Collection assessments, satisfaction surveys, and focus groups have played a part in library evaluation for years.1-8 Although information gleaned from surveys and collection assessments can inform future practices and encourage past ones, they also call for limited interaction between the researcher and library users. To bridge the gap between library personnel and users, a team of researchers composed of library faculty and staff from East Tennessee State University's (ETSU) Quillen College of Medicine Library used moderated focus groups to gather patron feedback relating to library services, personnel, products, and place. Information gathered from these focus groups was then used to address immediate patron concerns while informing future strategic plans for the library.
Researchers created a list of semistructured questions to use with seven different focus groups. These questions, approved by the ETSU institutional review board, sought feedback on library services, facilities, products, and personnel. Although each question was asked of each group, participants were encouraged to add their own commentary and diverge from questions to bring up relevant and appropriate feedback. Each group was comprised of three to four participants and two to three interviewers.
Multiple focus groups were implemented to achieve saturation. Researchers made efforts to maintain homogeneity among groups as suggested by relevant focus group literature.7 Participants were assigned to groups by discipline or by status as faculty or student. Two of the groups consisted of medical students, two consisted of pharmacy students, one consisted of physical therapy students, and two consisted of faculty members from medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy, and biomedical sciences. Lunch was provided to all focus groups. All group sessions were recorded and transcribed with transcripts de-identified prior to analysis. Transcripts were coded independently by two librarians with a third librarian serving as a tie-breaker for any conflicting codes assigned by previous librarians.
Responses from focus group participants were categorized broadly into the following meta-themes: library as building, library as health information professionals, library as information, and library as patrons. Feedback in the library as building category focused on library facilities such as lighting and furniture, while feedback in the library as health information professionals category focused on communication between library personnel and patrons. Feedback sorted into the library as information category focused on information service requests, resources, and seeking skills, and feedback in the library as patron category focused on patron library use patterns and study habits.
Feedback across categories ranged from feasible and easy to implement to unattainable considering current staffing and fiscal or other barriers. In order to address patron concerns by producing tangible results in a short timeframe, researchers analyzed individual requests and highlighted results that could be easily acted upon. Other results were maintained and incorporated into documentation for future planning, meetings, and administrative requests.
Results the researchers felt could be most readily addressed fell under the themes of library as building and library as information. Library as building requests easily addressed by researchers included providing earplugs, purchasing more white board erasers, adding barbells to the library fitness center, replacing broken lighting, providing a refillable water bottle station, adding paper recycling boxes to the basement, and collaborating with the university physical education center to provide bikes for patrons to check out. Library as information requests easily addressed as a result of the focus groups included collaborating with faculty to provide instruction after orientation, helping students with editing papers and statements, providing smart phone app instruction, receiving direct requests for collection acquisitions, and providing faculty with lunch and learn sessions.
Using focus groups to speak directly with library users allowed researchers to uncover small requests that may have been overlooked otherwise. In addition to minimal purchases, such as earplugs and whiteboard erasers, focus group attendees shed light on elements of building safety, such as external lighting outages. Faculty member feedback was particularly relevant for collection development purposes. Requests that may have been missed due to patron turnaround at the interlibrary loan screen were uncovered and led to relevant purchase requests. Some limitations encountered by this study included the number and type of participants, which was relatively small and generally library friendly. Nevertheless, the use of these focus groups shed light on new information, services, and materials valued by different populations.
Focus groups may allow users to openly discuss their needs and interactions with library staff. Unlike surveys, focus groups involve fluid conversation during which library staff and library users can elaborate on statements and correct misconceptions as they arise. In addition to collecting data on overarching themes and issues, focus groups also allow researchers to uncover specific requests that may be addressed quickly and at a low cost. Due to the variety of feedback attained through focus groups, researchers at the college of medicine library intend to use focus groups in future assessments of library services and resources, such as instruction sessions and web interfaces.
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