Focus Groups and their Relevance in Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

September 20, 2022

In my world of higher education, we have started the new academic year and are thinking about feedback we want to gather in order to determine what changes we may want to implement. 

The academic year has begun relatively normally, but we know we cannot necessarily “go back.” Instead, we need to understand what current demands exist and get feedback from constituents about what to adjust moving forward. 

Also, over the weekend, I read an article in the New York Times about how many workers will be returning to their offices this fall for the first time in a couple of years. 

Wherever the location of your special library, I suspect that many of you are thinking about how to balance feelings of the way things used to be with entering a new phase. 

One way to gather feedback is through focus groups. Surveys are often used to gather information from stakeholders, and while I have written about surveys in a past post, I want to consider the importance of engaging in conversations and gathering more qualitative data. Focus groups can be particularly beneficial when you want to gather people’s thoughts and opinions about resources and services as well as gathering data on their experiences. 

In preparing for this post, I was surprised to read that the Wikipedia entry for Focus Groups has a section dedicated to Library and Information Science. The section reads:

In disciplines of library and information science, when librarians intend to work on a library’s collection, they consult patrons.[11] The focus groups librarians organize are helpful in identifying patrons’ needs. In addition, teachers, other professionals, and researchers can also be recruited to participate in focus groups to ascertain those individuals’ library-related needs. Focus groups can also help librarians better understand patron behavior and the impact of services on the library use.[11]

  1. Nyumba, Tobias O.; Wilson, Kerrie; Derrick, Christina J.; Mukherjee, Nibedita (11 January 2018). “The use of focus group discussion methodology: Insights from two decades of application in conservation”. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. London, England: British Ecological Society. 9: 20–32. doi:10.1111/2041-210X.12860. hdl:10871/32495.

This entry, while surprising, emphasizes the value of focus groups in LIS. 

To start with focus group research, you will want to consider the following:

  • Determine who will moderate the focus group and who will serve as the assistant. The assistant typically takes notes and is responsible for recording the session. 
  • Identify 6-10 people to take part in the focus group. Often, focus group members come from a particular group. For example, you may want to have one focus group consist of students and another focus group consist of faculty. 
  • It is often necessary to conduct 3-4 focus groups to gather enough data. When you start hearing many of the same things from each group of the same demographic of people, you know you have reached saturation. 
  • Write questions for the focus group. Questions should be succinct and open-ended.

There are many resources you can review to get ideas for undertaking focus group research. Here are a few recommended resources:

Community Toolbox from the University of Kansas

Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews by Richard A. Kueger

How to Conduct an Employee Focus Group from SHRM

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education.  Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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