The ERIAL Project: Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries

by Andrew Asher, Lynda Duke and David Green


Librarians and teaching faculty often think they know how students conduct their research and many have specific ideas on how students ought to conduct their research. However, with the increased ability to access information online and the corresponding changes in libraries, the question of what actually happens between the time a student receives a class assignment and when he or she turns in the final product to a professor is especially compelling, and one that is not as straightforward as it first appears.

Two years ago, five Illinois institutions (Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), DePaul University, Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS)), began working together to investigate this issue. The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project was organized around the following research question:

What do students actually do when they are assigned a research project for a class assignment and what are the expectations of students, faculty and librarians of each other with regard to these assignments?

The primary goal of this study is to trigger reforms in library services to better meet students’ needs. Traditionally, academic libraries have designed library services and facilities based on information gleaned from user surveys, usage data, focus groups, and librarians’ informal observations. While such tools are valuable, this project employed more user-centered methods to form holistic portraits of student behavior and needs, directly resulting in changes to library services and resources.

Genesis, Planning and Development of the Project

In 2007, while attending the Library and Information Technology Association National Forum, Dave Green, Associate University Librarian for Collections and Information Services in the Ronald Williams Library at Northeastern Illinois University, had the opportunity to hear Dr. Nancy Foster and her colleague, David Lindahl, make a presentation on the ethnographic studies conducted at the University of Rochester Libraries.

In February of 2008, the Illinois State Library, a Department of the Office of Secretary of State, announced the availability of Library Services and Technology Act Grants, using funds provided by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Based on the intriguing work done by Dr. Foster and her colleagues, Green was eager to pursue an ethnographic study of NEIU students. After a flurry of email exchanges and phone conversations, Dr. Foster agreed to advise on the grant development, as well as act as a consultant for its execution.

With approval from the NEIU library dean, Green began working with the Metropolitan Library System in Chicago and Dr. Foster on a grant proposal. It became obvious that having several institutions partner in the research would make the proposal more competitive and greatly enrich the study. Green contacted colleagues at four universities (DePaul, IWU, UIC and UIS) and they agreed to participate in the project. Each university would have its own research team, consisting of a lead research librarian and two to five other individuals, the majority of whom would be librarians. The submitted proposal included a funding request of just under $180,000.

Initially, the most challenging aspect of the project was the crafting of a project schedule based on only nine months of funding. The tight timeline created two potential choke points for the project. The first was trying to hire two full-time anthropologists by mid-November, only six weeks after the beginning of the grant. The second challenge was getting the institutional review board (IRB) approvals in a timely manner. From previous multi-institution projects, Green knew that the timing of IRB approvals is sometimes unpredictable. As we awaited to hear a decision regarding the funding of the proposal, we turned our attention to these two concerns.

In order to hire the anthropologists by the target dates, Dr. Foster helped us devise several pre-grant tactics. During the summer, we sent announcements to relevant graduate departments at universities in the Midwest, announcing the potential of two full time positions in late fall, contingent upon confirmation of funding. In addition, because no activities could be funded by the grant if they occurred prior to October 1st, Green requested funding from the NEIU dean to place advertisements for the positions in September, in case we received advance notice that the grant would be funded.  Even with these tactics in place, six weeks to interview potential candidates and bring them into the project was a tight schedule.

In late summer, the Illinois State Library contacted Green asking if parts of the grant proposal could be modified, based on reviewers’ comments. This signaled to the team that the proposal had a high chance of being funded, and in late August we were awarded the grant, with funding beginning on October 1st. A week after the grant formally began we started reviewing applicants for the two resident anthropologist positions. Dr. Foster reviewed the applications, identified the most promising candidates, and conducted telephone interviews with a handful of applicants. The top candidates were then invited to an in-person interview at the campuses of the hosting institutions (IWU and NEIU).

As a result, two excellent anthropologists, Dr. Andrew Asher and Susan Miller, were hired and we were able to meet our first project deadline. The anthropologists’ first major goal was to help each research team develop their IRB application. There was a lot of ground work that needed to be done to prepare for the research, but no research could begin until IRB approval was granted. As anticipated, the process went more smoothly for some teams than others.

Project Implementation

The grant proposal included a detailed project timeline and organizational structure. Each library had a research team consisting of several librarians, one designated as the lead research librarian for the group. In addition there was a coordinating team which consisted of the project manager and the two resident anthropologists, with Dr. Asher taking responsibility for the integrity of the project’s research design and data collection methodologies as the lead research anthropologist. Miller became the resident anthropologist for the three Chicago-area libraries, while Dr. Asher became the resident anthropologist for the two central Illinois libraries.

Figure 1. Project organizational structure

One of the major structural goals in the project was to streamline administration. The easiest way to do this was to centralize budgetary and reporting functions. All hiring, billing, equipment purchase, contracts, etc. were done by NEIU. Nothing was subcontracted to the partnering institutions. This significantly reduced the amount of potential bureaucratic gridlock for everyone.

On the other hand, managing the research process was ultimately in the hands of the two anthropologists working with the lead research librarians of each research team. The anthropologists were responsible for coordinating the efforts at the five institutions, maintaining a consistent methodological core to allow for cross institutional analyses, while simultaneously helping each institution to explore areas unique to their institution. In a sense, ERIAL consists of six projects.

Figure 2. Project research structure: five studies with a common core

The structure of the research was designed so that no one institution depended on the research of another. Thus, if an institution found that they could not continue to participate, it did not threaten the larger project. In fact, one institution was unable to receive IRB approval in a timely manner and if the project had not been awarded a second year of funding, they would not have been able to conduct any research.

By the end of January 2009, four months into the grant, it became clear that designing, implementing, and analyzing the results of the methodologies for a project with the size and scope envisioned by the research team would require work to continue beyond the June 30th deadline. In February, Green began conversations with the State Library about the possibility of a second year of funding. After submitting a second proposal, in March of 2009 we received notification of a second year of funding, this time for $160,000.

Project Management and Coordination

Even though the ERIAL participants are geographically scattered, the primary means of communication is face-to-face, supported with telephone conferencing. During the course of a month, there are on average about thirty regularly scheduled meetings:

a) Each institution’s research team meets on a weekly basis with their respective anthropologist.
b) The coordinating team meets once a week (the project manager and the resident anthropologist for the northern libraries meet in person and the resident anthropologist for the central libraries participates by phone).
c) The two resident anthropologists have a conference call once a week.
d) The coordinating team meets once a month with all the lead library researchers (the Chicago participants meet in person and the central teams participate by conference call).

These regularly scheduled meetings provide the backbone of communication for coordinating the grant efforts. Of course, in addition to the above activities, there is considerable ad hoc electronic and phone communication. To facilitate the work of the research teams, we used a secure Web-based project management and collaboration tool called BaseCamp. We also found the Web-based service DropBox useful for document sharing between sites (although we were sometimes frustrated by its weak version control). ConferenceCaller proved to be an inexpensive and reliable telephone conferencing service.

Although we had originally planned to rely on video conferencing for communication between remote sites, we found connecting different platforms with varying degrees of reliability to be unsatisfactory. During the first year of the grant, all team members met in Chicago for extended multi-day training sessions, (in January and May of 2009). Given that we had spent considerable time together in person working on various training activities, we could easily connect faces to voices and found phone conference calls to be entirely satisfactory and more efficient.

Research Methods

In order to obtain a holistic portrait of students’ research practices and academic assignments, the ERIAL Project developed a mixed-methods approach that integrated seven qualitative research techniques and was designed to generate verbal, textual, and visual data.1 While all five participating institutions committed to a core set of research questions and shared research protocols, the research teams at each university chose which methods would be best suited to their needs. The methods utilized by the five ERIAL institutions are summarized in Table 1 below.

Ethnographic Interviews 57 54 56 61 55 283
Photo Journals 11 13 10 10 10 54
Student Mapping Diaries N/A 24 10 N/A N/A 34
Web Design Workshop Participants N/A 49 44 N/A N/A 93
Research Process Interviews N/A N/A N/A N/A 19 19
Cognitive Maps 37 44 37 N/A 23 141
Retrospective Research Paper Interviews N/A 9 N/A N/A N/A 9
Total 115 223 167 81 107 693

Table 1The ERIAL Project’s principal methodology was a 45-60 minute ethnographic interview which was conducted with students, librarians, and teaching faculty at all five universities. These interviews followed a common structure and utilized open-ended questions intended to elicit specific examples describing students’ experiences undertaking research assignments, as well as how librarians and faculty members interact with students during the research process. In total, 161 students, 75 teaching faculty, and 48 librarians participated in these interviews.

Two additional interviewing methods focused on students’ research practices: the research process interview and the retrospective research paper interview. The research process interview asked students to allow an ERIAL anthropologist to accompany them while they conducted research for an assignment they were currently working on. Participants were asked to proceed with their research as normal and to reflect aloud about the processes they used to locate resources and materials. This activity was one of the most successful techniques of the ERIAL Project and was especially useful in gathering firsthand data about the approaches students employ to find information. In the retrospective research paper interview, students were asked to give a step-by-step account of how they completed a previous research assignment while drawing each step on a large sheet of paper, thus producing both a narrative and a visual account of the assignment from beginning to end.

To gain a better understanding of everyday student life, the ERIAL Project utilized photo journals and mapping diaries. In the photo journal activity, students were given a digital camera and a list of photographs to take, including views of work spaces, communication and computing devices, books, and favorite work/study locations. These photographs were then used as prompts in an interview that addressed the processes and tools students used to complete their assignments. In the mapping diaries activity, students were given a campus map and asked to record their movements over the course of a day, noting the times and places they visited and their purpose for going there. Students were then asked to participate in a follow-up discussion of their map in which they were asked a series of explanatory questions about locations they visited.

In order to investigate the characteristics that define students’ “mental image” of their university’s library, the research teams utilized a cognitive mapping activity in which participants were asked to draw a map of the library from memory. Students were given six minutes to complete the task, and asked to change the color of their marker every two minutes, an approach that provided both spatial and temporal data about how students conceptualize library spaces. Students completed this activity away from the library itself, so that the results would not be affected by visual cues.

Finally, faculty, students, librarians, and library staff participated in Web site design focus groups, in which participants were asked a series of brainstorming questions to generate the features that would be included on a “perfect” library Web site. Participants were then asked to design a mock-up of a library homepage and to describe why they chose particular design elements.

The data collection for all institutions was completed in February 2010, with just under 700 data collection events. All the research activities were recorded and transcribed, followed by content coding using Atlas.ti, a qualitative analysis software package. The results were then analyzed for themes and patterns by the five institutional research teams. For institutions interested in the details of this process or conducting similar investigations, the ERIAL Project is developing a methodological toolkit which describes the development of an ethnographic study from start to finish. The toolkit will be available in June 2010.  For more information, see the project’s Web site,

Summary Findings

At the beginning of the ERIAL Project, we expected to find students struggling with the technology of library searches: the various and fragmented databases and interfaces contained in any university library. However, we found that once students had some training with the library’s interfaces, they were not generally struggling with tools and technology, which, with some exceptions, worked well and were reasonably user-friendly. Instead, we observed widespread and endemic gaps in students’ understanding of the basic concepts of academic research, including: (1) an inability to correctly read and understand citations, (2) little or no understanding of cataloging and information organization systems, (3) no organized search strategies beyond “Google-style” any word, anywhere searches, and (4) poor abilities in locating and evaluating resources (of all types).

Almost without exception, students exhibited a lack of understanding of search logic, how to build a search to narrow/expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results. As one student mentioned while conducting a search of library databases, “Apparently you don’t have much on Rock and Roll,” not realizing if she changed her search term (i.e. to rock music), she would have encountered excellent sources for her assignment. Similarly, another student lamented the dearth of information while searching library databases for information about women in 1940’s era baseball-–all while her mouse was hovering over the subject heading “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.”

Although technological solutions that provide more intuitive research tools might allow instructional focus to be shifted from dealing with mechanical problems to addressing conceptual issues, these solutions are still unlikely to effectively address students’ needs. In fact, easier information access and more robust search capabilities provided by tools such as federated search, Google scholar, or Web-scale discovery tools, may actually compound students’ research difficulties by enabling them to become overwhelmed even more quickly by a deluge of materials they are unprepared to evaluate.

Addressing the shortcomings in students’ information literacy and critical thinking abilities will therefore require broader educational and curricular solutions in which the library is a key player within a multifaceted approach that involves many university stakeholders, including students, faculty, and administrators, as is illustrated in the following example from the ERIAL study.

Why Don’t Students Utilize Librarians?

While the majority of students we interviewed struggled with one or more aspects of academic research, very few students sought help from a librarian. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the ERIAL study was the near-invisibility of librarians within the academic worldview of students, and is symptomatic of students’ general belief that librarians do not possess the disciplinary expertise necessarily to provide sufficient assistance with research assignments. When asked if she had ever asked a librarian for help with a paper, a sophomore in international studies replied, “Not really actually. I’ve never done that. I always assume librarians are busy doing library stuff, and it’s just not the first thing that pops into my head when I think of a librarian, like helping with papers or paper writing.”

Confusion about what librarians do and who and where they are hinders students from asking questions and obtaining the help they need. A senior psychology major noted, “I don’t know where the librarians here are. There’s someone that sits at the information desk, and I don’t know if he’s a librarian. I see him help people with research a lot so I think he is. But I would never go to [a librarian’s] office and knock on their door and say, ‘help me out’ which [would] just [make] me feel bad.”

Despite this confusion about the academic role of librarians and caution in approaching them for assistance, the minority of students who had developed a relationship with a librarian reported high levels of satisfaction with the help provided, returned repeatedly for help other assignments, and recommend librarians to their peers. Furthermore, students who had participated in instruction sessions with a librarian exhibited markedly better research skills than those who had not (although even these students often did not remember basic or specific concepts, or apply them correctly). One student commented, “I understand that [librarians] are not magicians or something, but sometimes they seem like it.”

These observations, of course, beg the question of how to raise the profile of librarians in students’ academic practices. Finding a way to leverage students’ positive experiences so that they recommend library services to their peers is certainly an important outreach area for the ERIAL libraries. However, our research suggests that a more effective approach requires the involvement of teaching faculty.

The ERIAL Project observed that professors often play a central role in brokering the relationship between students and librarians. Students routinely learn about librarians and library services directly from a professor’s recommendation, or through librarians’ in-class information sessions. These introductions are especially important during freshman year, when it is critical for students to build effective study habits and academic relationships. A psychology student observed, “It would probably be nice if the professors worked the librarians into the classes when people are freshmen. When they first get to school to kind of go over all that kind of stuff. That way [librarians] have the opportunity to tell you things. Because I guarantee you that I didn’t know that there was a psychology librarian staff member until first semester, junior year. And by then most of my study habits were formed, or [my] study approaches for research were formed.” Students view professors as experts, and when the professor specifically recommends a librarian, students highly value this advice. Professors therefore regularly act as gatekeepers who mediate when and how students contact with librarian as they are working on research assignments. In this way, the attitude of professors towards librarians is a key determining factor in developing student/librarian relationships.

Based on our observations, addressing students’ instructional needs in academic research, information literacy, and critical thinking requires principally social solutions. Given librarians’ structural placement as marginal to students’ academic world, librarians cannot effectively address these needs without active participation from teaching faculty. As librarians build relationships with teaching faculty, they will also build relationships with students. Administrators can also contribute to these relationships by supporting curricular initiatives that reinforce collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty, and that promote the participation of librarians throughout students’ course of study.


The ERIAL Project has provided much needed insight into how our students engage with the process of research. By utilizing ethnographic research methods, rather than more traditional methods, we have developed a more nuanced, robust view of our students and their relationship with the library.

Although the specific mission of any given liberal arts institution will differ, there are a few core goals that one expects to see included in most mission statements. For example, Illinois Wesleyan’s mission statement includes the desire to foster critical thinking, effective communication and a spirit of inquiry, to deepen a student’s knowledge in a chosen discipline and to prepare students for democratic citizenship and life in a global society. Like most libraries at liberal arts institutions, the Ames Library faculty and staff are committed to furthering these institutional goals by serving the scholarly needs of the Illinois Wesleyan University community. In particular, library faculty strive to teach students core information literacy skills, elements of the research process, and how to use the tools of scholarship. A student’s ability to master these skills is critical for achieving many of the stated goals of the institution.

Based on our findings, the Ames Library is actively engaged in re-thinking how we offer some of our services, what new resources we need to make available, and how to build stronger relationships with teaching faculty across the curriculum. We are confident that the changes we are implementing as a result of this study will significantly enhance our ability to connect with students and support the mission of our institution.

For more information about The ERIAL Project, see


Funding for this grant was awarded by the Illinois State Library, a Department of the Office of Secretary of State, using funds provided by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, under the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).
1. For the photo journals, mapping diaries, Web design workshops, space design workshops and retrospective research paper interviews, the ERIAL project adapted protocols developed by Nancy Foster and the “Studying Students” research team at the River Campus Libraries of the University of Rochester. For more information on the University of Rochester study, see Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Chicago: Association College and Research Libraries,  2007), [return to text]