The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project is a two-year study of the student research process.  The project is funded by an LSTA grant awarded to Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) by the Illinois State Library.  The goal of the project is to understand how students do research, and how relationships between students, teaching faculty and librarians shape that process.  ERIAL is also an applied study—that is, research pursued with the purpose of uncovering, understanding and addressing social problems.  As such, its goal is to use the results to develop more user-centered library services.

ERIAL is built on a unique ethnographic methodology, which employs close observation of students’ research habits.  Unlike quantitative studies, which count the frequency of social phenomena, this study is qualitative, depicting how students search for information, what obstacles they encounter, and how they seek help.  The analysis is interpretive, yielding rich descriptions of students’ experiences.  Project methods include semi-structured interviews, photo elicitation, participant observation in libraries, mapping exercises, and web and space design workshops.

ERIAL is a collaborative effort of five Illinois universities:  DePaul University, Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS).  These campuses are urban and suburban, residential and commuter, and public and private, with student populations ranging in size from 2,000 to 26,000 and including varied ages, races and ethnicities.  As a result of this diverse partnership, the ERIAL team has uncovered a wealth of insights into similarities and differences across library cultures.  The project also has been able to enroll more than 40 librarians, 70 faculty, and 140 students in interviews and more than 600 participants total.