Chapter 7: What about us? Using qualitative methods to explore the library as workplace – Qualitative Research and the Modern Library


What about us? Using qualitative methods to explore the library as workplace


This chapter explores how qualitative workplace research can inform service and practice within library settings. Ethnographic workplace studies from other environments are discussed.

Key words

workplace research

qualitative interviews

technology adoption

ethnographic approach

Various strategies to study and hopefully improve library and information services and settings for users by applying qualitative approaches have so far been discussed at length in this book. In every library and information setting, the staff are an integral part of the enterprise, and this chapter will explore ways in which qualitative approaches might be used to learn more about the environments that librarians work in, their work practices, interaction and collaboration structures, and beliefs and attitudes, in their natural environments.

Researchers in a variety of areas have used qualitative approaches to learn more about employees in the workplace. This is particularly true in the health sciences (Nilsson et al., 2005; Ivarsson and Nilsson, 2009). Work environments such as adult entertainment (Grandy, 2008; Lian et al., 2000; Bruckert, 2002); day labor (Ahonen et al., 2009); social work (Chanmugam, 2009); and psychology (Sturgeon and Morrissette, 2010) have also been studied. Researchers have even studied the impact of the qualitative interview itself on workers’ job performance (Butterfield et al., 2009). Workplace ethnographies are commonly found in the anthropological and sociological literature, including titles such as Royal Blue, the Culture of Construction Workers (Applebaum, 1981); Team Toyota: Transplanting the Toyota Culture to the Camry Plant in Kentucky (Besser, 1996); The Scalpel’s Edge: The Culture of Surgeons (Katz, 1998); and Inside Nursing: A Critical Ethnography of Clinical Nursing Practice (Street, 1992).

The use and adoption of workplace technology are another area that has been extensively explored, in many cases using qualitative approaches. For instance, Bradner et al. (1999) explored the use of chat in the workplace; and Stiroh (2008) and Bartel et al. (2007) examined the impact of technology on productivity. Examples of qualitative studies of the library/ information service workplace and profession are not as numerous. Stover (2000) collected qualitative survey data from librarians about their attitudes regarding the impact of the Internet. Montiel-Overall (2008) looked at librarian-teacher collaboration within the context of a qualitative study, and Boon (2006) studied the female experience of librarians at small community libraries using case studies and categorical analysis. Shachak et al. (2007) explored medical librarians’ adoption of bioinformatics tools using exploratory interviews and content analysis of the data; and Ameen (2008) explored book acquisition in Pakistan and coded interview data using categorical analysis. Walter (2006, 2008) explored the professional identity of librarians, and Marshall et al. (2009) used qualitative methods to examine what factors influence librarians’ professional career choices.

What are some of the reasons for studying the internal working world and workplace culture of librarianship and libraries? Hodson (2004) suggests that workplace ethnographies, for instance, can reveal the “effects of organizational characteristics on employee attitudes and behaviors” (p. 4). It may sound like somewhat of an indulgence—there is barely enough time to conduct user-focused research, let alone research that is introspective, in most library settings. However, developing a better understanding of work practice, interaction and collaboration patterns, beliefs and attitudes may actually help librarians and those working in libraries to be more effective. Workplace research is conducted for a variety of reasons. Randall and Rouncefield (2000) suggest that the “analysis of work” involves the investigation of socially organized human activities and the patterns of interaction and collaboration. Evaluating the emotional and psychological impacts of any given job can be key in terms of discovering and alleviating factors that interfere with productivity. A good example is the ethnography Juggling Food and Feelings: Emotional Balance in the Workplace (Gatta, 2002), where the author explored the emotional landscape of women in the restaurant industry. Employees who work in high-stress environments, such as air traffic controllers and surgeons, tend to suffer higher rates of burnout and mind-body illnesses, and these populations have been the subject of myriad ethnographic workplace studies as well (Baker, 1985; Cooper et al., 1986; Grandjean et al., 1971). The findings from qualitative workplace studies may help improve the motivation, productivity, health, and wellbeing of workers. These studies may also help gauge readiness for and reactions to organizational change (Cunningham et al., 2002).

Adoption of technology (Morris and Venkatesh, 2000) by workers is an area that has a lot of research appeal, especially given the role of technology in society. Researchers have used case studies, field studies, and diary studies to explore technology adoption in elderly populations (Selwyn, 2004), health care workers (Lu et al., 2005), and millennials (Grinter and Palen, 2002). This topic might be particularly relevant in library and information settings (Rabina and Walczyk, 2007; Ramzan, 2004; Kahan, 1997), although the literature reveals few studies, qualitative or otherwise. “Research regarding adoption, rejection, and dissonance of technology by librarians is scarce. Much of the research regarding innovativeness and diffusion of library technology has focused on library patrons such as faculty or students” (Rabina and Walczyk, 2007). Librarians’ adoption of technology can impact instruction, reference, and administrative activities. Qualitative studies might be structured to capture different aspects of technology adoption. Video diaries might be used to document librarians’ adoption of new instructional technology such as Moodle or Sakai. Diaries might explore their experiences with new repository technology, and qualitative interviews might be used to find out more about library administrators’ decision-making processes in times of technological transition.

A trend or development that has been examined on an exploratory level in the literature is a good candidate for further qualitative study, assuming the topic is relevant for a particular library. For instance, Burnette and Dorsch (2006), Peters et al. (2003), Scollin et al. (2006), Shipman and Morton (2001), and Smith (2002) discuss the widespread use of PDAs by librarians in medical libraries. However, none of these studies made use of collected qualitative data to better understand the phenomenon. Certainly, in environments where librarians and library staff continue to use PDAs for work-related activities, and increasingly devices such as the iPad and iPhone, learning more about the impact on collaboration, interaction patterns, and daily activity in the librarians’ natural environment might be eye-opening. These are just a few examples of areas of interest found in the literature. Librarians will have to judge for themselves which topics are relevant and meaningful to their own work environments.


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