Student: “What? So I wear these glasses and just do what I’d usually do?”
Me: “Yes. And remember this is not a test of you but a test of the library you’re in.”
Student: “I think you should have chosen someone else, I’m rubbish at libraries!”

So started the majority of the eyetracking experiments, which took place across Cambridge last week as part of our new ‘Tracker’ project. Interestingly, when library signage or layouts failed them, with very few exceptions most students proceeded to identify themselves as the weak link in the chain, often citing an absence of secret and vital library knowledge.


Languages student James White looking for a book while wearing the eyetrackers. This image sums up the experience of many confused and lost library users.

A selection of representative responses from students:

  • “I don’t understand it. It should be here. Right here!”
  • “Either the book is out, somebody’s using it, or I’m a moron!”
  • “Perhaps if I had a scrap of prior knowledge…”
  • “I should be good at this, my father’s a librarian.”

The libraries we were testing were not ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination, it was simply that we had underestimated just how complicated students found them to be. This was especially true when they were looking for books: we now have strong evidence which proves that classmarks baffle students hugely and are a very real barrier to locating books. One student memorably stated loudly, once he’d retrieved a classmark from the catalogue, “Well that means jack all to me!”  

The catalogue itself – Ex Libris’s Primo (going under the nom de plume of iDiscover in Cambridge), also presented problems; we had to remind ourselves that we were not conducting a usability test on that platform at this time. However the biggest problem with the catalogue was not the interface nor its functionality, but the fact that in some libraries people were just too scared to use it and had to be coaxed into trying it out. When they did, the experience was far less painful than they had feared.


James White finding books in the MML Library using iDiscover. MML students were actually very au fait with the library catalogue and it was their first port of call. Elsewhere students first instinct was to browse the shelves by subject.

At the labyrinthine University Library we were surprised to discover that the layout of the building itself was not actually a problem for users. Although the size of the Library was definitely offputting and we noted more users working in pairs in order to successfully traverse it, in most instances they found their way to the correct rooms without much difficulty. Finding the actual books in said rooms however, was another matter entirely. Here a whole new world of complexity was laid out before them: books shelved by size with letter codes, periodicals located next to books, and parts of classmarks that even I didn’t understand until we had completed the first round of eyetracking.


English student Lucy McGeachin succeeds in finding a book in the University Library. Many of the students who took part in the experiment obviously felt a great sense of achievement when they found the books they were looking for.

At this stage in the process we have not analysed the eyetracking data in detail. Instead we are currently focusing on preliminary findings derived from observing the behaviour and actions of the students at close range while they were wearing the glasses. Already we feel we have learnt a great deal. The next step is to return to the libraries in question, to see if the physical interventions we have designed will make a difference to the search tasks.


Frederik Laurson explains his search process in the UL to Modern Human researcher Jenny Willatt.

The process has been utterly fascinating, especially as it promises to take our observation of user behaviour to a whole new level. Through this project we will not only be observing our users, but actually seeing what they see, where their eyes rest, their means of navigation, and how they make sense of the library environments they use.


The Tracker project is part of Cambridge University Library’s Futurelib Innovation Programme and is run by Andy Priestner. Tracker is a collaboration with design consultancy Modern Human.

Photos: Thanks to Frederik Laurson, Lucy McGeachin and James White for giving permission to use the above photos taken by Andy Priestner