Here is a presentation I gave at ELAG 2015 to introduce our innovation project, Exploring British Design. The presentation is entitled ‘From Ivory Tower to People Power‘ (You Tube link) and emphasises the collaborative nature of the project and the focus on people as a topic, rather than on archival description, which is not always the best starting place for researchers. The presentation covers:
Aims of the project
Workshops with postgraduate students about how they research and analysis of their research paths
Workshops with postgraduates about websites: what students do and don’t like in terms of discovery
Traditional archival cataloguing ‘lock in’ of entities such as people, places and events.
Connectivity beyond single A to B connections; ‘anything can be a focus’ and can link to a myriad of other things
Use of EAC-CPF (XML standard for archival authority files)
Creating the data, handcrafting data, limitations of our approach, too many ideas not enough time!
We recently ran a second workshop as part of our Exploring British Design project. The workshops aim to understand more about approaches to research, and researchers’ understanding and use of archives.
The second workshop was run largely on the same basis as the first workshop, using the same exercises.
Looking at what our researchers said and documented about their research paths over the two workshops, some points came out quite strongly:
Google is by far the most common starting point but its shortcomings are clear and issue of trust come up frequently.
There is often a strong visual emphasis to research, including searching for images and the use of Pinterest; there seems to be a split between those who gravitate towards a more text-based approach and those who think visually (many of our participants were graphic designers though!).
It is common to utilise the references listed in Wikipedia articles.
The library as a source is seen as part of a diverse landscape – it is one place to go to, albeit an important one. It is not the first port of call for the majority.
Aggregators are not specifically referred to very often. But they may be seen as a place to go if other searches don’t yield useful results.
Talking to people is very important, be it lecturers, experts, colleagues or friends
Online research is more immediate, and usually takes less effort, but there are issues of trust and it may not yield specific enough results, or uncover the more obscure sources.
There is a tendency to start from the general and work towards the more specific. With the research paths of most of the researchers, the library/archive was somewhere in the middle of this process.
Personal habits and past experience play a very large part, but there is a real interest in finding new routes through research, so habit is not a sticking point, but simply the dominant influence unless it is challenged.
For the second workshop, the first exercise asked participants to document their likely research paths around a topic.
We had four pairs of researchers looking at different topics, and we left them to discuss their research paths for about 45 minutes. The discussions following the exercise picked up on a number of areas:
Online vs Offline
We kicked off by asking the researchers about online versus ‘offline’ research paths. One participant commented that she saw online as a route through to traditional research – maybe to locate a library or archive – ‘online is telling me where to look’ but in itself it is too general and not specific enough; whereas the person she was paired with tended to do more research online. He saw online as giving the benefit of immediacy – at any time of day or night he could access content. The issue of trust came up in the discussion around this issue, and one participant summed up nicely: “If you do online research there is less effort but there is less trust; if you research offline there is more effort but there is more trust.”
Following on from the discussion about how people go about using online services, there was a comment that things found online are often the more obvious, the more used and cited resources. Visiting a library or archive may give more opportunity to uncover little known sources that help with original research. This seemed to be endorsed by most participants, one commenting that Pinterest tends to reflect what is trendy and popular. However, there was also a view that something like Pinterest can lead researchers to new sources, as they are benefiting from the efforts, and sometimes the quite obsessive enthusiasms, of a wide range of people.
There was agreement that online research can lead to ‘information dumping’, where you build up a formidable collection of resources, but are unlikely to get round to sorting them all out and using them.
The issue of effort came up later in the discussion when referring to a particular university library (probably typical of many university libraries), and the amount of effort involved in using its databases. There was a comment about how you need to ‘work yourself up to an afternoon in the library’ and there seemed to be a general agreement that the ‘search across all resources’ often produced quite meaningless results. When compared to Google, the issue seems to be that relevance ranking is not effective, so the top results often don’t match your requirements. There was also some discussion around the way that library resource discovery services often involve too many steps, and there is effort in understanding how the catalogue works. One participant, whose research centres on the Web and the online user experience, felt that printed sources were of little use to him, as they were out of date very quickly.
Curating your sources
One researcher talked about using Pinterest to organise findings visually. This was followed up by another researcher talking about how with online research you can organise and collect things yourself. It facilitates ‘curating’ your own collection of resources. It can also be easier to remember resources if they are visual. Comparing Pinterest to the Library – with the former you click to add the image to your board; with the Library you pay a visit, you find the book, you take it to the scanner, you pay to take a scan…although it is increasingly possible to take pictures of books using your own device. But the general feeling was that the Web was far quicker and more immediate.
Attitudes towards research
One participant felt that there might be a split between those more like him who see research as ‘a means to an end’ and those who enjoy the process itself. So maybe some are looking for the shortest route to the end goal, and others see research as more exploratory activity and expect it to take time and effort. This may partly be a result of the nature and scope of the research. Short time scales preclude in-depth research.
Talking about serendipitous approaches, someone commented that browsing the library shelves can be constructive, as you can find books around your subject that you weren’t aware existed. This is replicated to some extent in something like Amazon, which suggests books you might be interested in. There was also some feeling that exploring too many avenues can take the researcher off topic and take up a great deal of time.
Trust and Citation
The issue of trust is important. A first-hand experience, whether of a place you are researching, or using physical archive sources, is the most trustworthy, because you are seeing with your own eyes, experiencing first hand or looking at primary sources first hand; a library provides the next level of trust, as a book is an interpretation, and you may feel it requires corroboration; the online world is the least trustworthy. You will have the least trust if you are looking at a website where you don’t know about who or what is behind it. There was agreement that trust can come through crowd sourced information, but also some discussion around how to cite this (for example, using the Harvard system to reference web pages and crowd sourced resources). This led on to a short discussion around the credibility of what is cited within research. Maybe attitudes to Wikipedia are slowly changing, but at present there is generally still a feeling that a researcher cannot cite it as a source. There are traditions within disciplines around how to cite and what are the ‘right’ things to cite.
[Further posts on Exploring British Design will follow, with reflections on our workshops and updates on the project generally]
As part of our Exploring British Design project we are organising workshops for researchers, aiming to understand more about their approaches to research, and their understanding and use of archives. Our intention is to create an interface that reflects user requirements and, potentially, explores ideas that we gather from our workshops.
Of course, we can only hope to engage with a very small selection of researchers in this way, but our first workshop at Brighton Design Archive showed us just how valuable this kind of face-to-face communication can be.
We gathered together a small group of 7 postgraduate design students. We divided them into 4 groups of 2 researchers and a lone researcher, and we asked them to undertake 2 exercises. This post is about the first exercise and follow up discussion. For this exercise, we presented each group with an event, person or building:
The Festival of Britain, 1951
Black Eyes and Lemonade Exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1951
Natasha Kroll (1912-2004)
Simposons of Piccadilly, London
We gave each group a large piece of paper, and simply asked them to discuss and chart their research paths around the subject they had been given. Each group was joined by a facilitator, who was not there to lead in any way, but just to clarify where necessary, listen to the students and make notes.
I worked with two design students, Richard and Caroline, both postgraduate students researching aspects of design at The University of Brighton. They were looking at the subject of the Festival of Britain (FoB). It fascinated me that even when they were talking about how to represent their research paths, one instinctively went to list their methods, the other to draw theirs, in a more graphic kind of mind map. It was an immediate indication of how people think differently. They ended up using the listing method (see left).
The above represents the research paths of Richard and Caroline. It became clear early on that they would take somewhat different paths, although they went on to agree about many of the principles of research. Caroline immediately said that she would go to the University library first of all and then probably the central library in Brighton. It is her habit to start with the library, mainly because she likes to think locally before casting the net wider, she prefers the physicality of the resources to the virtual environment of the Web. She likes the opportunity to browse, and to consider the critical theory that is written around the subject as a starting point. Caroline prefers to go to a library or archive and take pictures of resources, so that she can then work through them at her leisure. She talked about the importance of being able to take pictures, in order to be able to study sources at her leisure, and how high charges for the use of digital cameras can inhibit research.
Richard started with an online search. He thought about the sort of websites that he would gravitate towards – sites that were directly about the topic, such as an exhibition website. He referred to Wikipedia early on, but saw it as a potential starting place to find links to useful websites, through the external links that it includes, rather than using the content of Wikipedia articles.
Richard took a very visual approach. He focused in on the FoB logo (we used this as a representation of the Festival) and thought about researching that. He also talked about whether the FoB might have been an exhibition that showcased design, and liked the idea of an object-based approach, researching things such as furniture or domestic objects that might have been part of the exhibition. It was clear that his approach was based upon his own interests and background as a film maker. He focused on what interested and excited him; the more visual aspects including the concrete things that could be seen, rather than thinking in a text-based way.
Caroline had previous experience of working in an archive, and her approach reflected this, as well as a more text-based way of thinking. She talked about a preference for being in control of her research, so using familiar routes was preferable. She would email the Design Archives at Brighton, but that was not top of the list because it was more of an unknown quantity than the library that she was used to. Maybe because she has worked in an archive, she referred to using film archives for her research; whereas Richard, although a film maker, did not think of this so readily. Past experience was clearly important here.
Both researchers saw the library as a place for serendipitous research. They agreed that this browsing approach was more effective in a library than online. They were clearly attracted to the idea of searching the library shelves, and discovering sources that they had not known about. I asked why they felt that this was more effective than an online exploration of resources. It seemed to be partly to do with the dependency of the physical environment and also because they felt that the choice of search term online has a substantial effect on what is, and isn’t, found.
Both researchers were also very focused on issues of trust; both very much of opinion that they would assess their sources in terms of provenance and authorship.
In addition, they liked the idea of being able to search by user-generated tags and to have the ability to add tags to content.
In the general discussion some of the point made in the case study were reinforced. In summary:
Participants found the exercise easy to do. It was not hard to think about how they would research the topics they were given. They found it interesting to reflect on their research paths and to share this with others.
For one other participant the library was the first port of call, but the majority started online.
Some took a more historical approach, others a much more narrative and story-based approach. There were different emphases, which seemed to be borne out of personality, experiences and preferences. For example, some thought more about the ordering of the evidence, others thought more about what was visually stimulating.
It was therefore clear that different researchers took different approaches based on what they were drawn to, which usually reflected their interests and strengths.
There was a strong feeling about trust being vital when assessing sources. Knowing the provenance of an article or piece of writing was essential.
The participants agreed that putting time and effort into gathering evidence is part of the enjoyment of research. One mentioned the idea that ‘a bit of pain’ makes the end result all the more rewarding! They were taken aback at the idea that that discovery services feel pressured to constantly simplify in order to ensure that we meet researchers’ needs. They understood that research is a skill and a process that takes time and effort (although, of course, this may not be how the majority of undergraduates or more inexperienced researchers feel). Certainly they agreed that information must not be withheld, it must be accessible. We (service providers) need to provide signposts, to allow researchers to take their own paths. There was discussion about ‘sleuthing’ as part of the research process, and trying unorthodox routes, as chance discoveries may be made. But there was consensus that researchers do not need or wish to be nannnied!
All researchers did use Google at some point….usually using it to start their search. Funnily enough, some participants had quite long discussions about what they would do, before they realised they would actually have gone to Google first of all. It is so common now, that most people don’t think about it. It seemed to operate very much as a as a starting point, from where the researchers would go to sites, assess their worth and ensure that the information was trustworthy.
[There will be follow up posts to this, providing more information about our researcher workshops, summarising the second activity, which was more focused on archive sources, and continuing to document our Exploring British Design project.]
At ELAG 2013 I gave a presentation with a colleague from The University of Amsterdam, Lukas Koster. We wanted to do something entertaining, but with a worthwhile message that we both feel strongly about. We believe that more needs to be done to integrate resources and provide them to researchers in a way that suits end-user needs. We gave a presentation where we urged our colleagues to ‘mind the gap’ between the perspective of the information professional – their jargon and their complicated systems, which often fail to link resources adequately – and the researcher, who wants an integrated approach, language that is not a barrier to use and expects the power of the Web to be used within a library context, just as they might when looking for music online.
Our presentation included two sketches: one in a music shop, where a punter (the ‘seeker’) expects the shop owner (the ‘pusher’) to know who else bought this music and what they thought of if; and one in a library, where the seeker wants an overview of everything available, and they want to look at research data and other resources without struggling with different catalogue systems and terminology.
In our presentation we referred to the ‘seeker’ wanting a discipline-focussed approach (not format based), and access regardless of location. I highlighted one of the problems with searching by showing examples of search terms used on the Archives Hub where the researchers were confused by the results. The terms researchers use don’t always fit into our approach, using controlled vocabularies. We talked about the importance of connections between information. Our profession is making headway here, but there is a long way to go before researchers can really pull things together across different systems.
I spoke about the danger of making assumptions about our users and showed some examples of the Archives Hub survey results. Researchers don’t always come to our websites knowing what they are or what they want; they don’t necessarily have the same understanding of ‘archives’ as we do. Lukas expanded more on our musical theme. We can learn from some of the initiatives in this area – such as the ability people have to explore the musical world in so many different ways though things like MusicBrainz. Lukas also showed examples of researcher interfaces, looking to pull things together for the end user. Isn’t the idea of giving the researcher the ability to manage all of their research in this way something libraries should be spearheading?
We concluded that the vision of integrated, interconnected data is not easy. As information professionals we may have to move out of our comfort zones. But we don’t have any choice unless we want to be sidelined. This means that we need to change our mindsets (we talked about a ‘librarian lobe’!) and we need to actually think about whether it is us that needs to learn information literacy because we need to learn to think more like the end user!
A HEFCE study from 2010 states that “96% of students use the internet as a source of information” (1). This makes me wonder about the 4% that don’t; it’s not an insignificant number. The same study found that “69% of students use the internet daily as part of their studies”, so 31% don’t use it on a daily basis (which I take to mean ‘very frequently’).
There have been many reports on the subject of technology and its impact on learning, teaching and education. This HEFCE/NUS study is useful because it concentrates on surveying students rather than teachers or information professionals. One of the key findings is that it is important to think about the “effective use of technology” and “not just technology for technology’s sake”. Many students still find conventional methods of teaching superior (a finding that has come up in other studies), and students prefer a choice in how they learn. However, the potential for use of ICT is clear, and the need to engage with it is clear, so it is worrying that students believe that a significant number of staff “lack even the most rudimentary IT skills”. It is hardy surprising that the experiences of students vary considerably when they are partly dependent upon the skills and understanding of their teachers, and whether teachers use technology appropriately and effectively.
At the recent ELAG conference I gave a joint presentation with Lukas Koster, a colleague from the University of Amsterdam, in which we talked about (and acted out via two short sketches) the gap between researchers’ needs and what information professionals provide. Thinking simply about something as seemingly obvious as the understanding and use of
the term ‘archives’ is a good case in point. Should we ensure that students understand the different definitions of archives? The distinction between archives that are collections with a common provenance and archives that are artificial collections? The different characters of archives that are datasets, generally used by social scientists? The “abuse” of the term archives for pretty much anything that is stored in any kind of longer-term way? Should users understand archival arrangement and how to drill down into collections? Should they understand ‘fonds’, ‘manuscripts’, ‘levels’, ‘parent collection’? Or is it that we should think more about how to translate these things into everyday language and simple design, and how to work things like archival hierarchy into easy-to-use interfaces? I think we should take the opportunities that technology provides to find ways to present information in such a way that we facilitate the user experience. But if students are reporting a lack of basic ICT skills amongst teachers, you have to wonder whether this is a problem within the archive and library sector as well. Do information professionals have appropriate ICT skills fit for ensuring that we can tailor our services to meet the needs of the technically savvy user?
A British Library survey from 2010 found that “only a small proportion [of students] …are using technology such as virtual-research environments, social bookmarking, data and text mining, wikis, blogs and RSS-feed alerts in their work.” This is despite the fact that many respondents in the survey said they found such tools valuable. This study also showed that students turn to their peers or supervisors rather than library staff for help.
Part of the problem may be that the vast majority of users use the internet for leisure purposes as well as work or study, so the boundaries can become blurred, and they may feel that they are adept users without distinguishing between different types of use. They feel that they are ‘fine with the technology’, although I wonder if that could be because they spend hours playing World of Warcraft, or use Facebook or Twitter every day, or regularly download music and watch YouTube. Does that mean they will use technology in an effective way as part of their studies? The trouble is that if someone believes that they are adept at searching, they may not go that extra mile to reflect on what they are doing and how effective it really is. Do we need to adjust our ways of thinking to make our resources more user-friendly to people coming from this kind of ‘I know what I’m doing’ mindset, or do we have to disabuse them of this idea and re-train them (or exhort them to read help pages for example…which seems like a fruitless mission)? Certainly students have shown some concern over “surface learning” (skim reading, learning only the minimum, and not getting a broader understanding of issues), so there is some recognition of an issue here, and the tendency to take a superficial approach might be reinforced if we shy away from providing more sophisticated tools and interfaces.
The British Library report on the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future reinforces the idea that there is a gulf between students’ assumptions regarding their ICT skills versus the reality, which reveals a real lack of understanding. It also found a significant lack of training in discovery and use of tools for postgraduate students. Studies like this can help us think about how to design our websites, and provide tools and services to help researchers using archives. We have the challenges of how to make archives more accessible and easy to discover as well as thinking about how to help students use and interpret them effectively: “The college students of the open source, open content era will distinguish themselves from their peers and competitors, not by the information they know, but by how well they convert that knowledge to wisdom, slowly and deeply internalized.” (Sheila Stearns, “Literacy in the University of 2025: Still A Great Thing‟, from The Future of Higher Education , ed. by Gary Olson & John W Presley, (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009) pp. 98-99).
What are the Solutions?
We should make user testing more integral to the development of our interfaces. It requires resource, but for the Archives Hub we found that even carrying out 10 one-hour interviews with students and academics helped us to understand where we were making assumptions and how we could make small modifications that would improve our site. And our annual online survey continues to provide really useful feedback which we use to adjust our interface design, navigation and terminology. We can understand more about our users, and sometimes our assumptions about them are challenged.
User groups for commercial software providers can petition to ensure that out-of-the-box solutions also meet users’ needs and take account of the latest research and understanding of users’ experiences, expectations and preferences in terms of what we provide for them. This may be a harder call, because vendors are not necessarily flexible and agile; they may not be willing to make radical changes unless they see a strong business case (i.e. income may be the strongest factor).
We can build a picture of our users via our statistics. We can look at how users came into the site, the landing pages, where they went from there, which pages are most/least popular, how long they spent on individual pages, etc. This can offer real insights into user behaviour. I think a few training sessions on using Google Analytics on archive sites could come in handy!
We can carry out testing to find out how well sites rank on search engines, and assess the sort of experience users get when they come into a specialist site from a general search engine. What is the text a Google search shows when it finds one of your collections? What do people get to when they click on that link? Is it clear where they are and what they can do when they get to your site?
* * *
This is the only generation where the teachers and information professionals have grown up in a pre-digital world, and the students (unless they are mature students) are digital natives. Of course, we can’t just sit back and wait a generation for the teachers and information professionals to become more digitally minded! But it is interesting to wonder whether in 25 years time there will be much more consensus in approaches to and uses of ICT, or whether the same issues will be around.
Nigel Shadbolt has described the Web as “one of the most disruptive innovations we have ever witnessed” and at present we really seem to be struggling to find out how best to use it (and not use it), how and when to train people to use it and how and when to integrate it into teaching, learning and research in an effective way.
It seems to me that there are so many narratives and assessments at present – studies and reports that seem to run the gamut of positive to negative. Is technology isolating or socialising? Are social networks making learning more superficial or enabling richer discussion and analysis? Is open access democratising or income-reducing? Is the high cost of technology encouraging elitism in education? Does the fact that information is so easily accessible mean that researchers are less bothered about working to find new sources of information? With all these types of debates there is probably no clear answer, but let us hope we are moving forward in understanding and in our appreciation of what the Web can do to both enhance and transform learning, teaching and research.