Hello Futurelib blog reader! It’s been a long time hasn’t it? We’ve been on something of a rollercoaster ride since our last post here in mid-January. It’s been non-stop, very fast, occasionally hair-raising, but mainly exciting. As I write the ride has slowed down (a little) and we’re heading for the exit.

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In a departure from previous projects, the findings report – due at the end of next week – has been a joint effort between Futurelib (David Marshall and myself) and Modern Human’s Paul and Jenny. We have been so embedded and involved in the data gathering and analysis that it just didn’t make sense for our involvement to stop at this crucial final stage. We were talking yesterday about how this close working relationship of designers and librarians has had rewarding pay-offs on both sides. Paul and Jenny have a deeper understanding of the complexity that is modern librarianship, while David and I have enjoyed a total immersion programme in affinity mapping and design thinking.

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One of the most important and defining elements of the past month has been our work and presence in what we have dubbed ‘the Protolib bunker’: a narrow white-walled windowless meeting room on the 4th floor of the University Library. It is here that all the ad hoc and in-depth interviews, graffiti wall comments, and the 300 plus observations conducted have been transferred as data, comments and insights onto sticky notes all over the walls.

Walking into the room and the adjoining spaces which we have had no choice but to spill out into, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see how much data and information we have. The sight has been described as like ‘a colourful murder’ or ‘a rainbow having messily exploded’. As attractive and overwhelming as the sight is, the last thing this is about is decoration. Instead its about making the data and comments constantly visible as we have sought to analyse and uncover patterns of study behaviour. It’s not random either – the notes have all been themed around different elements such as furniture, layout and aesthetics, while the different colours serve as a key to what sort of data each sticky note offers (a user comment, an observation, a possible finding). This is known as affinity mapping (or affinity diagramming) and I confess to having become a complete convert.

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This week one of my tasks was to affinity map all of the transcripts from the interviews I’d conducted last month with librarians from around Cambridge about the relationship between library staff and their library spaces. Ahead of the mapping I felt a little concerned that I might not draw out sufficient themes, but I went with the process and ended up drawing out many significant patterns and connections that I know I would have struggled to make had I just pored over the document.

The sticky notes have also been employed for huge wall-based spreadsheets (favourited by Post-its themselves on Twitter – other sticky notes are available) and as heat maps of library floorplans (see below) with different colours representing different study intensities. This latter sort of design visualisation proved really useful in helping us to think about the flow between different study spaces and the ratio of types of study spaces currently offered.

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In addition to the prototypes we created and observed – in the UL and at the Law and English faculties – we have also benefited from data and insights gathered at the new Engineering Library, at the Moore, the results of Sidgwick site research conducted by SAH and HSS library staff, and UX research at other departments and colleges. All of this has been duly fed into the bunker and happily has mostly correlated and supported our prototype findings. Thank you to everyone who contributed in this way, especially those who conducted observations or exit interviews at the prototype library spaces. If you stepped up to do the latter your reward will be named recognition in the final findings report and, of course, everlasting gratitude.

My concluding reflection on life in the bunker – other than the fact that it has occasionally tipped David and Jenny over the edge due to its claustrophobic intensity…

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..is that it has regularly reminded me and my  Futurelib colleagues that this research project is highly practical and entirely evidence-based. Constantly living with the data has revealed  an incredibly rich picture of user behaviour and need at Cambridge and has helped us to more easily formulate tangible recommendations and deliverables.


The Protolib findings will be presented to the Protolib project team on Monday 4 April, while the first of probably several ‘open invitation’ findings presentations will take place at 2pm on Tuesday 12 April in the Milstein Room. 

What of the prototypes? The UL rooms will remain as they are for now ahead of discussion of the Protolib findings, while both the Law and English faculties are discussing future plans for the spaces we experimented in.

[Rollercoaster image: Trimper’s coaster by Eric Lynch]