Blogging as an Exercise in Control; Ethnography in Libraries

Citation:
Donna Lanclos and Andrew D. Asher, “Ethnographish”: The State of Ethnography in Libraries, Weave: Journal of Library User Experience, Volume 1, Issue 5, 2016, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/weave.12535642.0001.503

So I think I am already getting the hang of how blogging will ebb and flow, in terms of the quantity of blog posts that I can reasonably manage at various times of the year. Late July and early August are, obviously, prime for daily reading of articles and blogging about them — it is right after the AALL annual meeting, and I am pumped about new ideas and scholarship. However, as mid-August approaches, we start preparing for the beginning of the academic year, and I have to cut back, which is OK.

I expect I will be back to daily blogging sometime in November, but even then it is too far in the future to worry about today. At least I am managing to do something today, which is good.

What did worry me today is that I noticed that a number of my previous blog posts had had their text replaced with an hyperlinked advertisement. WHAT?!?!?!?! I pay money for this blog and was very unhappy that this could happen. The poor person on the WordPress end of a support chat this morning got an earful from me. (An eyeful?) But they took it like a true pro, and showed me how to revert to previously-saved versions of posts, which I did. They also suggested I change to a stronger password, and I did that as well.

So three cheers for WordPress User Support. I am often on their end of our library’s chat reference, and I hope I handle difficult people as nicely as they handled me.

(Also, maybe I could have been a little less difficult, although I thought that HOURS of work had been deleted forever and I was not happy about it, so I am going to cut myself a little slack.)

Anyway, today’s article continues on the theme from last week: ethnography. I found an article written by two ethnographers who work full-time in academic libraries, and found that they had some very interesting things to say on this topic.

They began by offering examples of the growing trend of using an ethnographic approach to studying libraries and their users. However, they then claimed that “libraries are stuck in a relatively unfinished ethnographic moment,” and stated that this article would explore barriers to ethnography in academic libraries.

So what is ethnography? They define it as “the art and science of describing a group culture,” and ethnographic research is done through “qualitative methods that focus on the close observation of social practices and interactions.”

Why should libraries be involved in ethnographic research? According to the authors, “constructing long-term views of student behavior, gained via ethnography, is good and necessary practice for effective, engaged, and innovative libraries, and indeed education generally.” The authors contend, however, that this type of work, as it is done in libraries, is more “ethnographish” than ethnographic as it is understood in the field.

What do they mean by that? The authors claim that ethnography-based studies in libraries are “short-term and narrowly contextualized,” and that the work is typically done by outside contractors who have a limited scope and specific deliverable.

True ethnographic research, the authors claim, involves “build(ing) a body of evidence gradually over time, enabling questions to be addressed that often were unknown when the research was begun.” Because ethnography is “exploratory” in nature, “its benefits are sometimes realized years in the future once a critical mass of observations can be synthesized.” Libraries cannot conduct this kind of research unless resources and personnel are dedicated to it over the long term, perhaps indefinitely.

What has prompted this trend away from true ethnographic research in libraries? The authors posit that, in general, librarians do not feel qualified to conduct this kind of research, which may “reflect a gap in library research methods training.”

Another issue related to the lack of true ethnographic research in a library setting is the fact that libraries are, in general, quite risk averse. According to authors, “engaging in ethnography when it’s not well understood isn’t something many libraries feel they can do given the wider context of anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries.”

(Ouch.)

To conclude, the authors suggest that more true ethnographic research take place in libraries, because this type of research “reveals connections, meaning, and patterns, and can become an integrated part of how the library becomes and remains valuable because it has insight into student and faculty behavior that does not exist elsewhere on campus.”

Well. This was certainly a very interesting take, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it, based on what I know about libraries and librarians. I would love to be involved in a long-term study of how our researchers use and interact with our materials. But I can’t see fitting that in with everything else I do as a librarian.

I also know for sure that I took a research methods class in library school and conducted a “phenomenological” research project, which is a lot more focused on the experience of individual people than groups. We must have talked about ethnography in that class, and it was probably one of the options for our research project, but I do not remember anymore. I am not sure I would be brave enough to undertake (by that I mean imagine, design, conduct, and report on) an ethnographic research project given my current knowledge. I would love to collaborate on this type of project with a scholar in the social sciences who has experience with it, however.

Articles like this remind me of why I always have in the back of my mind to go and get a PhD. The day-to-day of work does get in the way of serious scholarly inquiry, and there’s only so much control I have over that.

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