Research methods: How we are investigating NooX

Since the spring of 2012, we have been designing and executing a study of neighborhood book exchanges. In this post, we describe the research methods used to investigate our motivating research question: “In the age of ubiquitous, mobile computing why are these decidedly offline, stationary boxes of print material generating so much interest?”                          

Photo via Cate Seiser

Photo via Cate Seiser

The Neighborhood Book Exchange (NooX) Study is an exploratory study. We have tried to approach NooX without preconceptions of their purpose, function, or impact. We designed a study that cast a wide net, using several research tools to capture many different aspects of NooX: the stewards’ experiences designing, installing, and maintaining the NooX; the neighbors’ perceptions of and experience with the NooX; the media’s representation of the purpose and impact of NooX. We hope these different aspects will inform a detailed account of neighborhood book exchanges.

Our study relies primarily on qualitative data. We have emphasized gathering rich, in depth data that reflects the variety of NooX experiences, as opposed to emphasizing generalizable and predictive data. Since NooX have not been the subject of study to date, this descriptive data will offer the first account of NooX and NooX interactions. A descriptive account will illustrate the different actors, situations, and contexts that characterize NooX, providing an excellent foundation for future research.

We focused on six NooX in Vancouver—the only NooX in Vancouver at the time (to our knowledge).

The six NooX subjects in our study.

During the summer of 2013, we collected extensive data on each of these NooX. We interviewed the stewards, surveyed two neighborhoods, and collected observational data. To complement our study of these NooX, we also completed an analysis of media articles that discussed NooX. Here, we’ll explain how we conducted each of these phases of research.

Steward Interviews

We interviewed the stewards of each NooX twice during the summer of 2013. The stewards told us about their motivations for starting their NooX and their experiences as they initiated and shared their NooX. Their stories offer fascinating insights into the challenges and triumphs of stewarding a Neighborhood Book Exchange.

We are analyzing each interview using a qualitative process guided by Grounded Theory. Instead of relying on a set of preconceived codes, we captured ideas from the data, consolidated those ideas into categories, and identified the major themes. This has been a highly iterative process. We routinely scrutinize our findings, comparing new data to old and adjusting our inquiries accordingly. This process will help us better understand and represent the NooX stewards’ experiences.

Neighborhood Questionnaires

We distributed questionnaires to roughly 200 neighbors in the immediate vicinity of the two most active NooX in our study area. We also distributed posters around the neighborhood to advertise an online version of the questionnaire to those who pass through the neighborhood.

The questionnaire included a series of open-ended questions to gauge how familiar the neighbors were with the NooX, whether they participated, and how they perceived the role of the NooX in the neighborhood. While the two neighborhoods surveyed are not representative of all the neighborhoods in our study, the questionnaire results will provide insights into neighbors’ perceptions of the NooX and their experiences with it in these two areas.

Observational Data

As a complement to the interviews and questionnaires, we collected observational data that reflected how the NooX was used and misused. Every Tuesday morning for three months (rain or shine, mostly the former!), we rode our bikes to all six NooX to take a series of pictures, record each book’s ISBN (or other identifying information if an ISBN was not available), and note the physical condition of the item.

By taking a weekly inventory of each NooX collection, we can gauge the degree and character of participation, based on the collections’ turnover rate and the quality of the contents. The pictures allow us to document physical changes to the structure of the NooX, the context of its placement, and the organization of its contents.

Media Analysis

We also completed an analysis of media articles that discussed NooX. We collected articles published in North America over a two year period, beginning in spring 2011 when NooX first gained considerable traction in the news. We’re analyzing these articles to gauge media portrayal of NooX, to better understand NooX impressions and experiences beyond Vancouver, and to compare these impressions and experiences to our Vancouver findings.

First, we collected news articles published in Canada and the United States from three major news databases. Then we established a set of codes to record perceived purpose and impact, as well as supporting information—article length, date, and location. Each article was coded by a researcher, but a set of articles was reserved for calculating the intercoder reliability. We continue to reflect on these findings and compare them to the results from our other phases of research.


6 thoughts on “Research methods: How we are investigating NooX

  1. Pingback: Kickstarter Campaign for “Insights into Stewarding” Report | The Neighborhood Book Exchange Study

  2. For a year, I’ve had an LFL in a busy, walkable trade district that’s adjacent to a residential neighborhood populated mostly with professional people and their families. My house is one of just a handful of single family residences on the street. It was built before most of the commercial buildings existed.

    My LFL was one of five sponsored by our neighborhood association…a membership group that organizes social events each year including a 5k run, a big block party, nighttime Trick or Treating, a Spring egg hunt, etc. We were approached by a local Boy Scout who wanted to build and install LFLs for his Eagle Project. We had five applicants for LFLs. We helped the Boy Scout buy materials (he had other sponsors including “Home Depot) and we paid to register each LFL.

    The 16 block strip on which I live is enjoying a kind of Renaissance, so there’s always a lot of activity. I live next to a tanning salon. Four doors down, there a beloved old coffee shop that’s been a popular spot, for decades, for breakfast and for its Friday fish fry. A block and a half away there’s a successful restaurant that serves new American cuisine…and so on. This has turned out to be an ideal spot for an LFL, but busier than anticipated. There are few observations I’ve made.

    One is that the library is so popular that I would go broke stocking it if I had to do it by myself. After watching it empty out time and time again, a neighbor started helping me stock it and she’s thinking about involving her Girls Scout troop. She’s also put out appeals for books through our neighborhood association Facebook page. This has helped.

    I’ve had a nagging suspicion that some of the activity with my LFL is theft, particularly when it literally empties out overnight. In order to thwart thieves, I bought a stamp from the folks at LFL to the effect that the book is always free, never for sale. One chain of booksellers that carries used books has a policy that it will not accept books for resale if they bear the LFL stamp.

    I like to watch people stop at my LFL and peruse the books. I can see it from my living room window. I’d always imagined that my customers would be neighbors strolling past while doing their errands, or maybe after an evening out an about. When I talked about the fact that books seem to fly out of my LFL, a friend pointed out that it’s located near a bus stop and suggested that maybe people are grabbing books to read on the bus.

    My son told me that he was watching the LFL one summer evening when he saw an obviously homeless man approach the LFL, look through the offerings, and select a book to take with him. I loved the idea that this man might take comfort in having something to read as he settled into to his bed for the night.

    All of this made me wonder whether urban, suburban and rural LFLs serve different purposes and populations depending on where they’re located. So, I wondered whether you’re looking at a various kinds of locations as you do you research.

    Nancy Hall, Charter #10325


    • Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for sharing your observations of your book exchange!

      In answer to your question, the book exchanges that we looked at in our study are located in two residential neighborhoods of a large metropolitan area—Vancouver, BC. In that respect, we are not in a great position to discuss differences between the intended and unintended purposes of a book exchange placed in a rural vs. urban vs. suburban location.

      However, if you shrink the scale of the location discussion from urban/suburban/rural to a neighborhood/property/steward, we may be able to weigh in on it with some initial findings from our study. The role or purpose of the book exchange, we found, depended heavily on individual stewards. The design of the book exchange, the location of its placement, and how a steward maintained both the contents of the exchange and the structure itself, contributed towards a particular steward’s goal. But those goals were not necessarily the same. In this way, each book exchange was very localized according to a particular steward’s motivations and neighborhood.

      One of the stewards in our study was interested in transforming passive public places into interactive spaces and reusing/recycling material. The design of his book exchange reflected his purposes. It was located in the quasi-public space between public and private property, it featured a large bench, a place to park bicycles, a notice board, and plenty of space to accommodate any type of book and magazine. The book exchange was also the epicenter of a block party. It was constructed entirely of found materials—so to some people, it lacks the aesthetic appeal of many book exchanges where ‘cuteness’ is emphasized. This steward did little in the way of maintaining the collection, leaving that aspect entirely up to the visitors who used it. His approach aimed to “activate” public places by transforming them; enticing people to use space in new ways.

      Another steward emphasized the playfulness of the concept of a book exchange, sharing resources, and the possibility of engendering a neighborhood where its inhabitants know each other and feel comfortable helping and asking for help among their neighbors. This exchange was painted in playful colors and with interesting features, like a spoon reshaped as a handle to open the door. The actual volume of the exchange was only able to accommodate paperback novel-sized books and she semi-regularly replaced books of low quality with books in her own collection, thus hoping to attract interest among other adults in the neighborhood. She promoted the exchange and called on others to donate books to the exchange through a neighborhood listserv. Her approach was decidedly aimed to impart that the book exchange engenders a safe, approachable place and a good book sharing resource.

      These are just two examples from our study that serve to illustrate the differences in motivation between stewards within the same neighborhood and, to some degree, how the location, design, and maintenance affect who uses the exchanges. Other exchanges in our study were more interested in attracting children and designed their exchanges to accommodate them. This meant constantly resupplying the exchange with their own children’s books and designing doors that were easily opened by small children or, in one case, placing the exchange directly on the ground.

      The six book exchanges in our study were built and maintained by people who had their own ideas about the changes they would like to see take place in their neighborhoods and their exchanges, in one way or another, reflected those desires. I think some future research that looked at neighborhood book exchanges in all three contexts–suburban, rural, and urban areas–would be very interesting. I think it would be really interesting to tease apart whether a movement like the Little Free Library organization affects the unity of purpose for some stewards, too. Lots more to think about and ponder!




  3. Pingback: If you can’t steal a free book, then what do you call it? – Part I | The Neighborhood Book Exchange Study

  4. Pingback: What is exchanged through a Neighborhood Book Exchange? – Part I | The Neighborhood Book Exchange Study

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