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‘Focusing’ in on patron needs

December 9, 2013

Ah, tis the season for holiday parties, time off, and perhaps snow (although it is in the 80s here in Florida this week). But for most of us, it is time to really plan next semester and think about projects for next Fall (it will be here sooner than you know!).  We often want student or faculty or employer information on what resources are being used, what research skills are lacking, and maybe on what changes should be made to classes or to reference services.

In this post, I want to give some resources on using focus groups.  Instead of doing surveys or relying on anecdotal evidence (is that an oxymoron?  Can something be evidence if it is anecdotal?), think more along the lines of inviting people to chat with you in small focus groups.  Many librarians had research methods classes that addressed different methods of data collection for patron needs, but I always forget about doing focus groups.

Focus groups are usually made up of a homogenous group – so ask first year law students or first year associates, and don’t mix and match demographics.  This allows for more open conversation, as the participants are often comfortable with each other.  In a focus group, the questions asked by the moderator are open-ended to allow for all responses, which then can be elaborated upon. There is a preference for outside moderators or facilitators, but time and resources usually mandate an internal moderator.  One of the tough things for many facilitators is the need to simply be quiet in a focus group and let the conversation happen.  Listening, not asking, is the key.

Many resources on focus groups in libraries come from public library settings.  There are a few examples from academic libraries, often detailing actual focus group topics, which may be helpful.  Other professional libraries also have information on how they have used focus groups.  Whether you are looking for general information or looking to plan a very specific project, focus groups allow you to get to deeper information than surveys.

There are some bibliographies and books, but not all of them are recent.  This is an area that continues to develop as libraries work to support different kinds of learning and research.  In addition to resources from schools, there are resources that generally set out how to conduct a focus group which are helpful.  Here are a couple of them, but there are many more available.  As spring approaches, consider trying a focus group to see what your patrons want in the new year!

Have any of you used focus groups in your libraries? If so, please share your experience in the comments.

 

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