Experts and experiments: focusing on the future

Guinea reading

Exploring new purchasing models and methods of book provision inevitably involves experimentation and the unknown. To some extent students become ‘guinea pigs’, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Potential difficulties—for instance, installing new software, using unfamiliar formats and figuring out the best workflows—are balanced by the user-centric and thought-provoking nature of our experiments.

Our hypothesis is that the models we are exploring will benefit undergraduates and the University in both the short and long term. No instrument, and no piece of research, is ever value-neutral. Built into our project is an unavoidable, subtly political fact: students want to keep their costs down, and so does the University (including the Library). Both parties want to be smart about budgets while keeping up-to-date with useful technologies.

The assumptions made by Books Right Here Right Now are justifiable ones; local expertise is cross-referenced with a range of primary and secondary sources. However, the project must continue to question, reflect, and add to its knowledge store while recognising that even the most tightly controlled experiments leave room for the unexpected.

Exploring students’ reactions and attitudes is essential to evaluating the project’s success. Are their perceptions in harmony with our own? How do they rate our e-books in relation to others? What (if anything) do they believe are the benefits of e-books? Do e-books occupy a ‘comfortable’ space in academic reading routines? What might they tell us that’s surprising, or even counter-intuitive?

Seeking answers to these and other questions, we triangulated data gathered via two generally efficient and well-understood instruments: the (online) questionnaire and the focus group. Links to the questionnaire were distributed to 4480 students across 23 modules; three focus groups separated by Faculty were delivered in a semi-structured format, with time allocated to a demonstration and discussion of the e-books, something executed in collaboration with the Library’s Digital Systems and eLearning teams.

Challenges included gaining a sufficient response to the questionnaire in order to produce valid statistics, finding enough participants for the focus groups at a busy time of year, and putting aside our ‘belief’ in the project to avoid asking ‘leading’ questions. Happily, all difficulties were overcome and much of what the students told us confirmed that we are offering something valuable, relevant and defensible.

Likewise, in terms of research methods, findings from the questionnaire and the focus groups complemented one another. There were a few surprises along the way – for instance, there is a distinct lack of interest in accessing illegal copies of e-books and a general lack of experience using e-book readers for either recreational or scholarly reading. There is also a huge amount of pragmatism and an appreciation by students that what you choose isn’t always dictated by what you prefer but by what is available.

In the near future, we will be sharing and discussing some of our findings while using them to inform future project activities. Watch this space!

Kathleen Menzies, Data and Research Assistant, University of Manchester Library

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