MLA 2012: Conducting Environmental Scans

Conducting Environmental Scans: Assessing User Needs and Library Functions
Rebecca Vargha
Librarian, School of Information and Library Science, UNC-Chapel Hill

  • 80-page task force report. Thought we had a year but wound up with only four months (!).
  • What’s the point of an environmental scan? Gives you insight.
  • 2009 book: Geeks, Geezers and Googlization – working in cross-generational teams. Managing convergence.
  • Beloit mindset list – what are we dealing with here.
  • Talk to your neighbor — Favorite band as a teenager? Favorite radio or TV show growing up? Answers: The Beatles, Barry Manilow, Commodores, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana. Smothers Brothers, Original Mickey Mouse Club, X-Files, Boy Meets World, Laugh In.
  • So much to do in our orgs, focused on those tasks that have to be done. No time to pull away & look forward.
  • Her team’s project was supposed to feed into strategic planning. Wanted to know who the customers were for 4 branch libs, services, collections. Did some benchmarking. Measure performance, evaluate services, make recommendations. (Used donor money for the project.)
  • Budgets, ugh. Spending more, getting less? Hard-hit re: journal cuts. Print vs electronic balancing act.
  • What fits in your environment? How do you find out? Rebecca takes a straightforward approach – ask. Surveys & scientific methods are great if you need to have a report, etc. But, you can also just talk with people. She goes out for coffee with faculty. Stay in touch with your clientele. How do they use your services.
  • These days you need the stories and the numbers.
  • Observation is a good method – Someone noticed the group study rooms were turning into lockers. 11am-1pm – drop everything in a group study room and then go to lunch. What are they really using xyz for?
  • What’s your institutional portrait? (Like Mona Lisa.)
  • Purpose of scanning? Understanding users, growth for institution, changing world of the user, creating/changing services.
  • UNC is very traditional. Not easy to break the mold if you want to do something different.
  • What’s the power landscape you’re operating in?
  • User experiences – had a survey in her email before she even got home from Sherwin Williams. Thinks this is what we need to do. Can be simple, doesn’t have to be some fancy system. Get the feedback from the customers in a way that doesn’t take a ton of time from your staff.
  • Found that about 75% of respondents were full profs or PhD students. Got a totally different population than they expected from survey.
  • Where are the users? Virtual and physical use?
  • Latest cool library design – Amsterdam Public Library. Very cool architecture, part of museum complex. Aquarium, baby grand in the lobby that users can sign up to use.
  • Survey – wound up going through website and having survey disseminated via dept chairs. Much better response than general campus list.
  • Timelines were fast. Got demographics on the undergrads, looked at faculty research. Doesn’t advise doing it so fast.
  • Had to go through IRB for survey, focus group scripts and recruitment materials.
  • Health Sci library has an advisory council – had 8 willing guinea pigs for the survey. Very helpful – wound up making some changes.
  • E-Books – people had decided opinions. Things “going away,” cost. Most frequently – how confusing the interfaces were. No used e-books for sale. Hot button for people. One student: I’d use them if I could get to them from everywhere. Can’t always. (Not even necessarily DRM – servers go down.)
  • Faculty like ejournals, but not so into ebooks right now.
  • Faculty & grad students use the library to check out books & faculty want to get help from the library staff. grad students are looking for study space.
  • Included accreditation info in the scan – what are the standards for different programs and how to we stack up. Difficult to find, had to get some from dept chairs. [Audience member – has dept chairs come review the shelves with an eye towards requirements for accreditation of their program.]
  • What does the group want vs what do they think they want?
  • Using technology for surveys – sending an email with a link, pretty standard. Next time with undergrads, try to make the survey more of a game. Bribe with donuts!
  • People want the browse-ability. That was a surprise. NC State is developing a cool robot retrieval system but their faculty are worried about this.
  • Focus groups – 3 with undergrads. Only 7 students total. “Tiny, terrible turnout.”
  • Findings – embedded model for science librarians, hire another. Consolidate branch collections into two locations – health sciences and physical sciences.
  • Surprise – Closed four branch libraries after report turned in. Cited budget.
  • Learned – needed more time to gather data. This was just another thing they had to do. More time to analyze data, less time for focus groups, didn’t need it. Needed more publicity & marketing. Wanted more input from undergrads.


  • How to effectively design questions that get the data you are looking for? RV: Lots out there. Can share some titles she thought were good.
  • Was someone from business department on your team? Could have helped with marketing maybe. RV: Nope but a great angle.
  • Piggyback on other thing – IT dept embedded a couple of library questions for us. Hand out the surveys physically and offer incentives (raffle). Also do you have a suggestion box? They let you know what they don’t like.
  • Give the survey in your instruction sessions? RV: We really didn’t have a lot of time and it wasn’t at the right time.
  • Kinds of roles you had on the team? RV: 9 of us. couple of main library folks, ref librarian chaired. couple of health sciences library people. couple of people from the academic library. All worked together for a while and so already had some trust established. Did a lot over email and didn’t wait for people to respond. Had an implied sense of trust & teamwork. Also met once or twice a week. Super fast turnaround.
  • Was there an outcry about those libraries closing? RV: Oh yes. Mathematicians were upset. They love print. Digital products don’t always have the formulas. Very engaged and vocal. If you look in the lit, there are cycles with branches shrinking and coming back again.
  • How much time do you recommend taking? How often should this be done? RV: Every two years would be great. Reality is more like 5 years before we do this again. I wish we’d had 6 months. One year would have been luxurious. But, deadline pressures aren’t necessarily a bad thing.