improvements and plan our future provision. This year, to encourage participation, each student was paid ten pounds to attend. Notes and suggestions arising from these meetings are fed back to the Campus Library Management Team and the University Library Quality Working Group.

Before the session I met with the Faculty Liaison Librarian (Arts, Law and Social Sciences) and one of the Assistant Reader Services Librarians, to run through the discussion topics. These included:

  • the new fines scheme
  • our opening hours
  • the library collections (both physical and digital)
  • library training sessions
  • our comments and suggestions scheme
  • communication with students
  • self-service policy
The topics were split up between us and I was responsible for asking the group about our opening hours and comments and suggestions scheme. As we knew that library fines would be a contentious issue, we decided to deal with this last, unless it was raised by one of the participants, in order to avoid setting a potentially negative tone to the meeting. We were specifically briefed not to influence the outcome of the discussion and to act as moderators not participants.

At the beginning of the session we welcomed the students and introduced ourselves. The students were then asked to introduce themselves by stating their name, subject and year of study. Although there was a good spread of subjects and years within the group, all of the students appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties with no mature students present. The purpose of the meeting and our intentions for using the information gathered were explained. The group were also reminded that this was their opportunity to inform future changes and improvements to our services. In order to elicit honest feedback, they were reassured that all responses would be made anonymous in any final report.

Although some of our discussion points did not provoke an immediate response, most of the participants seemed willing to contribute once the discussion was underway. Subsidiary questions were therefore asked to try and encourage comment and to further explore any additional issues raised. Being an inexperienced facilitator, I initially found it quite difficult to come up with secondary questions which would not shape the course of the discussion. However, I soon took my lead from my colleagues and stuck to open questions such as, "How would you go about making a suggestion or comment about the library?" and "If you have previously made a comment or suggestion, how was it dealt with?".

Despite some of the participants being more vocal than others, no one in particular seemed to dominate or influence the opinion of the group. However, to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to speak, further comment was invited before moving onto the next discussion topic and at the end of the session each student in turn was asked to make any final comments.

Although the discussion was structured around the topics listed above, several distinct themes emerged:

Library staff and user education
Many of the enquiries that are dealt with at the Reception Desk are from people who either can not find the items they need, want to dispute their library fines or report equipment that is out of order. It is therefore very easy to be drawn into a distorted vacuum where all we apparently do is deal with problems from dissatisfied customers. It was therefore most heartening to hear the group's praise for the friendliness and helpfulness of the library staff and the enthusiasm with which they came up with suggestions for improvement. As the majority of participants said they felt comfortable approaching staff for help or to raise issues, the fact that some were not previously aware of the comments and suggestions scheme and that they can make appointments with subject staff didn't seem to present a problem. Those who had made appointments with subject staff or had attended our user education sessions were very happy with the help they received. It was, however, suggested that summary sheets could be produced for those unable to attend the sessions and that refresher training be provided for third years about to start their dissertations.

Opening hours
The participants commented positively on the new term-time 24/4 opening hours (continuous opening from 08:30 Monday to 16:45 on Friday) although some expressed frustration that, later in the evenings, library staff are not available and reservations can not be collected. As some students who have to travel into Cambridge come in early, it was suggested that the library open half an hour earlier on Mondays.

As anticipated, the main criticism was that there are not enough books to go round and that the loan periods are too short. The group were particularly unhappy with the 24 hour collection and the associated fines although, interestingly, the group were generally agreed that the fines structure was necessary to encourage circulation of stock. One person commented that they had given up using the reservation service because they once had to wait over a week for a book. Others appeared to resent having to buy their own copies of key texts. Indeed, there seemed to be a general expectation that the library should provide every student with the books they need with no appreciation of the constraints of funding and space. Given their apparent reluctance to spend lots of money on resources, I was surprised to learn that some students had purchased articles online rather than using the cheaper inter-library loans option, either because they found it quick and convenient or because they were unaware that the service exists.

In the Inter-library Loans Team we have recently received a number of requests for physical copies of available e-books from students who do not like using the digital version. I therefore found it interesting that so many of the students spoke positively about them and expressed a demand for more. I do, however, wonder whether this is because most of the participants will have grown up with the internet and digital media. This so-called Generation Y's demand for quick and easy access to information was also evident in suggestions that the digital databases are difficult to navigate and should therefore be made to work in the same way as Google Scholar. This implies a need to re-emphasise the importance of quality information sources over ease of access.

One interesting outcome of this discussion was a suggestion that the library produce a regular electronic newsletter highlighting new books, journals and digital resources that have recently been acquired by the library. This would be organised under subject headings and e-mailed to all students.

IT provision
The main issue raised was the insufficient number of PCs available in the library. There were some conflicting arguments about whether these PCs should be used to access social networking sites such as Facebook. Some students felt this should either be banned completely, only allowed during quieter periods or on a small number of standing height machines. Others, however, suggested that as these sites are used increasingly to support online study groups and to keep in touch with friends and family their use is legitimate.

The group were also critical of the number of times that the computer network has been unavailable recently and that they can no longer forward messages sent to their student e-mail to their personal accounts. Unfortunately, although these issues are the responsibility of Communications & IT Services, because the computers are located in the library they are perceived to be library issues.

Library environment
The majority of the students were very pleased with the recent refurbishment of the library and particularly appreciated the allocation of group and silent study zones. One or two, however, felt that the plain walls were too clinical and suggested that student art work be displayed to provide interest and inspiration. There was also a suggestion that the refreshment area be enlarged and, comparisons with the new entrance area at our other main site, suggest a demand for more social space within the library.

Before the meeting, I had expected to attend purely as an observer but welcomed the opportunity to gain some experience as a facilitator. This session served as an important reminder of the need to listen to our library users and to continuously adapt and evolve our services to meet their needs.

I also really appreciated the opportunity to engage with the students away from the Reception Desk and to hear their positive comments and suggestions. It was a real morale booster to be reminded that not all of our students are disgruntled or dissatisfied and that the work we do is valued. For this reason, I would recommend that all staff, including Library Assistants, are given the opportunity to attend future focus groups either as observers or moderators.

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