Dog looks worried or confused in office

Happy fall to all you data nerds out there! We appreciate you being here with us. Last time we discussed how to get permission from your participants when you want to do an observation. You might be wondering how you can actually do the observation without it being completely awkward and perhaps even cringey. Today we are going to discuss just that!

First let’s review our goal for this project: We want to evaluate if caregivers are learning skills during storytime and using those skills with their children outside of storytime 

Based on this goal, we decided to do observations of caregivers and children in the library while they are not participating in storytime. Ideally from a research perspective, we would observe them at home, but that would not be practical or comfortable for anyone involved. Even in the library context, we are going to need to be careful to make sure that our participants feel as comfortable as possible. 

Being a participant observer

There are a variety of ways you can behave as an observer. For most library situations, I recommend a version of what researchers call “participant observation.” You’re observing while still interacting with the people you’re observing to a limited extent. This setup feels more comfortable while still giving you, as the observer, some distance from what you are observing. What would this look like for our example project? When the family you are observing tells the children’s desk that they are in the library, you would first introduce yourself to the family. Then during the observation you would talk with them only if it’s really important or necessary.

When is it really necessary to jump out of observer mode? A classic example I lived through with a team of librarian-observers was a child in the group we were observing getting a serious nosebleed. At the time there was only one library staff member who was teaching the group, but three of us were observing. One of us stopped observing and took the child to get medical attention. The instructor who actually knew the content that needed to be covered continued running the group. My best advice for when to break out of observing “mode” is to try to avoid it, but trust yourself when it feels like an appropriate time to spring into action. You are probably right!

Making people feel comfortable

When observing, we’re trying to balance getting quality data with making the participants feel comfortable. Every population, and every individual, has different needs to feel comfortable. It can help to start by thinking back to times you were in potentially awkward situations and someone made you feel more comfortable. What did they do? Remember in this case we want to go a step beyond that and treat people how they want to be treated, not just how we would want to be treated.

In a situation like this with caregivers, we should definitely reassure them that the library staff is not there to judge them. Parents feel judged a lot! It’s helpful to emphasize that you are evaluating storytime and not them. Nonetheless, don’t tell participants “We’re looking to see what early literacy skills you use outside of storytime.” Then they will inevitably show you every early literacy skill they have ever heard of! Instead, you might explain the project like this: “We want to make storytimes better. To do that, we need to understand how caregivers and children are interacting outside of storytime. We are watching so we can learn and make storytime as helpful and fun as possible. We are not evaluating you as a parent. Do you have any questions? Is there anything else I can do that would make you feel more comfortable?”

Working with children 

Children are going to want to interact with you while you’re observing them, especially if they know you. You should explain to them what you’re doing and why you are acting differently. For example: “Today, my job is to be very quiet and pay attention really carefully to the fun time you are having with your caregiver. You can look at me and I’m going to smile at you, but I’m not going to talk with you like I usually would. It doesn’t mean I’m mad at you. I’m just really focused on watching and listening today. I’ll tell you when we’re done and we can talk more then. Do you have any questions? ”

Conclusion

Having these kinds of conversations with participants before you start will help the observation go well. We observed teens for a project once, who are perhaps the most self-conscious creatures on the face of the earth. The staff observers introduced themselves to the teens at the beginning of their time together even though we already had informed consent. Although I can’t know for sure, I think we were able to collect valuable data on that project partly because the observers introduced themselves right before the observations and were very friendly and open. Remember, you set the tone for the whole interaction at the beginning.

Up next 

Next time we’ll talk about how to focus your observations and collect data that will be valuable to you. We’ll look forward to seeing you then!

LRS’s Between a Graph and a Hard Place blog series provides instruction on how to evaluate in a library context. Each post covers an aspect of evaluating. To receive posts via email, please complete this form.