One Tiny Study’s Resonance, One Year Later

Zoomed-on image of a map.


“Learning from Advanced Student Staff Experiences” was a University of Michigan Library study conducted in 2017, integrating methodologies of user­-centered design and critical librarianship. The study explored how a limited set of long, open-ended interviews might simultaneously produce information relevant to immediate managerial decisions, insight relevant to larger library conversations, and data relevant to other studies over time or across institutions. The higher level goals were inspired by Andrew Ascher and Donna Lanclos’ call to action published in “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries," published in Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016).

“How can we make the transition from finite problem-solving ethnographish and UX projects to open-ended ethnography that allows for acquiring an intuition based on the grounded experience of extended research? This is not just about the notion of cumulative expertise, but of using the evidence you collect to inform, change, and transform library policy and practice.”


To guide the interviews and ground them in library services, five managers from within the Learning and Teaching division each developed practical design questions relevant to student staff roles in their areas.  One collective question emerged: what paths bring students to advanced library roles?

Thirty-two (32) open-­ended participant interviews were included in the study:

  • 21 students representing 13 roles in 5 service areas

  • 11 supervisors

These supervisors were prompted to describe the duties and responsibilities of the pertaining role, how it was related to other staff roles, how they sought or discovered applicants, the qualities they looked for, and what they felt employees gained from performing the role. Student participants were prompted to talk in depth about their experience in their role as an employee, especially in relation to their personal history, their academic goals, and their future plans.  All of the interviewees were asked what they felt was most important about the position from a Library perspective. All of the interviews were recorded and transcribed.

Coding for the analysis was driven by the design questions and the theoretical question. Results were presented in draft form to the supervisors and managers for their assessment of the accuracy and efficacy of the analysis.

The analysis concluded with a summary of responses relevant to each of the practical design questions, and with the overall observation that there was a remarkable consistency in the stories students told about how they arrived in their library roles; briefly, “most have been well supported as learners [throughout their K -12 and college years], and most found their library role through a connected classmate or faculty member.”

One Year Later: Is the Study and its Data Still Useful?

Despite significant institutional changes, at least one group is still actively using the study’s results and its raw data to improve student staff roles and reflect on critical shortcomings.  The new Academic Initiatives unit at the Duderstadt Center (DCAI) has conducted additional interviews that build context around one the original study’s design questions, concerning student roles in promoting “fluid productivity and sharing across resources.”  DCAI is also developing strategies to attract diverse students and include them equitably in the technical, creative and social work of the organization. Planning for truly equitable inclusion has led to more critical thinking about the many forms that compensation for student positions might take, and how they might be valued differently among individuals. Plans for the summer of 2018 include a review of the interview data for insight into those questions from the original study participants.  

Meanwhile -- back at the Library -- the Library Lifecycle and User Profiles project of the Service Design Task Force is conducting similar interviews, with a more broad constituency and more open-ended scope, but the Advanced Student Staff study’s interviews may be open-ended enough to contribute meaningfully to the set.  The old data will be added to the new this summer.

If you have questions about this study and the findings, please contact Linda Knox (