Farmington Community Library (Contextual Inquiry)
Skills Developed: Interviews, qualitative analysis, and contextual inquiry.
Team: Michael Abboreno, Sarah Swiderski, Sonakshi Watel, and Tong Yin
Problem: Streamline the technical services process of Farmington Community Library, Michigan.
Solution: A set of recommendations based on the results of contextual inquiry.
Our client, Farmington Community Library, was a public library system composed of two branches located in Farmington and Farmington Hills, MI. The library contains approximately 250,000 physical library items between the two branches. Farmington Community Library's technical services mainly concerns itself with ordering, cataloging, and processing of library materials. The process of acquiring, cataloging, and processing new items is a very detailed and long process. The detail and complexity involved makes training library employees difficult for Farmington Community Library, especially since FCL has experienced a significant turnover in staff due to extenuating circumstances. As a result of staff turnover and complex processes, Farmington Community Library has a tremendous backlog of library books that still need to be processed.
Introduction to Contextual Inquiry
Our approach to the client problem used the method of contextual inquiry. Unlike traditional interviewing practices, contextual inquiry approaches interviews in the context of the user’s workplace. These contextual interviews involve observing and understanding the user’s workflow. Our interview sessions were followed by the team’s interpretation of the information procured during the interview. We created affinity notes (key observations on Post-It notes) for each interpretation. These affinity notes were placed on an affinity wall (a roll of brown paper taped to a wall) where we grouped the notes based on similar themes to recognize emerging patterns of problems. The affinity wall helped us narrow down on the real problem and propose recommendations.
Our interview methodology was to have two team members conduct contextual interviews with one interviewee. One team member would be the interviewer who would ask the questions, whereas, the other team member would be the note-taker. The note-taker would be noting down key observations and quotes from the interview which would later be used to interpret the interview. Although the note-taker’s major role involved blending into the background and taking notes, the interviewer would provide chances for the note-taker to ask questions if they had any. Furthermore, having two people interview brought richer perspective and observations to the interview and ensured that we got more details out of the interview. We conducted six interviews of employees working across various aspects of technical services (ordering and acquisitions, processing, cataloging) as well as librarians. The range of job roles and functions we covered through our interviews helped us understand the workflow and discover where the bottleneck existed.
Data Collection and Analysis
Our data collection process involved note-taking during the interview process, capturing images of the workplace, and audio recordings of the interview. We interpreted each interview as a team within 48 hours of conducting the interview. This ensured that the interview was fresh in our memory and we were able to recall details. In case we were unsure of details, we used the audio recordings from the interview for clarifications. If that did not clear our doubts, we sent out emails or conducted follow-up interviews as needed. During our interpretation sessions, each team member individually wrote affinity notes which highlighted the major points which needed attention. At the end of all the interviews, these notes were placed on an affinity wall in a random fashion. The goal was to organize and understand the data we had collected to identify the problem. The yellow notes represented the output from our interpretation sessions. As we went through the notes, we organized them based on themes such as prioritization of hold books, the ordering process followed, collections, and labelling etc. These themes were written on a blue note. After the yellow notes, we collected the blue notes into emerging themes. These themes were represented by pink notes. Following the same process, the pink notes were collected into green notes. Each note had a one line description which summarized all the notes below it. For example, the green note titled “FCL’s challenges with resources” is followed by pink notes such as “We have limited budget and staff” and “I must use my budget when placing orders for my collection(s)”. The blue and yellow notes organized under the pink notes provide additional information and detail.
The workflow of a book begins with ordering process and ends when the book is cataloged and shelved. This process is complex and detailed and takes a long time for a book to be ready for circulation. At the end of June, the end of financial year, librarians order a large number of books. Most of them are delivered to the processing department in August. Also, as a patron focused library, the processing department often has to handle the on-hold books as the priority. Lacking enough human power and a large surge of books at one time, the processing department with technical services has a growing backlog of books waiting to be processed to go to the shelves.
The major problem we found in the library was that are librarians not spending a portion of their budget on a consistent monthly basis. Rather, many are spending most their budget at the end of April, a soft deadline for placing orders before the end of the fiscal year in June. This causes a heavy processing burden for the technical services department in August, when the ordered materials arrive, which is on top of monthly processing they must complete.
To combat this issue of inconsistent ordering, we recommend that the library holds monthly meetings with all staff invited. These meetings should be after the normal work day or before opening so that most staff can attend. This meeting should be a more social meeting between colleagues with the addition of having some library topics being addressed. This is a reward for employees and will boost morale because the employees of the library will see themselves as part of the same system or a part of the same team. Furthermore, the Branch Heads should announce the Department of the Month and from that department, the Employee of the Month. This portion of the meeting should take place after 15-20 minutes after the meeting has started so that people have time to socialize before the announcement and have should have time after to socialize and congratulate the winners.
The major reward for librarians who spend their budget correctly will be the Department of the Month and the Employee of the Month. These titles will be based on the percentage of the budget the librarian spends. The Department of the Month should be based on the collective percentage spent of the individuals within that department. From this department, one individual should be chosen who has spent the most of their monthly budget to be the Employee of the Month (or Librarian of the Month). Friendly competition will start forming between the departments as well as between individuals which will motivate the individuals to continue to spend as much as their monthly budget as they can.
Currently there are no penalties for librarians who spend little to no portion of their budget from month to month. This is a major problem because it has become a noticeable trend where librarians will spend a significant portion of their budget at the end of the fiscal year. To combat this, we are proposing penalties for individuals who do not spend their budget like they are supposed to because they are causing a direct impact on the Technical Services department and the library as a whole.
Reallocation of Budgets
If a librarian does not spend the monthly amount they are supposed to, the unused monthly amount should be reallocated to a different department of the library who needs these funds or should go into an emergency fund. This should not be a hardline rule. If a librarian spends 95% or greater of their monthly budget, this should be deemed acceptable because they are spending most of their budget. The percentage cutoff should not be made public because if it is, they will end up attempting to get close to 95% rather than attempting to spend 100% of their monthly budget. This policy is to make penalties for individuals who are not experiencing the negative side effects of their actions. Currently, if they wait to spend their budget, the Technical Services Department feels the impact of the decision to wait. At this time, there does not appear to be any ramifications for placing orders late, so there is no motivation to do so. This system of reallocation would provide encouragement to place orders regularly.
Physical Processing Work in August
In addition to having budget reallocations, individual librarians are required to help with physical processing in August. This will allow the individual to see the physical impact of their actions as well as understand what the Technical Services department goes through during this period of time. On top of the empathy that can be created, they will begin to associate their actions of waiting till the end of the fiscal year to spend their budget with the extra work they are required to do. This penalty is only for those that do not consistently spend their monthly budget correctly.
An area that can greatly help in motivating librarians (in parallel with positive and negative motivations) is using posters that will be placed on librarians’ desks and in offices (See the image below). This poster uses a very strong motivational force called Reciprocity, which is when someone gives you something, you feel a drive to return the favor in a similar manner. The poster’s text is a clear demonstration of this principle while also framing the principle in terms of the patron. The patron has given something to the library, so librarians and staff should feel compelled to place their orders on time to return the favor. The additional effect of being used is that the person who has this poster in their office or desk will feel even more compelled because they have a patron “watching” them. By having their patron seemingly stare at them as they work, they will feel even more compelled to follow the rule presented in the post.
After assessing Farmington Community Library’s Technical Services Department, we found primarily that the department faces challenges from a pre-existing backlog of unprocessed library materials which is further compacted by inconsistent budget spending that primarily occurs at the end of the fiscal year creating a tremendous amount of work in a short amount of time. With some changes within the department and cooperation with the ordering librarians, the backlog of items and workload of the Technical Services Department will be decreased and efficiency improved. This can be done through any combination of the recommendations we suggested which include both positive and negative motivation to place orders consistently and on time, ambient motivation through posters, and monthly meetings to promote communication and to foster a cooperative workplace culture.