Discovering sources in Library Search: key takeaways from remote user interviews with history students

As a followup to last year’s Browse Prototyping project, Rebecca Lloyd and I conducted remote user interviews with upper level history students in December 2020, just as the fall semester was wrapping up.

Using a semi-structured interview technique, we talked to four students to find out how they discover and use sources generally, and how they use Library Search, including how they use filters, and how they use metadata such as call number, author, and subject. All of the students were in the midst of substantial capstone projects that required finding and using at least two books. We asked them to describe their projects and to tell us about specific search strategies and tools. After the interview, we asked the students to review the Library Search interface. We were particularly interested in their use of search facets, including the new Library of Congress classification filter.

A comprehensive overview of our findings and recommendations can be found in our full report, presentation, or recording of April’s Assessment Community of practice. For this post, we’re focusing on a few of the observations that we found most interesting and most critical for consideration as the Libraries continue to develop discovery features in Library Search.

Students do “browse,” in Library Search now, just not in the way library staff may think of browsing.

All of the students we talked to reported using simple keyword searches when looking for books on their topics. These searches usually resulted in a lot of hits, but long lists of results were not a deterrent. Rather than using filters or more specific keywords to narrow a search, the students usually scrolled through long lists of search results to find the books that were most relevant to their topic. They evaluated sources quickly; most focused on scanning titles to determine whether a source met their needs. Some mentioned looking at chapter lists or other metadata to get a sense of the book’s contents or usefulness, but title and author seemed to be the most useful indicators of whether something was worth further reading.

Library Search was only one tool used to evaluate and select relevant sources.

To find sources, the students we talked to, unsurprisingly, relied on resources beyond Library Search. More surprising was that recommendations from faculty and librarians were one of the primary ways that all of the students identified key sources, especially early in their research process. One student even reported checking with their faculty advisor about a book before deciding to use it. They also relied heavily on bibliographies from past research projects as well as their previous knowledge of key authors who had written about their topics.

Most of the students preferred print books to electronic, and browsing the shelves is a valuable experience.

Being able to access electronic sources was critical during the COVID pandemic. However, most told us that they preferred using print books in general. Three of the four told us they preferred print materials for reading, one sharing that, “I feel like I’m doing, like, professional research when I’m actually looking at a [print] book. Whereas … if I’m doing it through my screen, I often feel like I’m just doing, like, busy work for classes.”

The students also told us that they liked requesting materials from the Bookbot. While they appreciated the convenience of using an ASRS, all of the students shared stories of browsing the stacks in Paley or the fourth floor of Charles. They recognized that materials physically co-located were topically similar and felt compelled to browse nearby items when they visited the stacks.

One student shared that they only came to see the need and value for browsing the stacks once they were in more advanced history courses and doing more self-directed research. They didn’t do much shelf browsing in Paley but have found the open stacks in Charles to be very useful. “It’s underrated for me because I’m a history major, the stacks on the fourth floor [are] nice to us.” Especially when doing a comprehensive research project like a capstone, the opportunity to go to the shelf to retrieve a book and then, as one student said, “look around and [see] if anything like the other title, like, on the spine caught my interest” is valuable to students.

Conducting interviews over Zoom worked really well. 

Finally, we wanted to include some thoughts about conducting student interviews over Zoom (thank you to Katie Westbrook for her question about remote interviews during the Community of Practice!). Surprisingly, Zoom turned out to be a perfect tool for user interviews. Logistical tasks like securing a private interview location, providing directions, and setting up a laptop and recording software were suddenly not necessary. Zoom made it easy to capture everything including audio and video recordings and transcripts in one place. Transcript cleanup was time consuming, but far less so than if we’d transcribed the interviews ourselves. 

From our perspective, conducting the interviews remotely mitigated the feeling of unnaturalness that can come with doing user research in a formal space. The students could talk with us from their own locations and use their own devices to show us how they used Library Search. Most noticeably, the uncomfortable feeling of watching and being watched that accompanies user testing was absent; the students shared their screens with us as they explored the Library Search interface, and we were able to easily see their screen interactions without looking over their shoulders.

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