The UKSG Conference 2016: user experience and students engagement


The plenary sessions on the second day of the UKSG Conference focused on User Experience. The first of these was also the best.  Professor Donna Lanclos, of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, spoke on ‘Ethnographic approaches to the practices of scholarly communication: tackling the mess of academia’.

Her topic was how information was presented to academics and students, and how much this diverges from their actual needs.  She said that the notion that everything was moving to ‘one stop’ – ‘come here and do all your stuff’ – was fundamentally flawed.  Analytics as they have been developed at present don’t help, because they merely represent ‘research by log-ins’.  Closed practices generate particular models of belonging to institutions, but the lived experience of academics and students is not closed.  Is ‘lived experience’ just experience?  There is a need to think about the context of a student’s life: s/he may be working on a bus, in a park, in a bedroom.

She carries out a lot of research in how students work, often employing the technique of asking them to draw a six months’ map of their experience and then talking about it.  What she described as ‘human-scale messy practices’ was in fact a way of describing how most people (including students and academics) live.  People use applications such as Twitter and Facebook in different ways: knowing someone is using something doesn’t tell you about how they’re doing this.  Her message to librarians was ‘You can build the most beautiful system in the world, and if you haven’t paid attention to how people might engage, it’s useless.

Professor Lanclos gave an example: a journal is a unit really important in terms of identity for scholars who are producing a body of work, but the motivation to do this is not the same as the motivation needed to read it.  Meaning of units shifts, depending on their use.

Students browse via Google and Google Scholar.  They don’t start at library websites, and haven’t done for a very long time.  What is the ultimate context for institutional closed resources?  Conversations are needed about why things need to stay closed, rather than why they should be opened up.  Why do you want access?  Because you pay for it?  Why? How does it match up to the practices that people engage in?

If things have got out of control, maybe to gain back control we should prioritise the things we should be asking for information about.  People should let go of control of content, because any view they might have that they’re in control is an illusion in the first place.

Although this presentation gave some fascinating insights into student behaviour, and although it was directed at the shortcomings of libraries rather than publishers, it ignored some vital questions.  First among these, from this listener’s perspective, was to ask why students, in particular, should expect libraries and publishers to conform to their private working practices.  Pandering to them in this way is hardly likely to prepare them for the ‘real world’ they’re shortly to encounter.  Secondly, the issue of sustainability reared its head.  If access is not regulated, how will piracy be prevented?  And if piracy can’t be prevented, what will happen to the authenticated scholarly information industry?  Nevertheless, there was much food for thought here, perhaps to be used in other ways than Professor Lanclos envisages.

André Avorio, of Alexander Street, gave a demonstration of and provided the rationale behind the development of the Open Music Library.  This was described as ‘a community-curated open index of the world’s scholarly music resources’, but it has nevertheless been set up by a commercial organisation with various business models for making a profit.  This is not in itself to be denigrated, but it did mean that one of the conference plenaries was used for what in effect was a plug for the company and a pitch for business for the platform.

With this (considerable) caveat, some of André Avorio’s presentation was of general interest.  He described Alexander Street’s journey towards assembling the content for the platform – for example, there are 20 million music items in Europeana alone, but no method of accessing the music scores.  Gaining the co-operation of publishers, galleries and other music organisations was vital, and must have been challenging.  Six libraries were persuaded to support the project, including the British Library.

However, Mr Avorio did not quite succeed in convincing his audience that he deserved his place on the podium.  He was tasked with some searching questions, including one from Ken Chad, who pointed out that the business model does not address the ‘messy user’ delineated by Professor Lanclos, and in particular makes no provision for the individual as opposed to the institutional user.

Sarah Pittaway, a librarian at the University of Worcester, talked about ‘Engaging students, shaping services: the changing face of student engagement at the Hive’.  This presentation had two major points in its favour: firstly, the speaker was from a very recently established university, not from the usual mix of Russell Group and ARL libraries which form the UKSG’s staple; secondly, her library serves the University and the local community as well, along the lines of the Scandinavian model.  There are a few schools and one or two other universities in the UK that have adopted this practice, but generally it is not well-developed here (though government funding instructions may cause this to change).

Aside from this, and the corollary that clearly the library was working its socks off to make the arrangement work, many of its initiatives to increase student engagement were not new – though it is unusual for so many of them to have been adopted by the same institution.  Sarah Pittaway’s ‘quick wins’ were to allow students to write their own ‘top tips’ (which turned out to be sensible ideas for navigating the library, such as ‘take a screenshot of the books you’re looking for’); use student reps; don’t be afraid of gimmicks (Worcester has a stuffed-toy library mascot called ‘Reffie the Raptor’); get involved in the curriculum in practical ways – e.g., Worcester is helping to develop work placement modules; and use direct engagement with students and staff to change the culture of the library staff (this sounded intriguing if unlikely to be achieved quickly: short skirts and stilettoes, perhaps, instead of tweed and brogues?).  What stuck in the memory was the students’ continuing resentment of the use of ‘their’ library by members of the public.  It would seem that, whatever changes, students’ view of themselves as an elite is a constant.  This will be the biggest challenge for academic librarians if more of their libraries are opened up to the public.

Key points

  • The plenary sessions on the second day of the UKSG Conference focused on User Experience;
  • Professor Donna Lanclos, of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, spoke on ‘Ethnographic approaches to the practices of scholarly communication: tackling the mess of academia’;
  • The notion that everything is moving to ‘one stop’ – ‘come here and do all your stuff’ – is fundamentally flawed. There is a need to think about the context of a student’s life: s/he may be working on a bus, in a park, in a bedroom;
  • A journal is a unit that is important in terms of identity for scholars who are producing a body of work, but the motivation to do this is not the same as the motivation needed to read it. Meaning of units shifts, depending on their use;
  • Conversations should take place about why things need to stay closed, rather than why they should be opened up. Why do you want access?  Because you pay for it?  Why? How does it match up to the practices that people engage in? People should let go of control of content, because any view they might have that they’re in control is an illusion in the first place. (Question: how does this square with a sustainable business model for the suppliers of the content?);
  • André Avorio, of Alexander Street talked about the Open Music Library, ‘a community-curated open index of the world’s scholarly music resources’ (developed by a commercial organisation);
  • He was tasked with some searching questions, including one from Ken Chad, who pointed out that the business model makes no provision for the individual as opposed to the institutional user;
  • Sarah Pittaway, a librarian at the University of Worcester, talked about ‘Engaging students, shaping services: the changing face of student engagement at the Hive’. Of key interest was that the speaker was from a very recently established university, not from the usual mix of Russell Group and ARL libraries which form the UKSG’s staple; and that her library serves the University and the local community as well, along the lines of the Scandinavian model;
  • Sarah Pittaway’s ‘quick wins’ were to allow students to write their own ‘top tips’; use student reps; don’t be afraid of gimmicks; get involved in the curriculum in practical ways; and use direct engagement with students and staff to change the culture of the library staff;
  • From the evidence of this presentation, the biggest challenge for academic librarians if more of their libraries are opened up to the public will be to contain the resentment of students who consider themselves to form an elite.

Linda Bennett is the founder of Gold Leaf, which carries out digital research projects for publishers (lbennett@goldleaf.co.uk).  She writes regularly for The Publishers Association’s academic and professional newsletter, APLPC News, for which this article was first commissioned and in which it first appeared.

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