A picture of a table with a notebook and pen
LibParlor Contributor

Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries

Shannon, our newest LibParlor Contributor, discusses using ethnography methods for a research project she conducted.

Shannon is Scholarly Communications Liaison at Rice University’s Fondren Library. She manages Rice’s faculty open access policy and collaborates with groups across campus to address a number of diverse scholarly communications issues, including copyright and author rights, new publishing models, and increasing the visibility of research.

I recently wrapped up a research project in which I utilized ethnographic methods to learn more about publishing activities on my campus. To be honest, I didn’t put much thought into research design. Rather, I was drawn to ethnographic methods because I knew they were common in library research and was impressed by a colleague’s recent project. Looking back, I wish I had taken more time to dig into ethnography and ethnographic methods in library research and consider if it was the best fit for my project. Below, I provide a brief overview of ethnographic research in academic libraries and offer suggestions for others considering ethnographic projects.

Ethnographic methods in library research

Ethnography can be defined as an “approach to discovering and investigating social and cultural patterns and meaning in communities, institutions, and other social settings.” With origins in anthropology, ethnographic work is now cross-disciplinary and is often carried out over time using a variety of methods for data collection, including participant observation, interviews, mapping, or surveys. Projects are often designed without definitive timelines or outcomes to allow study participants to drive the project.

Because librarians often want to identify user needs and understand how users engage with the library, ethnographic methods seem a natural fit for many library projects. Ethnographic work has been conducted in libraries for decades but has experienced a significant increase in the past decade. A survey of literature on academic libraries reveals that ethnographic projects are wide-ranging. The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) project was a two-year multi-institutional project that sought to understand how students do research and how faculty and librarians shape that process. Libraries–like those at Colby College and Penn State— have also sought to understand how faculty and other researchers manage their own research process. Others have mapped how students navigate their academic and personal lives or digital practices to identify how the library fits in. Ethnographic methods have also been incorporated into learning activities to enhance both new student and visitor library orientations. Other projects have sought to understand how faculty value library instruction and to evaluate retrieval methods.

Despite this development of ethnographic work as a common research method in library and information science, it should be noted that there is also a great deal of disagreement within the community. There is criticism that many of those engaging in library ethnographic projects have strayed far from the original anthropological methodology. Because many projects are short-term, narrowly-contextualized, and often repeated at several institutions, some have labeled the work done in libraries as “ethnographish.”

My project

Although my own library has a long tradition of doing ethnographic projects–often based out of our User Experience (UX) office–I had not previously considered incorporating ethnographic methods into my own projects. It wasn’t until I worked with a Fondren Fellow (library program that funds Rice undergraduate or graduate students to conduct research projects that will benefit the library and the scholarly community) on a project designed to improve our author rights services.  The Fellow leveraged his anthropology background to design a project that conducted ethnographic interviews with faculty to identify how the library can better support author rights (see the project report here). I was so impressed by the nuanced research workflow information he captured that I immediately began to explore how I could incorporate ethnographic methods into my own work. I was about to develop a research project that would help the library develop publishing services. One group I was interested in learning about was existing publishing projects on campus (e.g., student-run journals, Rice-based scholarly journal editorial offices). Through a series of semi-structured interviews, I hoped to learn about the technologies and skills required to conduct work, as well as how each project is impacted by internal and external forces. Representatives from twelve publications participated in 30-60 minute interviews. These interviews provided a wealth of information about the history and background of publications, publication workflows, and strengths and challenges. Although the nature of the interviews made it difficult to quantify responses, I was able to identify shared needs that the library may be able to meet. As a result of these interviews, we are now in the process of developing targeted resources and programming for several identified groups, including:

  • Facilitating conversations among those working on journals (e.g., editorial offices) on topics such as peer review, promoting your journal, and using the library’s DOI services.
  • Collaborating with student journal representatives and other relevant groups on campus to develop resources and training on issues such as publications workflows, copyright, promotion/outreach, writing for publication, etc.

Although these activities don’t address some of the larger issues identified by many interview participants (for example, operations budgets, office space), they do address needs that can be immediately met by the library with existing staff and resources.

Reflections and recommendations

In hindsight, there are a number of things I wish I had considered before embarking on my project. Although I consider the project a “success,” additional attention to several areas would have made it even better. Below, I offer several suggestions for others incorporating ethnographic methods into their projects:

  • Dig deep into ethnographic literature. I did do an initial literature review, but it was limited to several library practice articles. The project could have benefited from a more in-depth study of both LIS and anthropology literature because it could help me to determine which research methods best match project goals.
  • Consider if this work will need IRB approval and, if so, allow plenty of time for your request to process. Before beginning my project, I consulted with Rice’s IRB administrator to determine if IRB approval was needed. It was. So, I had to consider things like consent forms and secure storage of interview recordings and transcripts. I had gone through the process before but wasn’t prepared for delays in the approval process. Plan ahead!
  • Familiarize yourself with the community you’re studying. Ethnographic work involves studying subjects within their natural environment. In my case, it included working with participants who were engaged in publishing activities. To prepare, I tried to make sure I was familiar with general publishing terminology and workflows and took a look at each publication before an interview to familiarize myself with the work. This helped to facilitate conversation with participants.
  • Design your project to be flexible. I think that one of the benefits of ethnographic work is that the participants often help to direct the project. This may result in unanticipated results. Make sure your project plan is designed to accommodate this.
  • If possible, consider consulting with, or collaborating with, an anthropologist or someone else who has a strong background in ethnographic methods. They can help you to evaluate your chosen research methods and offer suggestions for implementation. Although such people are available to me, I didn’t reach out. I wish I had.
  • If you want to use interview transcripts, consider the time and/or cost for transcription. When designing a project with interviews, I never considered the process of transcribing the conversations. Without funding, I ended up spending months transcribing twelve 30-60 minute sessions. If I had fully thought through the project, I might have decided that rather than create full transcripts, to annotate recordings using software such as dedoose.


Antonijević, S., & Cahoy, E. S. (2014). Personal Library Curation: An Ethnographic Study of Scholars’ Information Practices. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 14(2), 287–306. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2014.0010

Asher, A., Amaral, J., Couture, J., Fister, B., Lanclos, D., Lowe, M. S., … Smale, M. (2017). Mapping Student Days: Collaborative Ethnography and the Student Experience. Collaborative Librarianship, 9(4). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.du.edu/collaborativelibrarianship/vol9/iss4/7

Asher, A., & Miller, S. (n.d.). So You Want to Do Anthropology in Your Library? or A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries. Retrieved from http://www.erialproject.org/publications/toolkit/

Godbey, S., Fawley, N., Goodman, X., & Wainscott, S. (2015). Ethnography in Action: Active Learning in Academic Library Outreach to Middle School Students. Journal of Library Administration, 55(5), 362–375. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2015.1047262 Available at https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/lib_articles/480

Goodman, V. D. (2011). Applying Ethnographic Research Methods in Library and Information Settings. Libri, 61(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1515/libr.2011.001

Khoo, M., Rozaklis, L., & Hall, C. (2012). A survey of the use of ethnographic methods in the study of libraries and library users. Library & Information Science Research, 34(2), 82–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2011.07.010

Kinsley, K. M., Schoonover, D., & Spitler, J. (2016). GoPro as an ethnographic tool: A wayfinding study in an academic library. Journal of Access Services, 13(1), 7–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/15367967.2016.1154465 Available at http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_libsubv1_scholarship_submission_1466695442

Lanclos, D. (2016). Ethnographic approaches to the practices of scholarly communication: tackling the mess of academia. Insights, 29(3). https://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.316

Lanclos, D., & Asher, A. D. (2016). “Ethnographish”: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries. Weave: Journal of Library User Experience, 1(5). http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/weave.12535642.0001.503

Manuel, K., Beck, S. E., & Molloy, M. (2005). An Ethnographic Study of Attitudes Influencing Faculty Collaboration in Library Instruction. The Reference Librarian, 43(89–90), 139–161. https://doi.org/10.1300/J120v43n89_10

Othman, R. (2004). An applied ethnographic method for evaluating retrieval features. The Electronic Library, 22(5), 425–432. https://doi.org/10.1108/02640470410561956

Pukkila, M., & Freeman, E. (2012). Faculty in the Mist: Ethnographic Study of Faculty Research Practices. Participatory Design in Academic Libraries Methods, Findings, and Implementations, 4–9. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/faculty_scholarship/18

Rosenblum, E. L. (2015). Librarians are Already in the Field: How and why to Begin Ethnographic Fieldwork. Bibliothek Forschung Und Praxis, 39(2), 138–142. https://doi.org/10.1515/bfp-2015-0016

Sandstrom, A. R., & Sandstrom, P. E. (1995). The Use and Misuse of Anthropological Methods in Library and Information Science Research. The Library Quarterly, 65(2), 161–199. https://doi.org/10.1086/602775

Schensul, S. L., LeCompte, M. D., & Schensul, J. J. (1999). Essential ethnographic methods: observations, interviews, and questionnaires. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press.

Zoellner, K., Hines, S., Keenan, T., & Samson, S. (2015). Faculty Research and Publication Practices. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 15(1), 111–131. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2015.0009

Featured image by Mohammad Davis via Pexels

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

0 comments on “Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: