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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.


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1 comment on “Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries

  1. Pingback: Community-Based Participatory Research in Libraries: Reevaluating the researcher’s role in research – The Librarian Parlor

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