Before I launch into this week's topic, I want to say up front that this idea is not original to me. It's something I encountered a while ago and I've forgotten where. (If you've recognize it, please let me know where I got it in the comments.)
Anyway, this post is about one of my my favorite marketing ploys - a question I've asked in one-on-one situations, in focus groups, on surveys, and at multiple schools: "I wish my library... (fill in the blank)." I always include a caveat as well, something along the lines: "As you answer, imagine that budget and other constraints aren't a concern, but understand that budget will be an issue in our reacting to your wishes."
The answers are always incredibly informative, so, when I had the opportunity to tweak the library oriented questions on out exiting/graduating senior surveys for last year, I went right to my favorite open ended question.
What did I learn? As I already said, this question always yields a ton of information, so the short answer is that I learned a lot. The thing is, I learned more than what the students actually said, and that's really the heart of what I want to tell you this week. You see, when you're looking at qualitative data like this, you need to take the context and other factors into account. What do I mean by that? Well, take as an example the fact that a sizable group of students said they wished the library could be open 24/7. Am I going to fight to increase my staffing levels as a result? Truthfully, even if we could afford to staff the library 24/7 and could find people willing to work late night hours, I wouldn't do it. Why not? I know they don't really want 24/7 because I know that nobody really wants to use the library first thing on Saturday mornings - we used to be open then, and through observation over the course of a couple of years backed up by a quick study over the course of a month, we were able to determine that patrons were never in the library before noon on Saturdays. The underlying message I see in the 24/7 request is increased access to the information and resources, so I'm working on other ways to achieve that. On the other hand, the repeated comments in the results that pointed out the need for small group study space are absolutely going to inform future budget requests and planning: I know that the library is one of the few places on campus that has any kind of group study space and I know that area is constantly in use - sometimes to overflowing.
Assessment is an underlying theme of a lot of what I write on this blog. One of my earliest guest posts was about how research informs what we do in libraries. (By the way, if you're not reading Jacob Berg's blog, The Beerbrarian, you're missing out. He's brilliant.) But context is crucial. You can't look at your data in a vacuum, since that's not where it exists. It's all about a continuous improvement cycle, anyway.
I guess what I'm saying here is that, no matter if you use the technique I discuss above or something more traditional, it's just as much a failing to miss the forest for the trees as it is to miss the trees for the forest. Big picture and little picture need to work together, so don't forget context.