Matthew Daneman, Staff writer DemocratandChronicle.com
(August 10, 2005) — On and off for two years, anthropologist Nancy Foster lived with and observed the Wapishana, an indigenous tribe in Guyana and northern Brazil whose members live as hunters, farmers and fishermen.
Now she's studying a group nearly as exotic — college students.
Employing the same methods numerous companies use to study their workers, University of Rochester's River Campus library system is dissecting how its students live and work. The goal is to figure out ways of making the library more accessible to them for research papers and other projects.
"Other libraries are envious," said Foster, lead anthropologist for digital initiatives at the River Campus libraries.
The work comes on the heels of a similar study led by Foster of UR faculty to see how they used the library, particularly its online offerings. The result was that UR faculty now have personalized pages on the library's UR Research Web site — it being a repository of various studies and papers done by faculty.
The methodology of the student study — like the faculty study — involves finding volunteers who will let researchers pepper them with questions and observe them.
The student research began last school year, and the library team will be gathering more data this school year. The goal is to eventually have input from a sample of more than 100 students.
To get the data, the researchers did such things as interview students about all the various steps they took from the time they got an assignment to the time it was turned in and give students disposable cameras with which to shoot everything from where they do their research to the contents of their backpacks.
The library's research team — among them, librarians, a graphics designer and a software engineer — then brainstorm over the findings.
"We're not asking the littler question of how do you do your research. We're trying to get the whole idea of what the world of these students is like," said Susan Gibbons, assistant dean of public services and collection development.
The student research could lead to any number of changes in how the library operates, Gibbons said. For example, students might be able to send an instant message to a reference librarian with questions, or perhaps the reference desk as a physical location might be phased out.
"We've already brainstormed hundreds of ideas," she said.
Possibly starting in the 2007-08 school year, the library might continue its research by looking at how graduate students use library resources, Foster said.