The Ideal Place for Students to Learn: Results of a ZBW Photo Study

by Alena Behrens and Nicole Clasen

In this article, Alena Behrens and Nicole Clasen from the User Services team at the ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics report on the background, method, questions and results of their photo study among students. The key feature: the participants were only allowed to answer the five questions with photos. Text answers or comments were not possible. 19 students took part and sent 108 photos: of how they work, take their breaks and what their after-work rituals are. Alena Behrens and Nicole Clasen present the most interesting findings, draw conclusions about how new learning spaces in libraries need to be designed, and reveal what role candles play in this:

Pandemic challenges

User experience research (UX research) is characterised by spending a lot of time with your users, including their emotional level and questioning behaviours to learn as much as possible about the users. But how can you build this connection when libraries are closed for weeks and people are called to physically distance themselves from each other? The ZBW’s User Services team has dared to attempt a UX survey during the pandemic.

Approach and setting

Due to the pandemic-related requirements at the time of implementation in autumn 2021, it quickly became clear that the project should be carried out online as far as possible. The opening hours of the libraries were very limited. Only a few users worked in the library on site, and most of the staff worked from their home offices.

The question for us, however, was obvious: How do students learn at home during the pandemic? What stresses or disturbs them about this work situation? How do students deal with these changed learning conditions without a lecture hall or library? And what can we learn from this to adapt and improve the future design of the learning spaces?

A suitable UX method quickly emerged for these questions: the Photo Studies (term after Andy Priestner).

Photo Studies from home

In the Photo Studies method, the participants answer the questions posed with photos they have taken themselves. This was suitable for our question for two reasons: First, it gives us a very good insight into how the students set themselves up to study at home. Second, we were able to comply with all hygiene measures by establishing contact via email and sending the photos to us digitally. In addition, the students were quite flexible in terms of when they answered the questions. They could take the photos at their leisure and decide what should be in the photos.

The following five questions were to be answered with photos:

  1. Where is the favourite place to study/work and what is the most important object?
  2. What did the workplace look like (during an online lecture)?
  3. How is the break organised?
  4. What was the most annoying/challenging thing in the last few months?
  5. What does the after-work ritual look like?

Photos and findings

A total of 19 students participated in the study with 108 photos. So not everyone sent the exact number of five photos. The User Services team analysed the photos anonymously. By sending them, the students agreed to this and also that we could use the photos in presentations, articles, etc. The number of photos gave us a good insight into the working and learning conditions of home studying.

Workplaces and stress points

Important for working are a stable internet connection and good work equipment, such as technical equipment, a desk and chair. These are also the biggest stress points if they do not meet the requirements: An interference-prone internet connection is a hindrance for online lectures, and uncomfortable chairs cause back pain.

Only half of the participants work at a proper desk, the other half sit at the kitchen table or other converted tables. The space situation in general is often cramped. It is usually not possible to switch between work and leisure time.

Breaks and after-work rituals

The participants like to spend their breaks outside and in motion, e.g. on a walk, also with friends. After work, on the other hand, they spend most of their time at home. This is also in line with the usual pandemic-related requirements at the time of implementation.

As an after-work ritual, we received many sports pictures, from boxing and running to the yoga mat, many individual sports were included. The cosy sofa for relaxing should not be missing either.

Environment and decoration

As we already found out in our 2018 survey, the environment and atmosphere of the learning space play a major role. Implementing these needs in their own homes presented challenges for the students, but they were able to solve them. For a pleasant dose of daylight and fresh air, the learning spaces were often close to the window. They decorated the space with plants and candles. Drinks, especially coffee and tea, and snacks were also not to be missed.

  • Conclusion 1: Equip learning spaces well

    For us, it was rather surprising that after three semesters of purely digital study, many students still work with rather provisional solutions. Many work at the dining table or have placed a small table in the corner of the room. In most cases, there is only one laptop available, and there are no additional monitors. This is definitely a starting point for libraries to provide well-equipped learning spaces. This starts with large tables and comfortable, ergonomic chairs, and can be extended by technical equipment, e.g. by offering additional monitors to make working easier. Areas where you can work alone and still participate in online seminars were rare in libraries before the pandemic. We will consider this form of work in the future.

  • Conclusion 2: Create spaces for social interaction

    What has often been missing since the beginning of the Corona pandemic, but is all the more essential, is social contact. For libraries, this means on the one hand that places to work together in groups are important. There is often not enough space for this in small shared rooms. Areas for common breaks and social meeting places to exchange ideas and continue working creatively are also desired. Areas where small yoga and relaxation breaks can be taken can also offer added value. After sitting for a long time, many people feel the need to move, as the photos have confirmed.

  • Conclusion 3: Developing the library together with students

    It is very exciting to get an impression of students’ personal workplaces. The very positive feedback from the participants also showed us that they appreciate it when you want to respond to their personal needs. What was surprising for us was that we were given such open and personal insights. Thus, we can draw on an instructive and informative pool of knowledge and inspiration to design user services for the changing needs of learning and studying after the pandemic. With this knowledge, we can further develop the services in a targeted and needs-oriented manner.

Reflection on method and procedure

For the circumstances (Corona pandemic, home office/studying) and the question from this context, the method of photo studies was very well suited. We gained an insight into students’ private learning environments that we could hardly have gained otherwise. In this online implementation, in contrast to previous face-to-face on-site studies, we did not conduct any subsequent interviews. If we were to conduct them again, we would also combine the online studies with a small interview. This would give the participants the opportunity to explain their images. For some, there was a lot of room for interpretation and an explanation would have facilitated the exact interpretation.

However, this kind of implementation does not replace personal contact. Being able to talk to the students on site and to personally guide the UX methods is a great benefit. It enables a fluent dialogue and exchange.

This text has been translated from German.

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About the authors:

Nicole Clasen is Head of User Services at ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics. Her work focuses on information transfer, digital user services and the usability experience. LinkedIn and Twitter.
Portrait: ZBW©, photographer Sven Wied

Alena Behrens works as a librarian in the user services department at the ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics. In addition to working at the service desk, her work focuses on information mediation and user experience. She can also be found on Twitter.
Portrait: Alena Behrens©

The post The Ideal Place for Students to Learn: Results of a ZBW Photo Study first appeared on ZBW MediaTalk.

Libraries as a Place after Corona: Hybrid and Participatory?

During the corona pandemic, libraries and their diverse functions have been “on hold” as analogue spaces. Users find information, advice and seminars digitally. But an exchange of ideas, networking and cooperative learning can hardly take place. What should libraries, as places of learning and event venues, look like for our users in the future? Is hybrid the new solution? Nicole Clasen and Alena Behrens from the ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics are currently exploring these issues. The ZBW runs libraries in Kiel and Hamburg.

Interview with Nicole Clasen and Alena Behrens

The ZBW in Hamburg will be moving to a new building in a few years. For this reason, you have recently defined which spaces and room elements are needed for modern library operations in all their facets and which are not. What was important for you?

It’s important for us to create an attractive place that inspires discussions and a sense of cooperative working and learning. This includes an open and modern architecture that makes the library an enticing place to enter.

New building for the ZBW – Hamburg (exterior view) on the university campus. Photo credit: Andreas Heller Architects & Designers

There will also be areas where the furnishings can be arranged flexibly. This can be done with chairs and tables on castors, or by selecting light furniture. The users can thereby design the working areas according to their needs at that time: Smaller or larger furniture sets can be created – group tables or arranged in a circle – depending on how one wants to work at that time.

New building for the ZBW – Hamburg on the university campus. Photo credit: Andreas Heller Architects & Designers

Good technical facilities are also fundamentally important. There will, naturally, be wall-to-wall WLAN and sufficient plugs at all workstations, to allow visitors to work with their own devices. We will also be offering various large computer screens to enable and to support collaborative working.

New building for the ZBW – Hamburg on the university campus. Photo credit: Andreas Heller Architects & Designers

How did you know what was important for the users of the ZBW?

Since 2016, we have been carrying out studies annually with the User Experience (UX) methods. We introduced four best practice examples in this article. UX focuses above all on the actual behaviour of the users, and the results differ significantly from those of the classic questionnaire. Through this, we have a good idea of the working methods and desires of our users. Observation methods also examine the unconscious behaviour of users. These are things that could and should never be entered in a questionnaire in this form. In the post “User Experience for Libraries: The Best Tools and Methods for Beginners” we explain how libraries can start using User Experience. Our users are also participating in the further development of the library.

User Journey Map, a method of user experience in which the feelings of users during certain tasks are visualised. (UX Libs Conference 2018)

This is joined by the daily contact with users – whether at the service desk, the central contact point in the library, or via our digital advice services such as Chat or training sessions.

Were there elements of the classic library that were no longer needed for the new building?

One thing traditionally associated with libraries is the seemingly endless rows of shelves with books. We have not used open-access shelving for a long time for various reasons, and there will be no freely accessible shelves in the new building either. This means that we have more space for workspaces. All books are initially stored in the stack-room and are inaccessible to users. If someone orders a book, it is available within an hour. Moreover, during their research in EconBiz our users use analogue and digital inventories to the same extent.

We will also be offering fewer computers. Users prefer to use their own devices and we will supplement these with computer screens only. Remote access gives users the ability to view licensed literature.

We will also offer more group rooms instead of only group workplaces. In the rooms, users can meet up to work together. Having a closed area means that other groups are not disturbed and every group can have discussions and work in the way they want. This means that it is possible to work together using video tools from the library, without being disturbed by noise or by people walking around in the background.

There will no longer be an extra consultation space at the service desk. We will of course continue to be available there if users have any questions and problems. More complex consultations regarding research will then take place digitally.

Corona has taught us that it’s possible to do many things digitally. So do we even need libraries on site? For what? For whom? And who will be using libraries only digitally in the future?

Libraries will still continue to be important places. They are one of the few places that you can visit without having to pay any money. What’s more, using libraries on-site gives them a decisive added value as a place of learning and an event venue.

As a place of learning, libraries offer a meeting place where people can work together. It’s not always practical for people to meet at home, if there isn’t enough room in their apartment for several people to work together, or if they do not have equipment such as computer screens to make working more relaxed, for example. Students who live in flat shares or with their parents don’t always find the peace & quiet they need for concentrated individual work. The library offers space for all these different working needs.

The library will continue to play a role as an event venue, as well as to exchange know-how and network.

Library tours will take place more digitally in future. At the moment, we are offering these purely virtually via video tools. We intend to combine and extend this in the future. Even before corona we had started to develop a guided tour of the library with the help of augmented reality, which will extend the physical library through digital services. Other similar projects are feasible in the future. The participation of users is important for digital services like this. After all, they are supposed to take some knowledge away with them and learn something. Ideally, they should exchange ideas with each other.

What were your positive examples for libraries as places? Which other (library) locations have inspired you? And why?

We have been very inspired by the Scandinavian and Dutch libraries (German). Impressive new buildings have been built there in recent years that do not always correspond to the classic idea of a library as we imagine it in Germany. These countries have a conception of libraries that is more unconventional and modern. We wanted to incorporate elements of that here.

The Dokk1 in Aarhus (Denmark) was a positive example. The uncomplicated interaction really impressed us. The students sit near the event space when studying; a few metres further you can find the kids’ space where the little ones can run around. Yet no group is disturbed by the others – the acoustics are controlled very effectively. The design of the library is very playful. Posters and other presentations illustrate the projects that the library is involved in and the topics that are currently being worked on.

Utrecht University Library (Netherlands) is another inspiring library. It is an academic library and the university has an Open Science focus, meaning that it is comparable to the ZBW library in the requirements it must fulfil.

At re:publica 2021 you recently organised a session on “Libraries as a place of learning – hybrid and participatory?” (German). What were your three most interesting insights? What are the concerns of the library community at the moment?

  • Library employees are very interested in getting to know their own users.
  • They actively wish to reshape the spaces and adapt them to the users’ needs.
  • We are all aware that changes will occur and that after corona we are not going to be able to continue exactly where we left off in March 2020.

We have noticed that it’s important to discuss this topic. That’s why we will start a round-table discussion group on UX in libraries. Interested users will be able to exchange ideas and brainstorm on user research projects in order to disseminate these ideas more widely and accommodate the needs of the users better. Those who are interested in an exchange of ideas can get in touch with us via

Why will media technology in libraries play an important role in the future in this context?

Media technology is a criterion that adds value to libraries. If users can find media in libraries that they cannot access at home, it makes their visit even more appealing. This could be large computer screens for working together on presentations and projects. But also the makerspaces in many public libraries. These offer many things that people don’t have at home and therefore become attractive for new target groups.

Good hardware and software are also important for library employees, to be able to implement digital services appropriately. A digital Coffee Lecture (German) should be able to take place with good sound, image and without the screen freezing due to poor internet quality. And even allegedly small details, such as image stabilising aids for cameras, help to improve video quality.

The importance of media technology in libraries can be seen in the fact that it is now included in the (practical) training curriculum. Apprentices training to be specialists for media and information services and university students are thereby prepared better for their everyday working lives.

Will hybrid become the new normality in libraries? What could that look like?

Libraries will have many hybrid elements in the future. They will be a physical space for getting together, learning together and exchanging ideas.

The literature, however, will primarily be available digitally. Similarly, services, training courses and workshops will increasingly be offered digitally.

Even before corona, we were considering designing these services more digitally. But at that time, there were still many uncertainties and doubts as to how this would function and should be implemented. Nicole Clasen talks about this in the podcast “Experiencing a digital library” (German). The past few months, during which there were few other opportunities and so we simply gave it a try, have shown that it is possible. The pandemic has brought new dynamics and possibilities to the field.

We spoke with Nicole Clasen and Alena Behrens.

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The post Libraries as a Place after Corona: Hybrid and Participatory? first appeared on ZBW MediaTalk.