post-it note array of early neighborhood book exchange questions.

On the value of exploratory research

I don’t know whether neighborhood book exchanges live up to the claims of providing ‘icebreakers’ or ‘literary watercoolers’ for passersby. But I do know that inventorying a book exchange in the early morning rain tends to prompt conversation—at least the “what are you doing?” variety.

After explaining that I was contributing to a study of neighborhood book exchanges, most left it at that. But several probed further: “what’s your hypothesis?”

My answer, ”It’s not that kind of research. It’s exploratory.”, was always received with dubious or dismissive looks.

It’s not too difficult to imagine why. Very few are acquainted with what it means to conduct exploratory research, even among students of the social sciences [1]. My social research methods coursework never discussed it in detail. So, as our initial plan to study book exchanges took shape, I didn’t even realize that exploratory research was an option—let alone the best option for our study.

Tenny and my original vision for the book exchange study was very different from the study we eventually conducted. After reading media snippets about Little Free Library (LFL), we were quick to question the purported role and impact of the book exchanges. Our ideas were fixed on testing the claims covered in the media.

When we shared our ideas with one of our professors, who later became our research supervisor, she posed a critical question: what do we know about the exchanges?

This question forced us to admit that we knew very little, and, after further reflection, to recognize that what little we did know was based on reports in the news media and claims by the LFL organization. No empirical studies had been conducted to date. As a result, there were no substantiated accounts of the phenomenon; the what, who, and how of neighborhood book exchanges was undefined, unverified, unknown.

And so we set our hypotheses aside. We redesigned our study as an exploratory study, with the goal to provide the substantiated account of neighborhood book exchanges that was lacking.

As such, our study was designed to capture the features of the book exchanges, the interactions that they facilitated, if any, and the goals and impressions that shaped their creation and use. We completed a mixed-method analysis of six exchanges in an urban area in the Pacific Northwest. We interviewed the stewards, surveyed the neighbors, and inventoried and photographed the exchanges over a three month period. In addition, we conducted an in-depth analysis of media coverage to better describe how the exchanges were portrayed. This approach provided a detailed and multifaceted account of neighborhood book exchanges, both on the ground and in the media.

Importantly, an exploratory study does not seek generalizable results. The findings from the six book exchanges in our study should not be taken as representative of other book exchanges. A sample of six exchanges in a single geographic area cannot speak for other exchanges in other geographic areas. That was neither the goal nor the value of our findings.

The findings of an exploratory study provide a preliminary analysis, introducing a framework for approaching the new area of study. This framework may offer definitions, themes, and hypotheses, for instance. It elucidates factors that may be significant for designing a subsequent study, and indicates aspects that may be interesting for further investigation.

In our first research paper, we provide an initial framing of the neighborhood book exchange phenomenon: we offer a definition for the exchanges, describe the agents and interactions involved, identify themes in the stewards’ motivations and experiences, and propose a hypothesis for understanding the exchanges’ role in neighborhoods. This framework is available for future research efforts to challenge, corroborate, extend.

Additionally, our findings offer insights that may inform the design of subsequent studies. For instance, that some neighborhood book exchanges are not registered with or, even influenced by, the LFL organization—a finding over which our previous research design would have tripped. We had assumed that neighborhood book exchanges were inspired by the LFL “movement”, after all, that was the story largely presented in the media. But we would have been hard pressed to pursue our LFL-focused hypotheses on our initial research subjects: six local book exchanges, five of which were not inspired or influenced by LFL.

And even those stewards who register their exchange with LFL may not subscribe to the LFL mission. One steward in our study registered her exchange with LFL after discovering the idea through them, but she was otherwise disengaged from the organization’s narrative. It may be unfair or inaccurate to extend an analysis of LFL goals and claims to the individuals who register their exchanges with LFL.

But, most significantly, our original research designs would have missed what may be the most interesting aspects of the neighborhood book exchange phenomenon. Placemaking, for instance, emerged as a strong theme in our study. Our interviews with stewards repeatedly returned to discussions of how soft-edge spaces in neighborhoods could be used, how the use of these spaces should be negotiated with the city, and how interactions with neighbors could be enhanced in these spaces through information-based interactions—exchanging books, posting messages, sharing community notices. By adopting an exploratory approach, we allowed for the discovery of themes and hypotheses that we did not anticipate.

Our study can’t tell you whether neighborhood book exchanges do X or do not do Y, like whether neighborhood book exchanges offer ‘icebreakers’ for passersby. But it can offer an empirically-informed framework to guide investigations of the phenomenon. Consider it a kind of icebreaker for a new research topic.

This blog post originally appeared on the NooX Study blog.

[1] Robert A. Stebbins, Exploratory Research in the Social Sciences. Sage Publications, Inc., 2001.

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