Saturday, 2 November 2013

Tea@three: engaging students in focused conversation over a cuppa

What is our library service about? Well, I hope it’s not about us, or our collections, or our space, but about YOU! By ‘you’ I’m thinking of an actual, or possibly future, user of the library collections, space and services. If you want a fun introduction to what a local media company  - Tripos Productions (tweeting as @TriposMedia) thought our service was all about then look at this really short promo video of theLibrary that they made for us.

And why are ‘you’ so important? 


Bottom line, without you we have no mission, no purpose and no need to provide support for excellence in teaching and research. This very basic premise is what many of my colleagues in Cambridge, such as Andy Priestner have been trying to communicate within the institution and beyond, in the broader information landscape - ie that there really is no point in providing all of the above if they’re not needed or wanted or perceived to be useful. Librarians have typically given lip service to this issue over the last ten years or so, but have still held tightly onto their current roles and collections and……….without actually asking themselves what it is that students need. The danger in asking this is so obvious; which is why many of us don’t do it. Why dangerous? Well, you might have to change what you do every year, you might have to accept that some parts of your current library space, collections and services are actually useless, you might need to look at how to become more efficient to be more effective, you might need different skills; you might just have to change. 

So, at the English Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge, we try to address the above issues by thinking of different ways to engage with our students, so that we identify with their needs and change our service accordingly. The model we use is similar to the ethnographic approach frequently in use by library services exploring student behaviour and study habits. This is not to say that we are perfect or, indeed, overly strategic about this. Happy accidents happen too. Take the current example of our two ‘rooms’ that we will let students book, ostensibly for group discussions. In reality what is happening this year is that graduates, who take a teaching role here and supervise English Literature undergrads for one-to-one tutorials, are finding university rooms that might once have been free to book for tutorials, are no longer so. We have had more than 60 room bookings within 4 weeks of this term, compared to the same number of bookings for the whole of last academic year. I’m delighted that our Library is providing a much-needed service. And in any case, the students come to their supervisions and then, usually….borrow books. Win win.

Tea@three is just one avenue for gathering ethnographic, qualitative style data. It started because I wanted to provide some TLC for hard pressed students in exam term, also because I wanted to get to know them better, and because, hand on heart, I wanted to find out how on earth an Arts student went about their work (I worked in a Science Library before this,  and have a Social Science background).

The details:
When: at 3.00 pm, varying times a week, more frequently during exam term than in other terms, lasting 30-60 mins depending on conversations etc. Sometimes I tailor tea@three for particular year groups, the grads or societies, Faculty student reps etc, or just to say thank you to particular student or academic groups. 
Where: usually in my office which is large and spacious and can take about 20 students at one time – at a push. Sometimes we move to the Faculty’s Social Space for all sorts of reasons, mostly because my office is not sound proof; communication between staff and students becomes less of a priority then.


  • Students often say…..‘I’ve been meaning to ask you..’
  • Learning student names, building relationships that last. Picking up anecdotal information about:  the latest party, the favourite academic, the best play production, the different methods used by teachers. We then use this information in obvious situations: teaching new freshers, at the issue desk, in conversation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, other academics, or at Student Consultative Committees.
  • Sometimes there is a ‘I don’t suppose you could…..’ type of comment such as ‘Is there any chance that you could summarise the exam times for us and put them up on the website?’ If we think the suggestion is helpful and sensible for us to do, we do it. Most of the suggestions are NOT typically library-related ones, but by helping them with one thing that isn’t what we think of as connected to library work, they then come back to us with questions that are.
  • Impromptu career sessions – for example, an alumnus doing TeachFirst came back this half term, came to a tea@three session and ended up talking to two year 3 students wanting to do this next year once they graduate. One of the best careers conversation.
  • Gaining an understanding student language: for example asking students what would be the best label for our ‘subject guides’?
  • Opportunities to welcome visiting academics
  • A specially invited tea@three group which morphs into a focus group exploring for example changes to the curriculum. Eg What do students think are the implications for the Library?
  • Making lego and puzzles available– an interesting tea@three session in exam term resulted in a lego model depicting ‘tragedy’ proving to be an interesting medium with which to continue their revision in an unusual collaborative mood whilst drinking tea! 
  • Students dropping by outside tea@three times and just chatting about work, library changes or for help with a quick question about Zotero or…or… 

There is plenty out there about ethnographic research, or user-centred design, and to that end I have been gathering articles and information that helps inform what I do.  Colleague, Andy Priestner and I have also written extensively on the subject of developing user-centred library services.
See the publicly available Zotero group tea@three bibliography developing.




EVIDENCE of how tea@three engages with students

  • In our ‘comments book’ in June 2013
    Student comment
  • A comment from graduating student in the 2012 NSS: "the faculty library always does little things to brighten their students' days (tea@3, chocolates, puzzles)"
  • Regular emails from students addressing me in a friendly manner ‘Hi Libby….’ . The barriers between staff and students is much less apparent
  • Establishing connections with the undergraduate ‘English Society’ – we now run a regular annual event with them.
  • Students have been recently involved in the interview schedules for new Deputy Librarian
  • A group of students last year offered to help us run several of the larger tea@three sessions, including our Valentine Day tea@three well-advertised by them using poetry.
Valentines Day t@3

The $6 million question – how can we afford to do this?

I never underestimate the advantages of being in an environment such as Cambridge where I can target a very specific subject group; getting under their skin, almost becoming one of them, whilst maintaining the ability to drive through change for the better that impacts student lives. Tea@three is possible because it’s Cambridge and it’s for English Literature students who have flexible working hours. But overall, it represents the principle of engaging with students IN ORDER to better understand their needs and to enhance relationships. 

I can’t think of a better use of my time.