Chapter 3: Ethnographic research practices in library settings – Qualitative Research and the Modern Library


Ethnographic research practices in library settings


This chapter presents information on the use of ethnographic and related approaches within library settings. Historical application of library community analysis is explored. Several recent examples are presented.

Key words

University of Rochester

Rutgers University


ethnographic approaches


community analysis

Key concepts of ethnographic research

Ethnographic research is a cross-disciplinary, qualitative research approach grown out of the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and used in a variety of other areas such as psychology (social, educational, behavioral, and organizational), business, the health sciences, and, more recently, within library, information, and computing science. It seems a particularly relevant approach for library settings, since libraries can be as complicated, diverse, and misunderstood at times as any other organization, culture, or environment.

Ethnographic research is described most simply as “an approach to learning about the social and cultural life of communities, T” (Schensul et al., 1999, p. 1). One of the hallmarks of ethnographic research is the end product—an ethnography—a written account of all observations, conversations, discoveries, and insights gathered during the research process, compiled in a meaningful way. Fetterman (1998) described writing the ethnography as “the art and science of describing a group or culture” (p. 1), and the ethnographer as both “storyteller and scientist” (p. 2). Fetterman goes on to say that “the ethnographer writes about the routine, daily lives of people. The more predictable patterns of human thought and behavior are the focus of inquiry” (1998, p. 1). The goal is to observe and study as many components of the environment as possible—because the elements taken together will provide a more complete understanding than looking at any one person, small group, trend, trait, or behavior, alone. The ethnography can contain many elements. LeCompte and Schensul (1999) list the following components: beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, emotions, verbal and non-verbal means of communication; social networks, behaviors of the group of individuals with friends, family, associates, fellow workers, and colleagues; use of tools, technology, and manufacture of materials and artifacts; and patterned use of space and time (1999, p. 4).

On a practical level, ethnographic research can be a means by which researchers attempt to learn more about and contribute to solving some of society’s most pressing problems (LeCompte and Schensul, 1999). Discovery is a key concept in ethnographic research, one that sets it apart from other methods of inquiry. As LeCompte and Schensul put it, “ethnography assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and the reasons they give for doing it” (1999, p. 2), before making any types of assumptions or interpretations. More specifically, “the tools of ethnography are designed for discovery… the basic tools of ethnography use the researcher’s eyes and ears as the primary modes for data collection” (LeCompte and Schensul, 1992, p. 2). A second difference is the lack of control that ethnographers have over the environments that they are studying—”the ethnographic field situation is unlike clinic or laboratory-based experimental research, where most aspects of the environment are controlled and where researchers can use the same instruments and can expect to get the same results if the study is repeated” (LeCompte and Schensul, 1999, p. 2).

Ethnographic research operates with certain frameworks that influence how the method is used by researchers, depending on the researcher’s own theoretical framework and the area of interest (LeCompteompte and Schensul, 1999, p. 41). There are five distinct paradigms that can guide ethnographic research (LeCompte and Schensul, 1999). They are the positivist paradigm, the critical paradigm, the constructivist paradigm, the ecological paradigm, and the emerging social network paradigm (1999, p. 41). In addition to these descriptions, one can also refer to a variety of ethnographic schools of thought which reference the same paradigms. The holistic variety requires that researchers spend time in the environment they are studying, and have “empathy and identification with the social grouping being observed” (Myers, 1999, p. 7). The “thick description” approach was first described by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), and requires the ethnographer to “search out and analyze symbolic forms—words, images, institutions, behaviors—with respect to one another and to the whole that they comprise” (Myers, 1999, p. 8). The ethnographer does not need to immerse him-or herself deeply in the environment or culture here, as is the case with the holistic approach. Critical ethnography features a completely different approach that involves the researcher participating in an ongoing dialogue and discussion with those who are being studied, with the specific goal of surfacing “hidden agendas, power centers, and assumptions that inhibit, repress, and contain” (Thomas, 1993, p. 2).

As with all research, ethnographic research begins with a single idea, question, problem, issue, or concern that the researcher(s) want to find out more about. It can have both qualitative and quantitative elements, but the primary foundation of all ethnographic research is the act of observation. Typically, ethnographic research is done in the field, and requires that the researchers be present and immersed in the culture or environment they are studying. Conklin (1968) describes it this way:

Ethnography involves a long period of intimate study and residence in a well-defined community employing a wide range of observational techniques including prolonged face-to-face contact with members of local groups, direct participation in some of the group’s activities, and a greater emphasis on intensive work with informants than on the use of documentary or survey data. (1968, p. 172)

The participation of the ethnographer is a key element in this particular type of ethnographic work—they engage in observing what is going on around them, but they also talk to those in the community about what they observe, they look for patterns, they ask questions, and try to experience what they learn. It is in many ways the exact opposite of experimental research done in a lab—where the researcher is separated from what they are observing by a microscope lens, a cage, or a screen. The more immersed an ethnographer can become in the environment, the better the ethnography in the end. At the same time, the ethnographer must remain completely open to what they see, hear, and learn. In this way, all of the observations and important inputs become a part of the ethnography, making it more comprehensive and meaningful.

Van Maanen (1979) discusses the use of ethnographic research in the study of organizations, and sees the method as providing a way for researchers to “come to grips with the essential ethnographic question of what it is to be rather than to see a member of the organization” (p. 539). This can also be said of being vs. seeing those who are members of different cultures, groups, and institutions. This experiential component can often reveal information not obtained by other means of data collection.

LeCompte and Schensul (1999) also mention the importance of valuing the context and customs that are being studied, and refer to the “integrity of local cultures” (1999, p. 3). Simply put, ethnographic researchers are bound to respect the communities and people they come into contact with, making sure that methods for observation and data gathering are not intrusive or offensive, and that they fall within ethical guidelines.

Historically, the best-known ethnographies come out of anthropology—for instance, The Nuer by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1940; first American edition 1969); The Dynamics of Clanship Among the Tallensi by Meyer Fortes (1945); African Systems of Kinship and Marriage by A.R. Radcliffe Brown and Daryll Forde (1950); Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski (1922); Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead (1928); and Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View by Gregory Bateson (1958). Despite the fact that the better-known historical studies took place in far-away places, ethnographic research can take place and be applicable whenever there are groups and communities to be studied—from state agencies to public schools to libraries to hospitals.

Historical application within libraries and information settings

The use of ethnographic methods to investigate bibliographic trends, library services, and information systems is not a recent development. What is new is the increased publicity and attention that some library research projects have attracted. Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Foster and Gibbons, 2007) is a good example of this. This project, which began in 2004, has so far produced a book of the same title, been presented at numerous conferences, and has formed the basis of a number of instructional workshops on undergraduate and faculty research behavior sponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR, 2010). As early as 1896, librarians were beginning to recognize that, in order to provide better library services, they needed to be far more sensitive and informed about the community and surrounding environment. Mary Cutler (1896) talked specifically about a process that would later be referred to as community analysis—suggesting that librarians be proactive in learning about their surrounding community, in order to “catch the spirit of the civic life and relate the library to the whole” (1896, p. 448). Community analysis, an activity that involves gathering a wide variety of information about the community in order to evaluate current services and plan for the future, was seen as being an “essential element of librarianship” (Sarling and Van Tassel, 1999, p. 7). A number of authors have written about the application of the community analysis within libraries, including Bone (1976), Wheeler (1924), and Carnovosky and Martin (1944).

Although community analysis is not classified as a type of qualitative or interpretive research, nor designed to produce an ethnography, the elements and activities needed to assemble the analysis have much in common with the ethnographic approach. Paying attention to everyday details in all areas of the community and formulating a sense of not just who the members are, but also context and meaning, are critical. Evans (1976) suggests that the community analysis “is as basic to library management as the physician’s diagnosis is to the practice of medicine” (1976, p. 454). Greer and Hale (1982) are well-known for developing the Community Analysis Research Institute (CARI) model, which provides an actual format for community analysis. The model provides a way to systematically collect, organize, and analyze data about the library, its users, and the community (Greer and Hale, 1982, p. 358). Sarling and Van Tassel (1999) provide this comprehensive overview of the CARI model:

The Community Analysis Research Institute (CARI) model begins with a focus on the community from four perspectives—individuals, groups, agencies and lifestyles—and incorporates both quantitative and qualitative research methods to collect a variety of data including demographic characteristics, history of the community, topographical features, transportation routes and traffic patterns, commercial activities, communication patterns, housing, education, cultural activities, health facilities, employment, recreation entertainment, and the characteristic lifestyles of the community and its sub-cultures. (1999, pp. 8, 9)

In Grace Stingly’s 1919 “Studying a Community in Order to Render Better Library Service,” Stingly detailed an ethnographic approach to learning more about the environment to improve the library’s outreach and services, and described areas for data collection and observation that closely match those described in the CARI model some 63 years later. She states, “to serve a community efficiently the librarian must know that community physically, mentally, and morally. She must know the kind of people with which she deals, the things in which they are interested, their industries, their schools, their churches, their amusements, their health conditions, their public press, their government. To do this the community must be studied” (Stingly, 1919, p. 157). Stingly then cites 18 different areas for study and observation, essentially outlining at least some of the components that one might find in an ethnography of any community:

1. Physical aspects of the city—Including status of roads and infrastructure, presence of any federal buildings, municipal or private utilities, presence of parks, presence of natural attractions such as lakes.

2. Civic organizations—Presence of civic or public improvement agencies.

3. Historical background of the city—Date city was founded and under what conditions, most important factors in the city’s industrial, social and political growth.

4. Population—Total population, percentage of foreign inhabitants, geographical distribution of the population, location of various district types (urban, suburban, working class, middle class, etc.), per cent of the total population served by the library, library’s reach into all segments of the population.

5. Immigrants—Including such indicators as literacy, primary industries for employment, attendance of English classes, geographical distribution for immigrant residents, participation in political process.

6. Industry—Businesses and manufacturers located in the city, percentage of the population employed in factories, presence of vocational training, library presence in factories and manufacturing plants (via signage, special programs, etc.), library collections relevant to local business and commerce.

7. Health—Presence of a board of health, publication of important health reports and communications, presence of private researchers or others who study health-related concerns, presence of disease and illness prevention educational campaigns, presence of a hospital, presence of a visiting nurse service.

8. Child Welfare—Presence of child welfare and related agencies, provision of materials related to child welfare, participation by local medical professionals in prevention and educational programs.

9. Charity—Presence of charitable organizations, cooperation of these organizations with the library for educational purposes.

10. Schools—Number of public schools in the area, how close the schools are to a library, presence of libraries in the schools and their condition, number of teachers in the community, public library presence in the schools through special programs, bookmobile and librarian visits, presence of vocational, parochial and private schools, presence of college, university or special libraries in the area, use of public libraries by college and university students for research.

11. Churches—Number of churches in the city, use of the libraries by Sunday school teachers and missionary societies, use of the libraries by ministers and other members of the clergy, use of the libraries by young people’s religious groups.

12. Clubs—Presence of women’s clubs, use of clubs by the library, presence of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and use of the library.

13. Newspapers—Number of newspapers published in the area, publication languages, editorial stance towards the library.

14. Book stores—Opportunities for private buyers, number of bookstores in the area, quality of children’s books selection.

15. Recreation—Presence of theater, little league, drama club, amusement parks, movie theaters, and playgrounds; library story hours at local playgrounds, local celebrations including parades and festivals, library participation in local celebrations.

16. Municipal government—Size of the city council, how well city council members know the library, attitude of the mayor towards the library, budget and fiscal management processes, library provision of reading materials to jails, police and fire stations.

17. Situation of the library—Where the library is located and impact on use.

18. Extension work—Impact of the library on areas outside of the local geographic boundaries.

    (Stingly, 1919, pp. 158–61)

While information in each of these areas might be gathered via surveys and questionnaires, the ideal method would be active observation, over a period of time, as well as participation by the librarians on some level to provide a sense of context and meaning. The interaction of residents with each of these structures and the impacts on their lives would reveal the richest data.

The library is but one small component of today’s information environment, and the average user/consumer probably prefers more immediate access to information via the Internet. Another reason that ethnographic approaches might be even more relevant today is the growing disparate nature of information users. It is becoming increasingly difficult to categorize users and forecast the types of services, resources, and information systems they might need now and in the future; even more recent trends for predicting and categorizing user interaction behavior, such as the use of personas in interface design (Dantin, 2005) are fading. Evans (1976) alluded to this as well when he explained the usefulness of the community analysis when trying to provide services for a complex community (1976, p. 443).

Another concept rarely mentioned in the library or information science research literature, but closely related to ethnographic research, is that of naturalistic inquiry. Mellon (1986) writes, “research in library science has, for many years, meant quantitative research, an objective method of study which seeks facts and causes generalizable from one situation to another” (p. 349). “While much has been learned using these methods, the fact remains that not all questions in library science can be quantified” (p. 349). The author goes on to suggest that librarians “explore the flexibility and humanist perspective of naturalistic inquiry” (p. 349). The inherent philosophical differences between naturalistic inquiry and quantitative inquiry often lead to misunderstandings about the validity of naturalistic studies (p. 349), but Mellon cautions that these disagreements are actually born out of not understanding the naturalistic approach. Mellon (1986) clarifies the goal of naturalistic inquiry, to provide “in-depth, descriptive answers” (p. 349) to the question of social phenomenon characteristics, with the aim of “understanding the phenomenon rather than controlling it” (p. 350).

Klopfer (2004) also addresses the role of ethnography in library research, and stresses the importance of looking at the library within the context of the community, stating that “library studies would benefit from broader ethnographic research that places libraries in communities and societies” (2004, p. 106). Klopfer defines library-related ethnography as “an approach that takes into account the holistic, systematic nature of institutions, and one that explores meaning within a social structure. Locating meaning within a special structure is particularly important in order to avoid the risk of a vaguely “cultural” study that, having no context, easily falls into essentialist, teleological pseudo-explanations along the lines of ‘they do it because it is their culture’ “ (Klopfer, 2004, p. 106).

Examples of recent ethnographic research in library environments

There has been a recent growing interest in ethnographic research within information environments such as libraries. Much of the literature presents research done in academic library settings, but there is also similar work being done in other types of library environments (see the Rural Uganda Library study below). This interest crosses disciplinary boundaries; for instance, the 2009 American Anthropological Association 108 th Annual Meeting had as one of its themes “Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography,” with several high-profile presenters and a number of presentations from libraries currently involved in their own ethnographic projects. A few examples of some recent applications of the ethnographic approach are listed below. It should be noted that although many of these projects utilize methods of observation, data collection, analysis, and documentation that are commonly used within ethnographic fieldwork, not all produce an actual ethnography at the project’s end.

Preschoolers’ use of public libraries

In 1996, McKechnie conducted a study of 30 preschool girls in order to document their public library use. The author reveals that one of the main reasons for using an ethnographic approach had to do with the audience: “Because of their dependence on language and interpersonal relationships, interviews are not suitable for use with preschoolers. Similarly, as very young children are unable to read, written questionnaires are of no use for data collection either” (2000, p. 62). The study used three different means of data collection: audiorecording of children’s naturally occurring talk, participant observation, and diary keeping by key informants/ observers (McKechnie, 2000, p. 62). The study generated more than 2,000 pages of data, and the author states that “analysis of the data allowed me to construct a detailed, rich picture of what preschool girls actually do while at the library and while using library materials at home as well as to identify some of the impacts, including learning opportunities, provided by library services and collections” (2000, p. 72).

Anthropologist in the library: helping librarians support student success

This study, which began in 2009, received a large grant to hire an anthropologist to design and conduct an ethnographic study of how students at Illinois Wesleyan University work, with a specific emphasis on how they use the library. A diverse team utilized photo journals, ethnographic videos, mapping exercises, and interviews to collect data. The project is expected to take two years to complete, and the results are to be used to help improve library outreach and services (Anthropology and the Ames Library, 2009).

California State University Fresno Henry Madden Library ethnographic study

This research also sought to investigate the use and meaning of the library to students on its campus. Student behavior and conceptions of things like “reference” and “library resources” were studied. A variety of methods were used including observation, interviews, and photo journaling (American Anthropological Association, 2009).

The MIT student photo diary study

This 2006 study used photographs to document students’ information-seeking behaviors, and followed ethnographic guidelines for their analysis. The aim of the study was to use found information about research behaviors in order to design the library’s information services and systems to be more supportive of research needs. The project “generated 275 distinct information-seeking tasks used by students” (Gabridge, Gaskell and Stout, 2008).

The University of Rochester Libraries study of undergraduates

This is perhaps the most widely known academic library-related ethnographic study to date, and certainly the study that provided the framework for the other academic library ethnographic studies mentioned in this list. Foster and Gibbons (2007) explained the impetus for the study in the introduction to the book Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester: “The library staff wanted to do more to reach students and their instructors in support of the university’s educational mission. But to do more we realized we needed to know more about today’s undergraduate students—their habits, the academic work they are required to do, and their library-related needs. In particular, we were interested in how students write their research papers and what services, resources, and facilities would be most useful to them” (Foster and Gibbons, 2007, p. v). The project had as one of its hallmarks the participation of an integrated team of librarians, IT specialists, designers, and an anthropologist to lead the study. The researchers spent time in student dormitories, changed reference hours to be more in line with student hours (i.e., very, very late nights), had students document their own living and studying environments by taking Polaroid photos, interviewed faculty about their expectations of students, conducted impromptu interviews with and surveys of students outside of the library, and created tracking/mapping diaries of the physical places where students spent their time. The immersion of the researchers in the lives of the students was a key element in this study. To date, a monograph, many workshops and presentations have resulted from the study.

Rutgers University Libraries student behaviors and website redesign study

Modeled after the Rochester study, the Rutgers study (Rutgers University Libraries, 2009) used an ethnographic approach to redesign the library’s website. An anthropologist was hired to lead a mixed team of librarians, students, systems staff, and administrators through the process of designing and implementing an ethnographic study. The study focused on how graduates, undergraduates, and faculty used the library website, and, more importantly, how their research habits influence their work and the use of the library’s resources. The study and resulting design work are still underway. More about the Rutgers study can be found in Chapters 6 and 9.

Uganda rural village library study

This longitudinal study is an example of library-based ethnographic field research set in a remote, developing area of the world. Researchers have been studying the impact of rural village libraries on the lives of villagers in rural Uganda since 2004 (Dent and Yannotta, 2005; Dent, 2006a, 2006b, 2007). The work includes extended stays in the village, and participation in the lives of the residents on a variety of levels. The study is a more typical model of traditional ethnographic field research. More about the Uganda study can be found in Chapter 8.

Ethnographic research in information systems design and evaluation

The use of ethnographic and other similar qualitative research approaches for information systems research is not new, but is not often used. Myers (1999) suggests that “ethnographic research is well suited to providing information systems researchers with rich insights into the human, social, and organizational aspects of information systems” (1999, p. 2). Myers also suggests that the transformation of information systems and the growing focus on the end user’s social, behavioral, and organizational contexts make the ethnographic approach most appropriate (1999, p. 4). Walsham (1995) refers to the emergence of ethnographic research as “an important strand in information systems research” (p. 75). Harvey and Myers (1995) add: “Because ethnography deals with actual practices in real world situations, it allows for relevant issues to be explored and frameworks to be developed which can be used by both practitioners and researchers” (1995, p. 18).

More broadly, some scholars advocate for the “role of anthropology as a source discipline for information systems” (Avison and Myers, 1995, p. 43), highlighting the inherent connection between information technology and organizational culture. Olson (1982) and Schein (1984) are perhaps two of the better-known scholars to explicate this relationship. How users of technology make sense of the world around them, their cultures, their organizations, and the extent to which information technology plays a role in this sense-making is clearly akin to anthropological studies of culture, meaning, and symbolism.

Ethnographic research for information systems has been discussed in the literature by a number of researchers (Prasad, 1997; Harvey, 1997; Suchman, 1987; Myers, 1997; Pettigrew, 1985; Preston, 1991; Davies, 1991; Randall et al., 1999; Wynn, 1991; Lee, 1991; Harvey and Myers, 1995). Orlikowski (1991) studied a large software company, where she spent eight months immersing herself in the culture. Her ethnography is frequently referenced in the information systems literature when referring to ethnographic research application. In the early 1990s, researchers in the United Kingdom used an ethnographic approach to study the habits of air traffic controllers, with the end goal of informing the design of an air traffic control information system (Bentley et al., 1992). The researchers reveal how ethnographic studies helped them “gain an understanding of the cooperative processes of air traffic control and how this understanding has influenced the design of our prototype software system” (1992, p. 124). “During this study, software engineers, an ethnographer, a sociologist, and air traffic controllers worked collaboratively to identify the various elements of teamwork critical to air traffic control, including the type of conversations and talk around the suite, the type of activities performed, and “the stories and anecdotes told” (1992, p. 126). Most importantly, the researchers discuss how the ethnographic approach helped to challenge some widely held but inaccurate beliefs about air traffic controller behavior, which in turn had a positive impact on the systems design.

More recently, Hartmann et al. (2009) described several information system architecture, engineering, and construction projects that utilized ethnographic methods to inform the development of these systems. The authors provide an in-depth overview of an “ethnographic-action research cycle for the development of an information system” (2009, p. 57). They credit the iterative nature of this process with helping developers to create a more robust and responsive system (2009, p. 66).

What makes the findings from these projects so different from those revealed via non-ethnographic approaches? The data gathered for each of these projects are unique in that they are the result of observation done in natural, real-life settings. Typically, these very rich data reveal insights, a way to see inside, that are not “visible” via conventional methods. An example of a finding from the Rochester study illustrates this point perfectly. Librarians asked students to take pictures that were representative of their lives as students. Below is the description of one of their most interesting revelations.

In one instance, it was the absence of something that caught our attention. In photographs showing “all the stuff you take to class,” we observed that laptops were not included, even though students had laptops. So, we noted it down without understanding why, until the mapping diaries, with more data about students’ days, provided an answer. That is when we discovered how itinerant students were during the day, carrying what they needed for long stretches. They covered a lot of territory, and it simply was not practical for most to include a laptop along with all the other things they brought to classes. Instead, laptops came out when students planned to be in one place for a while to do their work, such as in the library at night. (Foster and Gibbons, 2007, pp. 46, 47)

The researchers stressed that these photo surveys and diaries allowed students to share “details about their lives in a way that conventional interviews alone could not achieve” (Foster and Gibbons, 2007, p. 47).

In the ethnographic research project to inform the design of an air traffic control system (Bentley et al., 1992), researchers also found that this type of approach produced novel findings: “Our ethnographic observations revealed that the manual manipulation of flight strips and the manual re-ordering of the flight strip racks were significant activities” (1992, p. 128). As a result, the design prototype incorporated a number of decisions which reflected this discovery.

McKechnie (2000) also highlights findings that were exclusive to the ethnographic orientation of the research. Girls’ use of public libraries was framed primarily by the continued use of library materials at home, the sharing of these materials with other family members, and the reading of these materials over and over (McKechnie, 2000). All of these observations were made and recorded by the mothers of the young girls in diaries provided as part of the study. Again, this is not the type of information and subsequent finding that could be easily gleaned from a survey or even from an interview.

Balancing quantitative and qualitative approaches to library research

In many library settings, research is often conducted by the gathering of quantitative data that are later interpreted by library staff and translated into action items—changes and improvements to services, collections, and facilities that can be acted upon. Increasingly, library users are in search of better user experiences—improvements that cannot be communicated via survey or statistical data. As Mellon (1986) suggests, not all answers within the library environment are quantifiable. Typical approaches to data gathering within library environments are surveys, both home-grown and commercial products such as LibQual, door counts, print circulation statistics, and electronic resource use statistics. Surveys are particularly popular—as of 2007, the LibQual survey has been given to approximately a million library users (LibQual, 2009) at more than a thousand libraries.LibQual features both quantitative feedback and open-ended questions, which yield qualitative data. However, librarians readily share that even surveys such as this fall short when it comes to providing a comprehensive and true understanding of user needs in relation to library service and quality.

Is it really possible to have both a conceptual and practical understanding of user needs, and to then translate those ideas into tangible service improvements? Integrating quantitative approaches such as surveys and statistical data gathering with observational approaches such as those common in ethnographic research may yield interesting and useful results. Librarians and others interested in research to improve library and information services may want to consider a survey first, to highlight areas for further investigation, followed by targeted field studies. These field studies might include observation of users, impromptu discussions with users about their work and use of the library, focus groups, more formal interviews with users, and the collection of user “artifacts” such as photographs of where users work, where they travel on campus (for academic libraries), and their research “diaries.” Each of these methods has been used in the examples of ethnographic library projects mentioned earlier in this chapter. Not only are these methods sometimes the perfect research complement to quantitative data; they are often far more engaging and stimulating, and yield much richer data than survey answers or figures alone.

Users tend to find ways to create better experiences for themselves; thus, consistent observation is a very important component for those working in libraries. What types of “workarounds” do users come up with when something does not work? Where do different groups of users tend to congregate in the library? Do users tend to move the furniture in the library around, no matter how many times librarians put it back? How many times on average does a user leave his or her seat in the library, and why? Are there certain areas in the public library where parents feel more comfortable letting young children explore? Are there areas where the children appear to be more relaxed and ready to read? These behaviors are best observed, and sometimes the best ideas for great change can come from these simple observations.

Implications and challenges

Van Maanen (1979) writes: “Ethnographic research is guided as much by drift as design and is perhaps the source of far more failures than successes. Assuming an ethnographic stance is by no means a guarantee that one will collect accurate and theoretically useful data no matter how long one remains in the field” (p. 539).

Conducting any type of methodological research within a busy library or information setting can be a challenge. For many organizations, in-depth research of this type is just not possible. Another real challenge is the appropriate selection and application of ethnographic methods, which can easily be confused with other similar approaches such as ethnomethodology. The greatest part of research done in libraries and information settings is trying to address some problem, or improvement, on behalf of the user. Thus, it is important for information service organizations to evaluate the appropriateness of an ethnographic approach for their environment before embarking on related studies. Klein and Myers (1999) provide guidelines for the use of qualitative methods in the area of information systems evaluation that might be relevant for other information settings as well. The authors ask several questions. Is the output—the ethnography—a contribution to the field? Does the author offer rich insights? Has a significant amount of material been collected? Is there sufficient information about the research methods being used? (Myers, 1999, pp. 11, 12).

In perhaps the most rigorous discussion of the use and misuse of ethnographic research methods in library and information science (LIS) research is the Library Quarterly article by Sandstrom and Sandstrom (1995). The article challenges the sometimes misguided application of anthropologic methods within LIS research, and offers some suggestions for staying true to the form. The authors state: “Various disciplines and professional fields along with LIS have moved to embrace qualitative and field-observational methods, including communications, biomedical informatics, educational research, organizational research and political science” (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, 1995, p. 162). They go on to add that, “unfortunately, the antiscientific values that underlie much of LIS writing on the subject promise to rob qualitative methods of their considerate power to elucidate social processes” (1995, p. 162). The failure of the profession to apply ethnographic methods with the appropriate consideration of both philosophical and scientific inquiry frameworks is summarized by the authors as five distinct issues: scientific versus nonscientific traditions; the distinction between emic and etic perspectives; the artificial divide between qualitative and quantitative techniques; inductive vs. deductive research strategies; and the challenges of portraying real people with scientific reports (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, 1995, p. 161). These tensions have not been addressed or resolved within information science, according to the authors, who caution, “Unfortunately, when methods and conceptual frameworks are translated from one discipline to another, their rationale is sometimes lost in the process. This loss of rationale has clearly been the case when LIS researchers have adopted qualitative, and, in particular, ethnographic methods. It is interesting that in the growing body of LIS scholarship dealing with qualitative research practice, publications on methodology written by anthropologists are rarely cited” (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, 1995, p. 163). The article goes on to suggest a variety of solutions to these challenges.

This article was written in 1995, and a quick scan of more current LIS literature does indeed feature references to some anthropological literature (Klein and Myers, 1999; Avison and Myers, 1995; McKechnie, 2000), so perhaps the profession is becoming more mindful of incorporating not just stand-alone methods, but recognizing the importance of disciplinary foundations as well.

The ethnographic approach can be a most rewarding experience, and one that provides data not able to be gathered by any other means. It also comes with a number of considerations that must be evaluated before any action is taken, including, as Sandstrom and Sandstrom (1995) suggest, a more rigorous alignment with the scientific foundations of the method. For those who are interested in investigating new methods for conducting research with the end goal of improving information systems, user services, outreach, and user experience, it may certainly be worth a further look.


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