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Data Essentials: Sharing and Reflection

Lately, I’ve become more aware of the importance of reflection when analyzing the research data from our ethnographic studies at the University of Rochester. The aim of our studies is to learn about our users so that we can design space and services to better support them. Our approach has been heavily influenced by my colleague Nancy Foster, who has developed and led CLIR-sponsored workshops in Participatory Design in Academic Libraries, and by the experiences of fellow participants in the workshops and seminars. (The most recent Seminar of Participatory Design in Academic Libraries was held June 5-7 at the University of Rochester.)

Often, our data consist of interviews, photographs, drawings or observations—nothing straightforward that can be run through data analysis software. For me, doing this type of analysis takes reviewing transcripts, images, or notes multiple times, at first trying not to think, just letting it flow. During the early review, I have no idea where the data might lead or even whether the research will produce actionable results. At times, it feels like I’ll never make sense of anything or notice more than the obvious; I’ll feel saturated with nothing to show for it. Gradually, elements start to coalesce—similar comments, subtle congruities among images (perhaps only subtle in that it takes me a while to notice them), and unexpected relationships. I’ll think of new ways to look at the data. Different ideas surface and submerge and surface again in new forms. Finally, I reach a point at which I’m ready to talk with my colleagues—to share ideas, listen to others, question what is or is not supported by the data, and help determine what is most important to pay attention to. Before that, however, I need to be alone and awash in the material, to listen to what’s being said and not said, undistracted by my own or anyone else’s commentary.

Finding sufficient time to reflect is definitely not easy. I’m unable to do this in spare 30-minute chunks between other tasks; it takes uninterrupted stretches for repeated reflection. I am interested in learning how others do this type of analysis. Is it as hard for you, and do you need so much time? What strategies do you use? Under Nancy Foster’s guidance, our ethnographic research at the University of Rochester has been a threaded mix of group work and individual work—identifying research opportunities, considering appropriate methodologies, adapting methods, preparing materials, conducting the research and analyzing results. In the end, many people have been involved and we’ve all learned something valuable. But at some point in the process, it’s just you and the data travelling together, hoping to get somewhere useful. How do you make that trip successfully?

Judi Briden is digital librarian for public services at the University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries.

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