Chatting with Char Booth

By Daniel A. Freeman |

Char Booth is a Library Journal Mover and Shaker and one of ALA's Emerging Leaders, and is a voice of growing prominence in the Library Technology community. As the E-Learning Librarian at UC Berkeley, Char works at a unique intersection of technology, advocacy, public service, and education. Char blogs at info-mational and will be the author of an issue of Library Technology Reports in 2010.


Char recently authored Informing Innovation: Tracking Student Interest in Emerging Library Technologies at Ohio University (A Research Report), which examines one institution's attempt to modify its own technological and organizational makeup by better understanding its local users. Char places the story in the context of a thorough qualitative and quantitative analysis of academic library usage and technology patterns.


I had a chance to talk with Char about her work and the changes she sees coming in our libraries.



Dan Freeman: So, let's talk about your book. What was the genesis of your work, and how did Ohio University end up as the setting?


CB:  What started as a user research initiative to understand local technology and library cultures at Ohio University developed over the space of a year or so into its current form, a in-depth case study of our survey findings on students and emerging technologies as a framework for analyzing the current climate of technology development in libraries in general. The book also offers a lot of practical advice about how librarians can use homegrown survey methodology to investigate their local users in order to integrate more usefully into their campus communities and create a better response in terms of emerging services.


Before I began my current position as E-Learning Librarian at UC Berkeley, I worked as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Ohio University for several years. I was part of the Reference/Instruction department’s Technology Team, headed by my former colleague Chad Boeninger. We and several others on the team were involved in developing the tech side of many public services initiatives at the OU Libraries, and due to an extremely flexible working environment and strong institutional support had a record of early experimentation with various kinds of emerging tools – web calling and video, podcasts, toolbars, open-source knowledgebases, and so forth. While most of these initiatives were successful, our work in Skype reference and video kiosks panned out as somewhat ahead of the curve and/or off the mark in terms of student adoption. This experience led us to question whether we were creating new tools in a somewhat off-the-cuff way, using our assumptions about how students were interacting with technology without much actual investigation or needs assessments. We were starting to run the risk of becoming stretched too thin - the more services we added, the more we asked of our coworkers in terms of learning and staffing new tools, and the lower the potential service quality we were providing in general. This inspired us to investigate through a broad-based student “environmental scan” what would actually work for our local users. We simply wanted to understand what types of social and mobile technologies they would find useful as library services based on their current and future needs, and also how they used and perceived our buildings and services. I spearheaded a project that conducted several web-based surveys that generated strong response rates - roughly 20% of the student body - to help us evaluate and prioritize how we served users technologically and otherwise. Because I was also working on a degree in educational technology at OU at the time, I had a chance to go beyond our local report and analyze findings in more detail for my master’s paper, which revealed some interesting and unexpected results in terms of how different demographics used and viewed social and mobile tools and libraries in general. The master's report provided the foundation for the book I published with ACRL, which considers our findings against the trajectory of the Library 2.0 response to emerging technologies, analyzes the broader implications of creating library "cultures of assessment", provides advice on research and visual communcication, and provides a sample survey instrument template for others interested in pursuing similar research at their institutions.


DF: Do you think this is the first book written of its kind? Can you point to other published studies that inspired you?



CB: As a case study that investigates the assumptions that continue to shape what has long been thought of as the 2.0 approach to technology and public services, it’s unique as far as I know. Like everyone else, I had been hearing catchphrases like “culture of assessment”, “Library 2.0”, and “user-focused technology” for years, and with Informing Innovation I tried to break these open a bit and demonstrate what their actual implementation looked like from an on-the-ground perspective. I didn’t go into the OU study intending to publish anything about it – the survey project was not remarkable in any sense other than that we received good returns, were comprehensive, and got very interesting comments and results. When I began to notice how consistently surprising the findings were and how thoroughly my analysis challenged my perceptions of user archetypes I didn’t even know I had, I saw that I had an opportunity to use this research to help shed critical light on how unpredictable a cohort of students can truly be, and to illustrate a simple way to inform and improve the types of services to which a great many librarians devote a lot deal of energy. I advocate for this type of user research as a simple, scalable way for academic libraries to become more fully customized and customizable. I believe we should be more self-conscious and responsive reflections of our unique campus cultures, and technology is only one aspect of this. The most direct way to acheive this kind of goal is to simply find out more about the people who are/are not crossing our physical and digital thresholds. Who are our users? Who do they think we are? How can we understand one another better?


The Foster and Gibbons Studying Students report from the University of Rochester was inspirational in that it illustrated the value of detailing the results of local research project in order to provide insight and motivation for similar studies in other contexts. At Rochester, they employed a series of interesting ethnographic methods to discover the authentic undergraduate research culture – Studying Students has deservedly received wide attention since its publication in 2007, but for anyone who hasn’t yet taken a look I highly recommend reading this study, which is also available in full as a free download on the ACRL Digital Publications site ( Their results are fascinating and highly useful, yet practically speaking some of their research methodologies might be difficult to replicate to such an extent in other libraries. Most institutions do not employ a team of trained researchers who can successfully lead a study of this depth and magnitude. Extensive ethnography can be highly effort-intensive, and in the current budgetary climate scalability in research is key. Therefore, I wanted to show the depth of insight that can also be gained using other research designs such as web-based survey methodology. This is why I included the template student library/technology questionnaire, which is Creative Commons licensed and meant to be customized – no permission necessary, just take it and use it as you will. Creating a strong survey instrument takes a lot of work, so I hope people download the template, hack it up, make it fit their needs and local survey software, and conduct their own campus-wide library environmental scans.



DF: You write a lot about cultural/demographic approaches to library technology and their pitfalls. For instance, you note that library technology planners often "inadvertently neglect to consider immediate user communities as well as the limitations and characteristics of their organizational cultures, leading in effect to emerging technology services tailored to other climates and therefore not well integrated, functional, or discoverable." Can you talk about the implications of this statement and how your book can help information professionals avoid this type of mistake?


CB: I think that for various reasons, in order to get a sense of what’s possible and useful in terms of new technologies in the library context, most of us tend to turn outward instead of inward. We look to blog posts and articles that describe the technology implementation experiences and user demographics of other institutions, and consult national survey research such as the OCLC Perceptions report or the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology to get a sense of what students use and need in terms of libraries and technology. While useful, this also has the effect of potentially misrepresenting local environments in several ways. Campuses and libraries are cultural microcosms – invariably unique, made up of many subcultures comprised of different demographics that develop their own identities and ways of doing things. Organizational climates affect the success and pace of technology development, and the service and outreach history of a library system impacts how students will discover and adopt new tools. Therefore, it’s not safe to assume that a) what worked for another library will work for you and b) that national research reflects your local users in any meaningful way. A good example of this is found in a recent ACRL Conference paper by Sutton and Bazirjian (2009) that replicated part of the OCLC Perceptions study at two different college campuses. An identical series of questions that tested library perceptions among students generated radically different responses at each campus, both of which diverged from the original OCLC findings (Sutton, L. , & Bazirjian, R. (2009). Replication of the OCLC Perceptions study: The experience of two academic libraries. In D. Miller, Ed., Pushing the edge: Explore, extend, engage. Proceedings, ACRL 14th National Conference. Chicago: American Library Association.) What I’m really doing in Informing Innovation is advocating for a local, practical approach to testing our assumptions about how different types of users actually interact with our libraries and new technology tools in order to be more responsive to them in every sense – not just technologically. 


DF: As with any research on a fast-developing, multi-faceted trend, you found some paradoxes in your research. Let's talk about some of those. I was intrigued by the figures you cited that stated that older patrons are simultaneously the most receptive to new technology and the least engaged with it. With new technology trends emerging and impacting libraries at a rapid pace, what do you make of these kinds of findings? How do we make sense of them?


CB: That was surprising to me, too – older participants were, regardless of their academic standing as graduate or undergraduate students, more receptive to new library tools when all of the types of technologies surveyed were averaged. There were, of course, a lot of variations in the levels at which different age groups actually used specific applications in their personal lives, which affected how a participant reacted to the possibility of library services via different platforms. For example, younger users were more likely to use Facebook and text messaging and therefore were somewhat more interested in library services via these platforms, but older users still tended to be more likely to indicate that they would use emerging library applications across the board regardless of whether they actually used the technologies in the first place.


In the book I describe this as a “library predisposition” among older users – returning undergraduates and graduate students simply seemed more receptive to library products that offered them new ways of researching and/or interacting with librarians, regardless of whether they currently used the platforms in question. Whether this comes from greater information needs or more experience using libraries over the course of their lives and/or academic careers, either way it confirms the considerable outreach challenge of marketing not only new services to younger users, but the idea of libraries in the first place. A positive discovery in terms of age and library technology receptivity was that despite their lower levels of library receptivity and awareness, undergraduates seemed eager to learn more about what was available to them – we received literally hundreds of open-ended comments communicating that students had no idea the library had so much to offer across the board, and encouraging us to promote better visibility. I believe that these findings would likely be evident at other campuses as well as among public library users. My sense is that in general our youngest extant and potential users do not yet have a sense of how libraries can benefit them academically and in other ways, and therefore are less likely to see the utility of library applications based in the technologies we assume they are using more heavily than older users. This brings up another paradox – at OU, older respondents tended to be heavier users of content-rich social and communication applications like podcasts, wikis, virtual worlds, and web calling, which was not what I expected to find at all. 


The upshot is, it is always useful to challenge the assumptions you hold about the constituencies you serve – this survey project consistently surprised and complicated our notions of who used what, when, and why. It is important to build assessment infrastructures that helps us learn what we can about our immediate contexts in order to respond strategically when new technologies present themselves, and in ways that offers users a means to communicate with us and evaluate our services in an ongoing loop. This is also important as older social tools become outmoded by newer platforms - for example, many are now finding that apps like Twitter and Facebook are reducing the number of people who are signed into IM clients, meaning that it is likely time for many to reevaluate their IM reference services and consider whether another communication platform would have better potential impact. It’s all about building informed flexibility into the way you evaluate and implement new services.


DF: Generational and demographic divides are discussed a lot when people explore how different groups relate to technology. What about the commonalities? What are some general principles of technology in libraries that you think transcend these boundaries?



CB: I think that simplicity and customization are both key – regardless of age, participants in the OU study were interested in using library services to create unique “personal learning environments” that simply made their academic lives easier. It’s not necessarily about using one tool over another to conduct research or communicate, it’s about having options and being able to shape and select these in a way that is comfortable and convenient depending on one’s needs. I think library users understand that their research and information habits will fluctuate and develop over the course of their lives and/or academic careers, and they are looking for libraries that will help them be both casual and intensive researchers as well as hobbyists, media creators, collaborators, and readers. Library users need much more ease and intuitiveness in our buildings and systems – I think that, particularly in academic libraries, most of what we expect users to do to access information is simply still too complicated, and it throws/turns people off. This is not necessarily related only to technology, which I believe is only one of many roads to making libraries less inscrutable. We need to keep working towards the ultimate goal of making library complexity recede into the background, while allowing more of our service and community value to come into focus. Outeach, education, more productive and collaborative campus initiatives, and raising user awareness are all important components of this process.


DF: You are going to be doing an issue of Library Technology Reports next year. Can you give our readers a sneak preview of your topic?



CB: For sure. I’ll be writing an issue on internet-based voice and video communication platforms such as web calling and webcasting, which provide a range of ways to interact, educate, and collaborate in the library setting via tools like Skype and DimDim. These technologies are coming into their own in terms of quality and accessibility, and can provide creative options for information help, instruction, and library public services, not to mention significant savings in landline and videoconferencing infrastructure costs.