Book Review Contributing Editor

Book Review: The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship

LibParlor Contributing Editor, Grace Haynes, reviews The Self as Subject.

Book over of The Self as Subject
Image from ALA Store

In The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship, autoethnography is defined as a “qualitative, reflexive, ethnographic method where the researcher is also the subject of inquiry” (p. 2). This research method incorporates deep, critical reflection that is centered on the experiences, stories, and memories of the individual. In the introduction, Anne-Marie Deitering states that “many of the best descriptions of autoethnography focus not on what the method is, but on what the autoethnographer does” (p. 7). In the practice of autoethnography, researchers examine culture, use creative expression to show meaning, and seek to balance analysis with honest emotions.

“In the practice of autoethnography, researchers examine culture, use creative expression to show meaning, and seek to balance analysis with honest emotions.”

Furthermore, the reflective, subjective nature of autoethnography “allows voices and perspectives that are lost in aggregations of data to be heard” (p. 8). The fourteen individual chapters that follow Deitering’s introduction are highly personal, reflective, and sometimes emotional reads, offering a glimpse of each librarians’ experience on a broad range of topics. The reader is witness to great successes, mundane activities, and even deeply painful events. As Rick Stoddart aptly describes in the final chapter, “Autoethnography…is messy” (p. 351). As librarianship esteems systems and processes that create accuracy and clear definition, the boundary pushing and line blurring of this research method can be uncomfortable and challenging.

The chapter authors in this book come from a variety of areas of librarianship. Each chapter has a unique author (or group of authors) comprised of instruction librarians, technical services librarians, administrators, law librarians, and several other voices within librarianship. Some authors shared their unique perspectives through creative choices of formats not commonly associated with academic book chapters. Chapter 3, “Version Control” by Sarah Hartman-Caverly, is a dystopian short story that explores themes of privacy and censorship in the future of academic libraries. Jolanda-Pieta van Arnhem’s chapter “The Intersections of Art and Librarianship” utilizes the format of a comic book script to reflect on why art students need a librarian, as told through the narrative of a day in her life. As van Arnhem is both an artist and a librarian, this choice demonstrates yet again the distinctly personal nature of autoethnography.

“These chapters exemplify the unique capacity of autoethnography for sharing powerful stories that could otherwise go unheard in academic circles. “

White librarians should especially take time to read chapters 5, 6, and 11, authored by Derrick Jefferson, La Loria Konata, and Michele R. Santamaría, as it is crucial to recognize and reflect on the experiences of librarians of color in order to improve inclusivity in our predominantly white profession. It is important to both listen and to acknowledge the emotional labor and risk involved in these autoethnographies. In Chapter 5, “When Worlds Collide”, Derrick Jefferson reflects on an exploration of identity prompted by an interaction with a student at the research desk. The student struggled with an assignment because “my college professor is asking us to include ourselves in the assignment” (p. 106). As Jefferson considers his own identity, he asks “When you’re not white and you’re not female and you are working in a profession that is overwhelmingly so and you look as I do, what does that feel like?” (p. 106). Jefferson also discusses how working as an embedded librarian for the course Black/Gay Experiences in America brought back memories of his own experiences: “It took me years to get to where I could look myself in the mirror and look back at myself with love, and all of that came flooding back to me while working with this class” (p. 112).  Chapter 6, “Looking through a Colored Lens: A Black Librarian’s Narrative” by La Loria Konata, states “It is not enough to just get black librarians and other minorities in the building. When we are in the building, we want to be valued and recognized for our contributions” (p. 124). Konata’s chapter delves into issues of workplace culture, management, and “code-switching” (p. 116). Michele Santamaría’s chapter, “You, She, I: An Autoethnographic Exploration through Noise” examines the role and culture of noise in libraries. Santamaría furthers this conversation as she describes how seemingly nonviolent practices in libraries can result in policing: “When we tell people to be quiet or that they can’t eat in a certain area, for example, we are policing their bodies even if we ask politely. To police someone’s body in a shared space, which is something that all librarians do to a certain degree, raises a variety of pressing questions about how we use our power; we should contemplate these questions and ask ourselves if our enforcement is the same with all our patrons” (p. 227). Side note: If you want to learn about Santamaría’s writing process for this chapter, she discusses her autoethnography work in a previous LibParlor post. These chapters exemplify the unique capacity of autoethnography for sharing powerful stories that could otherwise go unheard in academic circles. As Konata writes in her conclusion to chapter 6, “…I hope my narrative gives someone food for thought to dare to begin the conversation in their library” (p. 126).

Autoethnography research methods can vary. In Chapter 1, “Admitting What I Don’t Know”, Anna Esty describes the use of a reflective journal as an “amorphous space” (p. 42) for brainstorming and reflection. Realizing the benefits of this regular, reflective practice, Esty ultimately found herself motivated to incorporate reflection into her job on a more consistent basis. Another form of journaling is seen in Chapter 4, “Finding Boomer Harding.” In this chapter, Heidi LM Jacobs divides her writing into dated journal entries that document the collaborative efforts to secure a grant for a project that preserves the materials of Boomer Harding, a black Canadian athlete. In Chapter 15, “Evaluative Criteria for Autoethnographic Research,” Robert Schroeder examines the difficulties in selecting a way for this research method to be assessed, while also considering the possibilities for its evaluation.

If a similar or additional autoethnography volume were to be released, it would benefit from even more contributions by technical services librarians. Chapter 7, “Cataloger’s Judgement and Cataloger’s Bias: On Live Experience and Metadata Creation” by Erin Leach, is a strong contribution that provides a glimpse into the choices involved in the work of a cataloger.

This book holds broad appeal for library workers who may be new to research, as well as experienced researchers who are new to the methods of autoethnography. The work in this volume has motivated me to consider this research method for my own future projects, as well as think about ways to incorporate more reflective practice into my work. Autoethnography holds promise for LIS as a way to push the margins and create space for accounts and experiences that may not otherwise be told or documented.


Deitering, A., Schroeder, R., & Stoddart, R. (Eds.). (2017). The self as subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship. Chicago, IL: Association of College & Research Libraries.

Featured image by Mahendra Kumar, via Unsplash

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1 comment on “Book Review: The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship

  1. Hello Grace – Bob Schroeder here (one of the editors of this book) . Thanks so much for the insightful review!

    I totally agree with your point that more catalogers (and more of every flavor of professional identity and personal identity with in LIS) should consider the AE journey for a future research project. One of our main goals of exploring this research method was to offer it up as a choice for others. I’d love to see a series of AE volumes (Someone reading this should contact ACRL and suggest this!)

    In order to support our LIS colleagues in their AE adventures we’ve created a companion website for the book at There you’ll find links to some of the book chapters online (for free), as well as additional essays written by the chapter authors, and a list of resources for learning about how to do AE as well.

    I’ve also heard that some of the authors will be presenting at ACRL next spring. If you’re interested in learning more about AE and connecting with them look for their panel ” Where is this Story Headed? Confounding and Clarifying Library Narratives through Autoethnography” (a tentative title at one point.)


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