This is a guest post from Modern Human’s Paul-Jervis Heath about the WhoHas project which has already been introduced here in several previous blogposts. Paul and his team have been working over Easter term with a project team of librarians – huge thanks to Jo Milton, Helen Murphy and Meg Westbury and their colleagues – to pilot a prototype of this concept. The results are now in and I think you’ll agree that they make for very interesting reading…

Andy Priestner, FutureLib Project Manager

Over to Paul…

Background to WhoHas…

The WhoHas concept was one of those that came out of the work last year. It was envisaged as a peer-to-peer sub-lending service to facilitate students sharing and transferring printed resources between themselves. The idea behind it is to enable sub-lending of books turning the current undercover circulation of books into an officially mediated service.

It’s named after the common phrase used on Facebook to initiate sub-lending interactions with other members of a Facebook group. Those interactions almost always start with: ‘Who has…?’

WhoHas was imagined as an embedded service within other library channels. In other words, there would be no need for a specific WhoHas app or website; it would appear as an option for all users from the search or from a Libraries App when an item is out on loan. When an item is out on loan users would be able to request a transfer from the person who has borrowed it. The request would be sent to their app. If they do not use the app, they would be emailed a link. The two people could then agree to transfer it one to the other or they could find a way to share the resource. You can read more about the original concept in my blog post from December.

Types of Prototype

Houde and Hill developed this triangular model that shows that there are four principal types of prototypes that exist:


Role prototypes explore what an artefact could do for a user.

Look and feel prototypes explore options for the concrete experience of a product.

Implementation prototypes answer questions about how a product might be made to work

Integration prototypes represent the complete user experience.

Using Facebook

For this pilot we were keen to validate the role that WhoHas could play so we set out to test the need for and viability of the concept before designing detailed mechanisms for its delivery.

Rather than build bespoke solutions to pilot WhoHas we established Facebook groups for each group of students. Sub-lending activity requires a certain critical mass of users so we needed as many students participating in the pilot as possible. We anticipated that because students already had Facebook accounts and were already using it for WhoHas-style interactions that using Facebook would maximise the number of students signing up to the pilot. Helen Murphy has provided more in depth coverage of the pilot in her blog post.

Of course, any final WhoHas service will not be based on Facebook, it just provided a suitable and convenient testing platform for our role prototype. However, it’s perhaps an understatement to say that the Facebook groups were hardly a resounding success. Diary studies revealed that sub-lending transactions took place during the pilot, but not via the WhoHas Facebook groups. There were only 3 WhoHas requests in all of the groups and only 1 transaction actually took place. The diary study reveals that the lack of activity in the Facebook groups has 3 causes:

  • Easter term is not the best time to witness sub-lending, students have done most of their reading at that point in the year and are concentrating on revising from their own notes.
  • Students are uncomfortable asking for help outside their immediate social circles. The presence of people they didn’t know well in the Facebook groups dissuaded them from making requests.
  • The tight knit community of medical students and their reading patterns helps books circulate unofficially without WhoHas.

Despite the lack of Facebook activity we still think that modifying the breadth of resource sharing would have an impact on the student experience and on libraries. However the pilot is good evidence that a future solution should provide students with access to this wider sub-lending network without them having to step outside of their comfort zones.

Reference copies

Interestingly, the pilot highlighted that the reference only copies are no longer the copy of last resort. The format of the resource, the time it is needed and the place it will be used are all important factors in a student’s satisfaction with regard to resource availability. When students come across reference only copies they prefer to create their own digital resources (for example, by photographing every single page of a book) so that they don’t have to stay in the library. This observation is supported by librarians’ experiences. They report that reference copies are being used less in favour of eBooks and other workarounds.

During the pilot we also witnessed students going to great lengths to create their own digital resources from reference copies:

“I couldn’t get hold of an original copy so I ended up taking photos of every page of the reference only copy on my phone [50-60 pages]. I didn’t want to have to keep going to the library to read it because I like writing my essays in my room …and, it’s expensive to photocopy.”

If anything this perhaps makes the reference copy more valuable because now it is an enabler for students who want to create their own digital resources from it.

Convenience or place trumps the medium of the resource. In other words people are more willing to put up with the imperfect interface of a digital resource than sit in the library to write their essay. This is not a failing of libraries but a movement in user expectations – the internet has created an expectation that information is portable.

Paradox of resource need

Our pilot also identified a paradox in the perceptions of people who currently have resources and those who need those resources. When looking for a resource, students assume that the person who has the resource must currently need it. However, when they have a resource they admit to renewing books repeatedly to avoid the inconvenience of returning them.

The recall process itself has an emotional barrier for students that results in them not recalling books that they need.

What next?

So the big question is where do we go from here?

Well, the WhoHas pilot has revealed that by redesigning existing mechanisms around user’s values we could increase their usage and further improve printed resource availability.

1. Reinvent the recall process

We believe the first step is to reinvent the recall process. The pilot has shown that students have a strong, negative emotional reaction to the recall process, due to the fear of inconveniencing others. However, resource-holders are renewing loans for convenience rather than need. Redesigning the recall process from the points of view of both the seeker and the holder, could improve availability of printed material.

We suggest making the recall process more human. For example, we could give the recall request a more friendly tone (“Someone needs this resource. Is anyone happy to give it up?”), and make the process more flexible by enabling the seeker and the holder to communicate anonymously with each other. Whilst redesigning the process the focus should be on providing more transparency and control to increase student’s comfort with using recalls.

2. Make it easier for students to return books

At the same time, we should make it easier for students to return university resources when they no longer need them. Putting a returns box in the Porter’s lodge at each college, with daily collections, could help decrease the number of unnecessary renewals.

In addition introducing a simple nudge at the point of renewal, asking the holder why they want to renew the book may force a moment of reflection as to whether they really need to keep the book.

3. Continue making ebooks a credible option

The format of the resource, the time it was needed and the place it would be used are all important factors in a student’s satisfaction with regard to resource availability.

Obviously ebooks can only form part of the solution where they exist – there are many books that don’t have electronic equivalents. For these books it might be appropriate to allow people to share electronic replacements they have created themselves. (Andy’s aside: Don’t worry we would explore copyright issues around this fully before endorsing such a thing!) Meg Westbury mentioned an app that lets you combine photos into a single PDF. The PDF might then be shared through Dropbox, another public service or it might be shared on the VLE. Enabling student workarounds may be one approach to providing eresources where they wouldn’t otherwise exist. There is also lot of work going on in the English Faculty library on posting resources to Moodle and best practices and approaches are emerging from their work.

The visibility of ebooks and other eresources (even unofficial ones) also needs to be improved so that when physical resources are unavailable electronic ones are easily and intuitively found without additional user effort. For example, the user shouldn’t have to perform another search to find an electronic alternative to their current search – electronic resources should be presented as an alternative to physical ones in the initial search results.

4. Provide data that helps libraries to anticipate demand

Anticipated demand increases the likelihood of students getting hold of the exact resource they need at the exact time they need it. We therefore need to ensure that librarians know, as far in advance as possible, which resources are going to be in high demand. Study Magnet, the FutureLib concept for crowd-sourcing reading lists, could therefore be a helpful addition to this ecosystem of solutions. Where anticipating demand isn’t possible, eresource licenses could help satisfy last minute demand for a particular resource.

5. Create communities around libraries to encourage students to ask for help

Librarians want to help students, and make this clear in their communications with them. Despite this, students are unaware of the services available to them and are shy about asking for too many ‘favours’. So, how might we encourage students to come forward and ask for help when they need it?

Creating a sense of community around the library, by expanding on some current library practices, could be one way to help with this. For example, many libraries have students working as out-of-hours invigilators. These students feel that they contribute to the library and say they are happier to ask the library staff to do things for them. The English Faculty Library allows students to work off their fines by helping with re-shelving and other library-related activities. Anecdotally, these students are more aware of the library services on offer, and more likely to approach library staff and ask for help.

Introducing a variety of communication methods to suit different communication styles could also encourage more requests for help. Judge Business School runs a successful chat channel for library users, which they use to post anything from questions about resources to reporting the photocopier is jammed. The English Faculty library also runs a text service so students can reserve books to collect later. The interesting thing is, that students also use this text service to ask for help inside the library, instead of approaching the issue desk.

The less personal approach sometimes means that people may be more willing to ask for help because they don’t have to approach an individual. These existing services could all be optimised through further studies, prototypes and pilots, in order to create solutions to encourage students to ask for help when they most need it.

In conclusion

The WhoHas pilot has suggested 5 service interventions that would all help to address printed resource availability and have an effect on the student experience. They could easily be implemented piecemeal, however, we believe that their combined effect on resource availability would be much larger than the individual contribution that any one intervention would make individually.

Paul-Jervis Heath
Modern Human


  1. Stephanie Houde and Charles Hill. What do prototypes prototype? Paper available here as a PDF.