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Understanding postgraduate library users

Q&A with Gareth Cole & Helen Young at University of Loughborough library

Content & Communications Team Taylor & Francis

In 2015-2016 Taylor & Francis and Loughborough University worked collaboratively to explore the Postgraduate Research (PGR) Library UX.

We asked project steering group members and student mentors Gareth Cole and Helen Young about their involvement in this Library UX research project, and to share their experiences of working with postgraduate researchers to manage their online research.

1. What are your current roles at Loughborough University, and what are the main priorities in your jobs?

Gareth ColeGareth Cole: I am the Research Data Manager at Loughborough University, based in the University Library. My main priorities are managing and promoting the Loughborough Data Repository, advising researchers on data management plans, and ensuring that Loughborough researchers are aware of the advantages of increasing the visibility of their research data.

Helen Young: I am one of the Academic Services Managers in the University Library. With my job share partner, I lead the team that liaises with academic schools and departments to advocateHelen Young use of Library services, skilled exploitation of resources and the development of printed and electronic collections to meet teaching and research needs. One of my priorities is supporting researchers from PGRs to professors to ensure that they are kept up-to-date with resources and skills in a manageable and timely way.

2. In your opinion what are the challenges currently facing today’s researchers?

Gareth Cole: There are a number of challenges that researchers currently face. These include: a lack of time and resource to do all the research they would like, the pressure to apply for research funding, the pressure to publish in the “right” journals, and a fast changing policy environment.

3. Why did you choose to get involved with the PGR library UX project and what do you hope to learn?

Gareth Cole: I was involved with a project at my previous institution looking at how PhD students created and managed their research data. The UX project is an interesting opportunity for me to build on the knowledge I gained in the previous project. I hope to learn the best ways to communicate with research students of all disciplines and backgrounds as well as to understand what (if any) disciplinary differences exist in finding information. I also have a research background and still do research when I get a chance so I’m also hoping for some tips from the students on the tools and techniques they use to both find and organise information!

Helen Young: I chose to become involved as I have led on researcher development in the Library for a number of years and enjoy collaborating with partners on service delivery and research both across the University and beyond. The chance to do a collaborative project with a publisher was a great opportunity to learn more about the research aspects of publishing. The topic of the PGR user experience in the digital library was particularly appealing as I have observed the way that PGRs have developed their information skills in the various workshops that we provide, but have not had the opportunity to learn more about why they work in particular ways or how they feel about locating information – e.g. what works well, what doesn’t and why they choose to use certain products or services. This project will help me gain a deeper understanding about this, which can feed into the services we offer PGRs, the topics we offer support on and how we structure workshops or electronic tutorials.

4. What is the most fascinating aspect of this project to date? Has anything surprised you in the results so far?

Gareth Cole: The most fascinating part of any project involving PhD students is actually finding out about the students’ research. It always demonstrates the breadth, depth, and quality of university research. A couple of responses to one of our monthly surveys did surprise me. We asked the students to evaluate a number of university library research support websites. A couple of the students stated that they wouldn’t have thought to go to the Library pages to access the information they provided. As someone who has helped create web pages at both Loughborough and my previous Institution this raised more questions than answers and I would hope to follow through with the students when we meet with them.

Helen Young: I am very interested in the diary entries that we get each month. It is interesting to see the different approaches that PGRs take to find the information they need for their different tasks. I don’t think I have been very surprised by the range, as I have observed the different approaches PGRs have used in practical workshops, but it is very interesting to see this detailed so carefully.

5. What do you think is the value of undertaking research into the user experience?

Gareth: The main value as I see it is to actually get a feel for what our users want rather than what we think they want. This feeds into not only online help (e.g. web pages, guides etc.) but also in face to face training. The vocabulary we use can only be helped by user experience.

Helen: A positive user experience is essential to the continuation and growth of a Library service and at Loughborough we care deeply about maintaining the quality of our service to all our users and those who perhaps haven’t used us as much as they could do yet. To maintain this quality we need to understand our users’ (and potential users’) requirements, ways of working and perceptions of services and resources. Undertaking research into the user experience helps us to develop this understanding.

6. How does your department help researchers navigate online content? (Any teaching courses, any initiatives?)

Gareth: The Library provides numerous courses around Information management looking at topics such as “Keeping up to date” and “Managing References”. In addition, I co-teach a session on research data management, part of which covers data citation and data repositories.

Helen: A positive user experience is essential to the continuation and growth of a Library service and at Loughborough we care deeply about maintaining the quality of our service to all our users and those who perhaps haven’t used us as much as they could do yet. To maintain this quality we need to understand our users’ (and potential users’) requirements, ways of working and perceptions of services and resources. Undertaking research into the user experience helps us to develop this understanding.

7. What tips do you give to researchers managing their research online?

Gareth: Have a plan and be consistent. It’s no use managing part of your research using one system and another part using a second system. I would also ensure that all the research you have is securely backed up and to ensure that the backup is a backup rather than an older copy. In addition, I would encourage researchers (and all users) to spend a bit of time identifying which tools and solutions are best for them. Once the best solution has been identified then also spend a bit of time learning the solution so that you use it most optimally.

Helen: The key aspect is evaluating the quality of what they find online. The quality aspect is so important, as finding information on the web is usually not a problem, but working out if it is of sound academic quality can be time consuming, especially if they are not using specialist databases, where some of the key quality checks have already been made on their behalf. Going to specialist subscription databases can often save time, even if you have to navigate Library webpages to get there, as you can trust what you find and you can do more sophisticated searches to fine tune your search. I would also suggest talking to a subject specialist librarian about your research topic, as they can suggest the best places to start your online research and this will save you time too. The names of some specialist databases are often not very illuminating!

8. What advice would you give to others running similar projects with PhD students in their institutions?

Gareth: Where possible try and have a range of disciplines within the project students. In addition, it helps to have students at different stages of their studies e.g. first years or third years, as well as those studying full time and part time. I would also make it clear what benefits the students will get out of the project. This could be skills and information the students use throughout their studies and future careers or it could be financial.

Helen: I think the collaborative nature of this project is particularly helpful, as we can draw on expertise and links from a range of partners internally, as well as with Taylor and Francis. These links help with practical issues like publicity, venues for events and dissemination of outputs in a range of sources but they also provide us all with different perspectives on the PGR experience at University, which can only benefit all of our individual services to PGRs.

Want to know more?

  • Read the findings of our collaborative research into the Postgraduate User Experience
  • Read Graham Walton’s 8 key questions raised by Loughborough’s Library UX research
  • Get to know your own users better with our Library UX Research Toolkit (coming soon)
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