I knew I wanted to focus on qualitative assessment this week—all the squishy interviewing and focus group moderating and ethnographic observation that most librarians think takes a lot of time (true, up to a point), and that is too complicated for non-experts to do (NOT true, up to a point). However, I wasn’t exactly sure how best to make a case for it. It’s one of those topics that can seem a bit intimidating and like more trouble than it’s worth. So, as I often do, I turned to the BLL Facebook community to see what they’ve learned over the years by having conversations with their patrons about library services and how they could be improved. Candice replied:

“We ask our patrons for feedback a lot. The biggest challenge is that we often have no control over the things they think should be improved, such as the tile used throughout the building is ugly (it is) or we should be open 24/7 (ha) or Database X has a confusing interface (yep). Sometimes they have impractical ideas, like we should have big events EVERY week. And sometimes we can act on their feedback, but the bureaucracy is so thick that the students who gave the feedback may have graduated by the time we’ve implemented the change. For us, 3 semesters is a blink of an eye; for them, it’s forever. Over time, I think we’ve gotten better at framing the feedback sessions so that people understand the limitations, and so we don’t get defensive (another challenge).”

And like that, I realized why average librarians that are not getting their PhDs should implement a little qualitative assessment. Using qualitative data we’ve gleaned from open-ended survey questions, student interviews, and faculty focus groups, my library has gotten thousands of dollars in improvements and upgrades. Other, more ambitious projects are now on the administration’s radar. Qualitative assessment isn’t just about what is possible to accomplish now, but also learning what you need to push for going forward. Qualitative assessment is worth doing for many reasons, and those reasons add up to a possible solution to the very problem Candice describes. So Candice? This post is for you.

You do qualitative research already and don’t know it.

There are lots of more technical definitions of qualitative research floating around, and there are many different forms. You can interview a person one on one in various different ways depending on your goals. You can have a focus group with multiple participants. You can take an ethnographic approach and simple observe a group of patrons in the library, and watch what they do and how they do it. You can even ask a participant to draw a picture depicting what you’ve been discussing. In short, there are as many different methods of qualitative research as there are forms of human conversation. Because  when it comes down to it, qualitative research is no more than a conversation with a purpose.

The other side of that coin, however, is that in order to do effective qualitative assessment, you need to be very clear on the problem you want to explore and the purpose of your assessment project. If you’re not, your focus group, interview, or participant observation project simply becomes a conversation without a purpose. The “what” and “why” of your project will lead you to the questions your study should be designed to answer, and more importantly, will clarify whether qualitative methods are the best route to answering those questions. Refining your research problem and purpose deserves a post of its own, but for right now, you can start by asking yourself and your team, What are we hoping to learn from this assessment? The answers to that question will tell you your purpose, and from there your research question(s) will become obvious.

Qualitative research answers different kinds of questions than quantitative research (surveys, experiments, library data) can answer.

As one of my PhD professors said over and over until we could all repeat it in our sleep, the research question drives the research method. Once you’ve determined WHY you want to do an assessment project, the next step is to determine what questions this study will answer, if successful. Broadly speaking, the types of questions you need to answer will determine the methods best suited to answering them.  Counting questions, like “How much… or How Many…” are best answered with quantitative methods of assessment like surveys, experiments, or data analysis (all of which are a topic for another post), Qualitative questions, on the other hand, are things like “How does a patron use X resource?” or “What would an ideal study space look like to our students?”. Qualitative methods, in short, lend themselves best to exploring questions about the experiences and opinions of the people who use the library. By gathering the thick, rich data (believe it or not, that’s a technical term) that emerges from a well-designed qualitative assessment project, you can tell a powerful story about how patrons engage with your library’s resources and services, and ways that you could do better.

Qualitative assessment can help you zoom in or out.

Like any conversation, a qualitative interview or focus group discussion can explore issues of any size or scope. A qualitative assessment project can be designed to observe or gather a patron’s narrative of a single information search, or you can moderate a wide-ranging focus group about how the library serves a given population through all its resources and programs. Your area of focus is only limited to your imagination.

Qualitative assessment allows you to think outside the box.

In addition to providing a wide scope of creativity when it comes to the scope of your research questions, there are almost an infinite number of qualitative methods that can be used to gather different data about a phenomenon. In fact, the more different forms of qualitative data you can gather in a study, the better! An interview, focus group, or observation can only depict one view of an issue. But by combining interviews with 5-10 people, a focus group, and maybe some observation fieldwork, you can look at the issue you’re examining from a 360 degree perspective.drawing-3

By getting creative with methods, you may even be able to provide an extra layer of richness to the data that you can provide to stakeholders and grant funders in your research report (but I’m getting ahead of myself).  For my dissertation, I had my student participants (community college Composition 2 students) draw pictures of their information seeking journeys. These images, one of which you see on the left, often clarified key themes or even highlighted aspects of their information seeking experiences that didn’t emerge in our interviews.

Qualitative Assessment provides a view into the library’s intangible benefits

Some things a library provides its community are quite easy to count and measure. Door counts, circulation stats, even customer service surveys can easily be turned into numbers, charts, and graphs. Qualitative assessment sometimes is neglected, because it takes some time to tease out the important themes of your patrons’ experiences from the transcripts, field notes, and other data you gather during your research. However, often people aren’t swayed by numbers alone. Words straight from the mouth of your patrons describing the value of your library (and where it could improve) are just as important. And if you can combine words and numbers into an overarching description of your library and its needs, then…well…

Qualitative assessment can be used to tell a story about your library

Whether they’re the folks who make decisions about your library’s budget, donors, or grant administrators, funders want to spend their money in a manner that will make the most difference in the lives of the people they want to touch. All other things being equal, funders will give their finite dollars to the organization that can tell the most compelling story about their needs. All assessment is done to either improve internal processes and services, gain more external resources to expand services, or both. Qualitative data, when gathered and analyzed well, can be synthesized and presented to tell a strong story about the ways your library makes an impact, and how a few changes could make it better.

Qualitative Assessment can earn your library millions

Qualitative research is a wonderful end in itself—anything that helps library leaders understand their patrons more fully is. However, as described above, qualitative assessment, when done well and synthesized into a strong proposal, can earn a library thousands or even millions of dollars in grant or donor money. And all this is possible by having a purposeful conversation with your patrons.

I talk a lot about the importance of conversations here in Better Library Leaders. Heck, I recorded a free course on it. If you haven’t taken it, take it. Much of what I say there I learned while doing qualitative research. The goal of qualitative interviews is different, but the fundamentals are the same.

However, If you have taken the course, and want to take the next step, here are my three favorite primers on qualitative assessment, complete with full citations and linked to their Amazon pages.

Creswell, J. W. (2012). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Patton, M. Q. (2014). Qualitative research & evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

Wolcott, H. F. (2009). Writing up qualitative research. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

(Note: If you go the Amazon route, I make a small commission off the sale. It helps defray the costs of podcast hosting and such, but I wouldn’t feel right not giving you the full citations if you don’t have these in your collection and would prefer ILL)

If you’re intrigued by the idea of designing a qualitative assessment study, skim through these books and try a small qualitative study—just a few interviews or maybe a focus group. Then share your assessment journey in the Facebook community. I’ll tell your story in the blog or on the podcast. Of course, if you like the idea of qualitative assessment but would rather have somebody else do the work for you, email me! I spent the last six years of my life immersed in research methods, did a qualitative dissertation, and would be happy to serve as an outside consultant to design or administer your qualitative assessment initiative.

Thanks for reading! And wow, it feels good to be back to long, meaty posts again, but I was glad to get so much feedback on my Everyday Tools for Library Leaders series. Check them out in the archives if you missed any. Catch you next week for the podcast, and between now and then, spend some time exploring the new website layout.

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