Beyond the Survey: Innovative Techniques for Learning About Your Patrons (CALCON 2011)

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Basic Research Methods for Librarians (5th ed.) by Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Ronald R. Powell, Libraries Unlimited, 2010
Addressed to practicing librarians and other information professionals, this book covers the research methodologies likely to be used by librarians, providing guidance on designing and conducting research and publishing research results. The link provided above leads to excerpts from the book.

Available Data

Library Data

Library Research Service
Academic Libraries:
Public Libraries:
School Libraries:
More: (click on Resources)

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
The primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.
Academic libraries:
School libraries:

Public Library Funding & Technology Access Survey
Selected summary of state and national data from the national technology survey including one-page summaries for E-government and Employment, along with four issue briefs in the areas of Broadband, Community Access, E-government, and Employment.

American Library Association
Research & Statistics:
Academic Libraries:
Public Libraries:
School Libraries:

General Data

What data does your library collect that would inform your decision making? Think outside your department. Think outside the library.  Does your city, county, school district, or university collect data that would inform your decision making?

State Demography Office
The primary state agency for population and demographic information. Data are used by state agencies to forecast demand for facilities and services.

U.S. Census Bureau
Provides data about the population, housing, economy, and governments. More than just the decennial census the bureau has many data collections including Population & Housing Census (every 10 years), Economic Census (every 5 years), Census of Governments (every 5 years) and American Community Survey (annually).  This is your go-to source for official demographics and the data are more detailed than ever. Use American Fact Finder ( for locating data about nearly every size of geography.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
BLS is the principal Federal agency responsible for measuring labor market activity, working conditions, and price changes in the economy. Its mission is to collect, analyze, and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making.


“Overview of Qualitative Methods and Analytic Techniques” from the User Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluations(National Science Foundation)
This chapter, freely accessible online, provides an overview of interviews and unobtrusive observations, including a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of both methods as well as a discussion about when to use each method.
This blog post contains a description of Douglas County Libraries’ recent  community interview  project, where they interviewed community leaders (government, business, non-profit, faith-based) about the key issues of their constituents over the next couple years.  There is also a discussion about why DCL chose to do interviews instead of surveys.
These webpages provide information about Douglas County Libraries’ community reference project. This project was conducted to determine the need for and potential impact of higher education in Douglas County. Part of DCL’s methods included interviewing 21 civic and educational leaders, practitioners, and administrators in Douglas County and around the state.

Card Sorts

Card Sorting: Strategies
This blog post provides a handy overview of card sorts: types of card sorts and the advantages and disadvantages of each, and participation and execution strategies.

Optimal Sort
This site provides a software tool that allows you to run a card sort simulation online. It is freely available for small studies, or via a subscription plan for more extensive studies.

Card Sort Usability Reports
The University of Michigan library did several card sort studies of both patrons and staff to determine whether the organization of their website and staff intranet could be improved, as well as how patrons labeled and used facet categories. The reports contain detailed descriptions of how the studies were conducted, as well as photos of the card sort results.

Unobtrusive Observation

Unobtrusive Measures
This webpage provides an overview of unobtrusive observation techniques and secondary data analysis, including examples of how these techniques have been used in various studies.

Unobtrusive User Observation as Assessment Technique: What Are Students Doing in the Library After Hours?
This study, at Cornell University Library, examined how students were using the library after normal business hours, to determine whether user services needed to be improved and if meeting spaces needed to be redesigned.

Subject Searching Success Transaction Logs, Patron Perceptions, and Implications for Library Instruction. Antell, Karen &  Jie Huang. Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall2008, Vol. 48 Issue 1, p68-76,
In this study, the researchers examined transaction logs from patrons’ OPAC searches and observed patrons as they performed searches to determine their search strategies. This enabled the researchers to determine the deficiencies in patrons’ search strategies so that they could adjust their library instruction accordingly.


Using videos in research
This website is a basic overview on using video as a research technique.  Information is straightforward and basic, and includes guidelines, tips and strengths and limitations.

“Insights into Participatory Video – A Handbook for the Field” by Nick and Chris Lunch
For more in-depth video research projects, this organization and handbook offer information on how to conduct a participatory video project.  The handbook outlines what participatory video is in a nutshell, the strengths and limitations of participatory video as both a research and community-building tool, and detailed instructions and examples for running a participatory video project.

Sample video/photo release form from the Corporation for National and Community Service


“Got Pictures? A Projective Technique for Qualitative Research” by Elizabeth Harrington–a-projective-technique-for-qualitative-research-a314271
This website offers a brief overview of using collage for research.  While tailored for market research, the content still offers valuable insights into the strengths of collage as a technique and tips for using it effectively.

“The Power of Visual Approaches in Qualitative Inquiry: The Use of Collage Making and Concept Mapping in Experiential Research.” Butler-Kisber, Lynn. & Tiiu Poldma.  Journal of Research Practice, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2010, Article M18.
This article focuses on how visual, interpretive tools such as collage or concept mapping are useful in social research as a means of making tacit ideas explicit and making new insights possible for both the researcher and research audience.  Includes the background of collage, tips and examples of its use, and a bibliography of other resources.


Diaries, portfolios and reflexive logs.
This webpage provides an overview of using diaries, portfolios and reflexive logs in quantitative and qualitative research. Includes a summary of strengths and weaknesses, tips for effective use, examples and further resources.

Using diaries in social research
This webpage discusses the use of diaries in social research, including subject matter appropriate for this type of technique, examples, tips on design and format, information on coding and evaluating diary content, and a bibliography of other sources, including examples.