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By (Participatory) Design

Anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster on incorporating library users into library planning.

Nancy Fried Foster

March 4, 2014—Gesturing at a map, crudely drawn with colorful markers, anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster was particularly captivated by a bright, yellow sun in the corner.

That sun prompted the University of Rochester to divert $1 million, about 20 percent of its renovation budget, to knock down a wall, put in windows and let the light shine into the Gleason Library.

The decision to do so wasn’t prompted by an architect or dean. Student drawings—all featuring the same bright sun, and all solicited through a participatory design process—prompted planners to provide the natural light students wanted.

“Nobody had ever thought of doing that,” Foster said. “As far as I’m concerned, that might be the single biggest key to the success of that space. It never would have happened otherwise.”

Furthermore, Foster added, the decision to knock down the wall wasn’t simply about creating a brighter space, but “part of a cluster of things that the students needed to get their heads into the right space to work.”

A senior anthropologist at Ithaka S+R, Foster’s presentation on how library leadership could better understand their users—by drawing upon ethnographic methods—was the first spring 2014 session of the ongoing Harvard Library Strategic Conversations Series.

Using participatory design, Foster gathers and interprets information, engaging library users in the process. That information is then used to inform architects, designers and university leaders on how people function in the facility space, and where gaps might be present. The process turns library users into a diverse group of hands-on experts, all of whom are well versed in the space.

The big differentiator of participatory design, Foster said, lies in the interpretation of data. “You get people involved in the process who represent different types of expertise. You want architects, interior designers, software designers—you’re always going to need them—but you also want people who will use that space, as well as other community members” to be part of the process.

Emerging about 50 years ago from Nordic countries, participatory design originated as a way to help workers have a voice in the development of their own tools. Applying that design model to library spaces by using ethnographic methods requires eliciting data in diverse ways. Foster listed multiple creative methods, such as retrospective interviews, mapping diaries, on-site observations, photo elicitation interviews, response cards and design workshops, to better understand how users engage with the space.

While the average library user would be unable to work up a blueprint on the spot, Foster said, they are experts in using the library. As such, they can provide insight into how the space is used—information that can be invaluable in creating a space that is productive and efficient for library users.

“What you really want to do is interpret information from [gathering information] like this…to understand people’s work practices and their work needs,” Foster said. “When you understand what they really need, then you can get your experts to solve the problems that you bring to the surface in these exercises. That’s where this interpretive process comes alive—that’s where the magic happens.”