True Confession

This week’s lecture, readings and environmental scan assignment have been a real education.  So true confession time: This is my first ever, first-hand experience with any sort of user needs assessment, ethnographic research, environmental scanning or curriculum mapping.   I’m ashamed to admit it.  But here it is: I have been working blind.

Blind_Blog Wk 3

As I listened to this week’s lecture, I made a mental checklist.

  • Most libraries do not actually do a great deal of user assessment.”  Check.
  • We spend a lot of time in libraries trying things….trying something else….”  Check.
  • We waste a lot of time not getting it right.”  Unfortunately, probably a Check.
  • We often rely on our own intuition to make decisions in libraries. Check.
  • We often think we are our patrons, and that our patrons are like us.”  Check.

On behalf of all environmental scanning/assessment slackers out there, I argue that many librarians are sincerely reflective in their practice and constantly reworking their approaches.  I’ll bet they come away from every instruction sessions or reference exchange and immediately check in with themselves.  Maybe even beat themselves up a bit!   What went well? What didn’t go well?  After which earnest adjustments are made.  Many librarians have the responsive and reflective aptitude in spades.

But our pace is harried.  The time and staff commitments for deep analytical reflection seem swallowed up in the constant hubbub.  We are well into our next commitment before we can truly scrutinize the last.  Our outside data gathering stays informal.  We debrief, when we can, with some teachers and have passing conversations with students about the afterlife of our contribution.  But we are not yet energetically inquisitive about how our efforts play out.  We don’t pursue measurement methods and data that would illuminate the final learning outcomes and experiences of our users.

So our reflections take place within the “bounded rationality” to which Cahoy refers (p. 11).  It is from that safe space that we build our next approach on our intuition, best guesses, and perceived limitations.  Our adjustments to practice are often conservative tweaks to basically old approaches.  They are rarely the major alternations that would transform how we serve our users.

Magnifying Glass_Blog Wk 3

The lecture and readings point to a better way.   Outside data-gathering, rather than insular reflection, needs to be more central and integral to what we do.  We need to find ways to better understand the experiences and needs of our users and our interaction with them. Armed with the information gleaned from such inquiries, librarians can make wise and more transformative adjustments.

Among the readings so far, I’ve particularly appreciated Cahoy’s article, packed with practical information and marching orders.  Already, just part way in to my first user experience assessment ever, I have exercised new superpowers of boundary-blowing reflection.  My first attempt is far from grand.  I am merely making use of actual evidence and procedures that have been available to us all along but that we have never utilized.  Even with those small steps, I am managing to peek behind the curtain that hangs between us and an actual accounting of our practices in the lives of our students.

Some of what I am discovering in my assessment project is sobering, as I’ll share out more next week.  I have a hunch that environmental scans and needs assessments often expose very clearly where we are missing the mark.  Perhaps we will wish again for the days when we were blissfully ignorant of our failures. But, I look forward to the opportunities that environmental scanning and user needs assessments offer for evidence-based practice.  I think, too, it is this type of research-driven analysis that will capture the attention and cooperation of administration and faculty, whose collaboration will be vital to our true success.

Images used in this post:
Isengardt. (May 21, 2013). Blinded By the Light. Retrieved from
[used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]

Mike Kline. (July 21, 2007). Using a Magnifying Glass and Driving. Retreived from 
[used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]


About tellthetruthruth

I'm a 12 Thinger.
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10 Responses to True Confession

  1. mgfarkas says:

    I appreciate your “true confession” and can tell you that you’re definitely not alone in it. I can’t wait to hear what you’ve learned from your assessment project! Reflective practice is definitely not a bad thing, but I think collecting a variety of data points (our own insights, assessments, focus groups, etc.) can provide a clearer picture than any one method alone.

    • embendered says:

      This week’s assignment has definitely taught me that “collecting a variety of data points” to add to a reflective practice is a very good thing! Thanks for this chance to figure that out firsthand.

  2. ZemLee says:

    Ruth, I love the sheer honesty of your post this week and I’m with you. I love your comment “Our adjustments to practice are often conservative tweaks to basically old approaches” because I think it certainly applies to so many different settings. I think at times librarians can be a fairly traditional and conservative bunch especially since we’re dealing with organizational systems and notions of traditions and viewpoints passed down from years and years of practice. I really do think though that our lack of empirically based research on so many topics and issues relating to LIS have a lot to do with our hesitations towards change and innovation. Hopefully, we’ll only improve upon this closed and timid mindset as we take more active steps to promote the advancement of learning through field research. Thanks for your post! 🙂

    • embendered says:

      I agree, Zem, we play it safe. And, even when we do think we are actively collecting feedback, we sometimes manage to carefully amass just the stuff that confirms what we have always done. Why is that?!

  3. Nicole says:

    I think librarians do assessments especially for information literacy classes although probably not to the extent that would allow for a better understanding of what they should be teaching as opposed to what they actually teach. Most librarians will have students complete some sort of worksheet or questionaire when they are finished their class. The IL worksheet will cover the steps that were taught. By completing the worksheet the librarians are able to see what the students understood but this may not necessarily cover what the student needs to know. By that I mean if you are teaching a class on legal research and you only show the student how to search on ebscohost does the student understand how to research? Yes and no. The student has a basic understanding of research but it would have been better if you showed him or her how to search Westlaw and Lexisnexis.

    We need to take a look at the people we are serving and understand what it is that they want and need. If we actually created a teaching assessment and followed through we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and effort when we taught the next class.

  4. Hello Ruthie,

    Dear Ruthie,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog! I believe what you said is primarily true across the land for librarians in varying degrees, and even overseas where you are. It stands to reason librarians will act on what they know, which are traditional and well-established library practices.

    To a certain extent, I’m guessing this is particularly true because you are in a private school and/or academic sector. I believe public libraries have to account for how their budget is spent in order to get more funding for the upcoming year. For example, in order to obtain funding from the city government every year, the City of Santa Monica Public Library System stringently has to prove their worth in statistical measures. For example, the library conducts inventory for all the branches three times a year to account for library items in the library’s catalog. (IBM’s wand has helped us a lot in inventory and I think the technology is growing in that area, but I digress . . . .)

    In researching many library websites, based on the U.S. Census Bureau results, there are statistics provided from the city about demographics, income margin, education level, racial breakdown, etc. The library is obligated to provide statistics of their yearly circulation numbers, number of visitors, breakdown of library items borrowed, etc. Until now, perhaps statistics was the only way public libraries knew how to provide numbers to get funding.

    On the other hand, these statistics are created to obtain funding and the goal very different from “getting to know the user.” I believe there’s plenty of room for qualitative research such as ethnographic study that should be conducted in an attempt to get to know the user.


  5. csambuco says:

    I could have written this post — as a fellow environmental scan slacker and person who often finds myself (and the library I work for) struggling amidst that check list you gave. I really enjoyed your perspective on the issue, especially since I am in the same boat. I’m interested to see what you learn from the assessment!

    Nicole mentioned using a teaching assessment — I think this could be so useful and is often overlooked. My library runs a basic 4-class intro to the library for 9th graders, and in the interest of being non-taxing and low-key, we don’t assign any homework or assessments. I think maybe one end-of-the-term survey might enlighten us however to where we might be missing the mark, or what students might want to know more about, or even what they’ve mastered. I totally agree with the “yes and no” answer in that case in terms of “did they learn it?” It’s hard to know until you ask.

    • embendered says:

      Carmen, thank you for stepping forward in solidarity as an enviro scan slacker. It was getting lonely out here. 🙂 I appreciate your predicament about not assigning library homework or other forms of assessment. We are totally out of the loop on this as well and I believe it is a major disconnect with our IL learning outcome goals as a library and as a school.

  6. Diana Sotolongo says:

    Bravo Ruth! Bravo at so many levels: first because of your brave confession, second for assessing the situation with new eyes; third because of the discoveries you have made in your research and lastly for so well exposed blog. The success of your first research is not going to be based on the great discoveries you can made, but in finding the strength to move the lever and make the rusty machine move. Many libraries are in the same situation. The good news is that librarians have realized that a new point of view is required. It is no longer enough to have the books in the shelves, we need to know who is going to read them.
    Like you, I was also impressed by Cahoy’s reflection. The need to know the user, the tendency and any other external factors that could affect the library. However, the highlight of Cahoy’s theory is its revelation of the importance of analyzing the relationship between the various factors discovered during the study. A data itself is just a number. A data relative to another is knowledge.
    I‘m looking forward to read about your discoveries!

  7. embendered says:

    “Finding the strength to move the lever and make the rusty machine move.” I liked that, Diana! I appreciated your pep talk! I have bounced back from my data-induced low because, you are right, there is good information in the interplay of factors. And, in the end, it’s about staying curious and hopeful enough to take the lemons that may result from any study and make some damn good lemonade. I also liked the idea of synergy that came up in this week’s readings. I think I learned a lot from “listening” more closely to our users over the course of this week’s assignment. Now, instead of worrying about or dismissing what our students might say, I am now convinced that they have a lot of wisdom to share and we’d be silly not to seek it and respond to it.

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