Ethnographic Research and Participatory Design at the University of Maryland Libraries: Pioneering Partnerships Beyond Library Walls

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Problem statement: The central library of the University of Maryland urgently needs a total redesign. The 320,000 square-foot building houses approximately two million volumes and serves a campus of 27,000 undergraduate and 11,000 graduate students, plus 4,000 faculty. McKeldin Library is largely a book warehouse, with a layout that doesn’t support students’ needs for technology-rich, flexible and multipurpose spaces and services. The dissonance between what McKeldin provides and what users need continues to grow, so efforts have mounted in recent years for a total library re-envisioning and re-design.

Problem significance: In unstable times a physical re-programming can no longer depend on traditional, professional experts (architects and librarians), for whom precedent is now unreliable. We looked to our user community’s expertise. We extended beyond previous ethnographic studies by collaborating, from start to finish, with anthropology and architecture students, two deans, an architectural firm, and consultant Nancy Fried Foster. The engagement of three classes of students on the project also furthered the role of the libraries as leaders in fulfilling the university’s academic mission.

This project directly relates to the ACRL Plan for Excellence, Student Learning, Objective 1, “Build librarian capacity to create new learning environments (physical and virtual) and instructional practices.” The skills and partnerships we developed will be valuable as we modify our practices and environments in McKeldin and the other seven UMD libraries.

Project objectives: The objective is to re-program the McKeldin Library building. The Fall 2011 research project was to provide an informational context for a building design process. Three groups (Participatory Design Project Team of library staff, anthropology course students, and architecture seminar course graduate students) gathered information about current library use, academic work practices of students and faculty and activities that patrons need to accomplish within library spaces, and also developed an understanding of the current programming of McKeldin Library. School of Architecture graduate students, under the guidance of the Architecture dean and a practicing architect, will use the information gathered in the Fall to develop a new design during Spring 2012.

Methodology: The library team used three anthropological/ethnographic methods to collect information:

  1. Participatory design workshops in which students, faculty and library staff drew their ideal library spaces;
  2. Structured observations in selected spaces in McKeldin;
  3. On-the-spot interviews in outdoor spaces around campus.

The anthropology class conducted on-the-spot interviews of undergraduate and graduate students.

The architecture students gathered quantitative data about current McKeldin programming and engaged library management on anticipated future trends.

Status of research: Fall 2011 research was transmitted to the architecture studio class to complete Spring 2012 design work.


A presentation at the ACRL Research Forum, American Library Association Annual Conference, Anaheim, CA, June 24, 2012