Contextual Design - A socio-technical study of Goleta Public Library

This is a summary report of a 3-month research project on the socio-technical study of a public library.



Santa Barbara Central Library Supervisor Librarians who handle administration and staff and volunteers training for Goleta Public Library. The supervisor’s inputs are taken into consideration when upgrading or installing new technologies in the library. This report will help assess the role and use of the existing technologies. This will help them in making an informed decision when upgrading these existing technologies in the future. The insights may also be used to train future staff and volunteers about the needs of patrons and those situations where the patrons might need assistance.


The Goleta Public Library is located in the city of Goleta, Santa Barbara County. The library is mainly operated by volunteers and a few staff members. Currently, the library has about 600,000 books that it lends out to about 90,000 patrons.

This paper seeks to investigate the technologies employed at the library and their usage or non-usage by library patrons. The technologies* considered for the purpose of this project are:
1. Drop off bins

2. Self-checkout machines
3. Card Catalogues
*The word technologies used throughout this paper refers to the above three.

During my research, it was found that the usage or non-usage of technologies is based on individual situations and the effects of the processes involved within each technology.


I also conducted three 20 minutes long semi-structured interviews with two staff members and one library patron. These members were chosen based on their availability and willingness to interview. I also wanted to get a varied perspective from a staff and patron point-of-view on how the technologies are used. Contextual models were used to further analyze the data collected from observation sessions and user interviews.

Informatics 281: Assignment 11: Final Report


I conducted 4 one-hour observation sessions at the library observing the front desk and the reading section. I observed the staff members, volunteers and patrons to understand their ongoing behavior in the library. I also observed different elements such as physical layout, colors, sounds, lighting, actors and their demographics, clothing, body language, actor’s behavior and their interaction with the technologies. The observation technique also helped me gauge the timings during which the library receives high traffic of requests on the front desk and timings when it receives few requests, which in turn helped me discern a pattern in the usage of technologies.


In the second session, I conducted semi-structured interview that were approximately 20-25 minutes long. Three individuals were interviewed – Library Technician, Children’s Librarian and library patrons.

The Library Technician is responsible for making sure that the library opens and closes at the right time. She is also responsible for answering any reference related questions patrons might have.
Children’s Librarian is responsible for purchasing books and coordinating events and activities for the children’s library.
Library patron – a mother of three who has been a patron of Goleta Public Library for the last 3 years.

The purpose of these interviews was to learn more from the insights I had gathered during my observation sessions. The interviews also provided me with wide range of perspectives from staff’s point of view. It helped me understand the unarticulated aspects of the technologies from an individual’s perspectives, and it helped me understand how these technologies aligns or misaligns with an individual’s goals and needs.

Contextual Models

Contextual models were also employed to further analyze the data.

Findings & Insights

1. Drop off bins

Drop off bins are collection boxes placed outside the library. It allows patrons to check in their items by dropping it into the box without having to step inside the library. These books are later collected by a volunteer/ staff member who then

checks in the items on the online library management system. The library management system clears off the item from the patrons account once entered. The items are then placed in their respective locations.
This technology is especially helpful when patrons are in rush or just want to drop off their item without having to enter the library and standing in a queue for assistance by front desk.
During my 4 hours of observation sessions over different days, I noticed that 17 different patrons checked in their books at the front desk. The total visitors for the days of observation were 43.
On further exploration during the interviews, I learnt about the reasons of patrons not using the drop off bin.

  1. The drop-off bin does not provide any immediate feedback to the patron that their items have been “received”. The patron only learns that their items have been collected when a volunteer/staff member enters it in the online library system. This could take anywhere between 8-24 hours to take place. This was personally tested by me. I dropped off a book at 10:00 am which was cleared off my account later in the evening at approximately 6:00 pm. Between 10 am and 6 pm, there was no way to know where my item was. I checked my account every hour to keep a track of when the item gets cleared off from my online library account.

  2. Therehavebeentimeswhenapatronusesthedropoffbintocheckin their book and it does not get entered into the system by library staff, after it has been collected. As a result, it shows as an “overdue item” on patron’s account for which they get charged. Therefore, certain patrons like to get a receipt as an acknowledgement of having returned their items. The following is a quote from the interview with a staff member:
    “sometimes they want the book off their account immediately, you know, for whatever reason they want to make sure that they’re all square when they leave. Sometimes they want was check-in receipts, umm, occasionally we do miss a book and it’s back on the shelf without it being checked in...”


Upgrading the drop off bins: Libraries such as the Lompoc and Solvang library systems have drop off bins that print out a receipt once the patrons scans their check in item and drops it in the bin. It also instantly writes off the item returned from their online account. Installing such bins might give the user assurance that their item has been securely returned and also speeds up the process of checking in items. This also eliminates the need to manually write off the items from the library system.

2. Self-checkout machines

There are 3 self-checkout machines installed inside the reading area of the library. 2 are installed in the adult reading section and 1 in the children’s reading section. These machines allow patrons to check out books by placing them under a scanner. Once scanned, the items check out are recorded on the patron’s account. The patron then may choose to print/email an itemized receipt of the items checked out and the due dates. The self-checkout machines enable patrons to checkout items on their own and not wait for a staff member to help them with the same.

During my observation, I noticed that there were 4 senior adults, father of 2 children and 3 mothers of toddlers asked for front desk assistance to check out their items. I wanted to further investigate the possible reasons for not using the machines, since at that time they asked for assistance, the machines were available for use.

a. Parent/swhocomewithtoddlersandyoungerchildrenprefercheckingout at the front desk, this way they have one less thing to worry about and they get to pay more attention to what their children are doing. At the self- checkout machines, they would have to juggle between the books and handling their kids. Staff members also take the initiative to help patrons with children.

The following quote is from a library patron:

“It’s harder to juggle a stack of books and three kids at the same time and then sometimes we have to pay our dues too. I’d rather have someone do it for me than I doing it myself. Sometimes my son uses the checkout machines, only when we have a couple of books.”

Following was mentioned during an interview with the Library Technician:

“The tendencies, I tend, I see, are mothers with children or fathers with children, especially if they have a huge stack of books and they’re trying to juggle like three little ones. They’ll sometimes go to the self-checkout machines and but sometimes I’ll actually call them and say “hey, can I help you at the front desk?” because sometimes it’s easier to do that than it is to trying to make sure they have all the books checked out, the 2 year olds running away, it’ll be easier for them sometimes.”

Informatics 281: Assignment 11: Final Report

b. TheRFID(RadioFrequencyIdentification)thatreadsthebookswhen placed in the check-out machines is a chip that is inside the books/items. There is also a bar code on top of the books – the ISBN number. The members think the ISBN is what they need to scan, but what they need to do is just push the item to the back of the machines. This is not very intuitive, since the machine projects a red spot as if indicating patrons to place the bar code under the spot.

When items come from a different library, especially the ones that don’t use RFID, the scanner does identify the item. Patrons have trouble checking out their books, hence they come to the front desk.
The following quote is from the interview with the Children’s Librarian “...we're part of that bigger system... most of us are on RFID...the books have a tag inside that scans the item. So, it's not the bar code. It's a little piece inside. So, our books, they have the best success if they just put them in and push to the back. But what they do is they see the library barcode on there and they try to match it up in the red light and then half way, they still get kind of a security error. Even if they correctly check out the book... And so, they'll be like why the red light go off...It's like it seems like it should be intuitive but it can hiccup.

People would get stuck when mostly, things that don't read right...And then when books come from other libraries where it doesn't work quite with the system right. There are some even some of our own items like a two-part item give them error messages and tell them to ask for help at the desk. So, then they get, “I thought I did it right.” And it’s just a processing issue.”


RFID: Items that come into Goleta library from other libraries that do not use RFID could be have a unique identity. Something as simple as a dark color sticker that says “see staff for checkout” would reduce the confusion.
Second, a sign with “how to scan you item” may help create awareness about how to scan an item.

3. Card Catalogue
Card Catalogue is a software through which patrons can search for the items. It also gives you information about where the item is located – at a different library, checked out by another patron and other formats it is available in (e book, audiobook, CD). The card catalogue also enables patrons to place “holds” for a particular item. The patron is then notified when the item is available. Holds are also placed when the patron wants to request a book from another library that is part of Black Gold Cooperative.

During the interviews with the Library Technician and Children’s Librarian, they said that they would like patrons to use the card catalogue to place holds as it is

Informatics 281: Assignment 11: Final Report

an easier way to search for books than asking a staff member. The reason why they are useful is because it can help the patron narrow down their search through its algorithm and filters. However, they are seldom used by patrons even though they are placed in each section of the library 2 in the adult reading section and 2 in the children’s reading section.

I used the physical model to analyze the layout of the library and the positioning of its various technologies. The physical model helped uncover that the card catalogues are placed along with the public-use computers, therefore easy to miss. Lack of awareness and visibility of the technology is one of the reasons it is not used by the patrons. Fig 1. shows the layout and positioning of the card catalogues.

Informatics 281: Assignment 11: Final Report

Fig 1.


Having a separate kiosk or placement for computers that serve as card catalogues might help in identifying their purpose.

Informatics 281: Assignment 11: Final Report