Friday, July 5, 2013

ALA 2013, Ethnography, Ethnology, and Libraries

So, Chicago.  Wow, eh?

Those of you who have been to ALA know what it's like.  Apparently the 2013 meetings were even more massive than usual.  So, I have lots of thoughts, and will attempt to get some of them in this blog, but not all at once.  That would be crazy.

The first thing at the top of my head is the panel I attended on social science practices in Libraries, sponsored by ANSS.  At this point, there is a thin but widespread tradition of doing ethnographic work in libraries to inform the design and deployment of spaces and services in libraries.  I think it's clear that it's another useful method for helping us figure out what to try and why it might or might not be working--for assessment, as well as planning.

But in the discussion after the panel, one question piqued concerns that I've had for a while--that there isn't enough work out there on the structural causes for what we see in libraries (in particular, academic libraries), and, importantly, the power relationships that are shot through how and why libraries look and work the way they do now.  I would love to see someone in ILS take this on as a PhD project.  Maybe someone already has?  I think that embedded in some of our worries about access, fluencies/literacies, and informed citizenry are class, race, and gender inequities that underlie all of our society, not just the one that erupts in libraries.  Explicitly connecting those could well facilitate getting closer to more effective information landscapes for everyone.

I also think that we anthropologists working with library folk need to do a better job of bringing up the importance of ethnology in the field--that is, comparative work, not just deeply descriptive work.  Both ethnology and ethnography are necessary for effective analysis--how can we know that a problem is unique, if we have never tried to see where else this might occur, how else it might look?  How can we talk about gender constructs, for example, if we only observe and describe them in one culture?  How can we talk about student work if we only observe it in our university?  How can we reimagine librarianship in the absence of comparative data?  There are comparative projects out there--ERIAL was one in that it was more than one university, and PIL is certainly trying, in a North American context.  There are international presentations in the ALA2013 program, discussions about issues in libraries in Africa, for example, and this poster session about librarianship in Germany.   (apologies to those for whom those links will not work--you might need an ALA password to see the program)

As anthropologists, each of us working in library-land need to encourage people engaging in qualitative work to look beyond the confines of their own institutions, and even borrow from insights gained in other research.  Ethnology helps us not just triangulate, sorting the unique from the widespread, the structural from the individual, it can also helps us realize (from a policy perspective) we are not alone, there are solutions and suggestions to be gathered from the experiences of other institutions.  My own small project at UCL's Institute of Archaeology was an attempt to try this, and I hope to continue.

That is, we don't need to encourage everyone to do their own full blown ethnography project.  We do need to try, those of us engaged in such work, to network and speak and collect our data and insights so that they can be considered, critiqued, added to, refined, and acted upon by a larger group.  I am frequently in the "better living through anthropology" camp, and this is no exception, but ethnography is not the same as anthropology.  It's one methodological piece, one analytical angle.  Library-land can benefit from borrowing much more.  We should encourage them to do so.  And support them as they do.


  1. Donna, I love that you posted about this, as I was just at this session as well! I have an anthro MA and am working internationally as I study for the MLS.

    I'd love to be working on something comparative across library cultures -- but it's frankly lonely and challenging to navigate without peers. I think it would be incredibly powerful if an LIS or anthro grad program could gather a set of students to fan out and study library/information cultures around the world. As you say, that wide/deep comparative aspect would be so powerful, and I think that's part of what we're missing in anthrolib research today.

    1. Celia, thanks! I know there is comparative work out there, and I understand how hard it can be without a substantial peer group. I would encourage you to do the work anyway--it's so worthwhile. And, interesting!

  2. I'm really glad I came across a link to this on twitter. I did my undergraduate in Anthropology, and I am now doing a masters in LIS while working as a public library manager in the UK, and I’m constantly amazed at how little anthropological work I can find about libraries.

    I would be very interested seeing how a collaborative project would work and develop and even taking part in one if possible. I would also support what Celia said about the need for peers to help encourage those interested in this sort of work.

    I will be keeping an eye on this site now I have found it, and look forward to seeing what develops.

    1. Jonas, thanks for your interest! Please keep in touch, I think there is so much fun and interesting qualitative work to do within and around libraries (and academia).

    2. Jonas, I wonder if there's a space within the anthrolib discussion board to begin drawing together stray students to discuss ideas and share materials and perspectives with more experienced anthrolibs. Who knows - could be a lot of fun to draw together an informal online seminar!

  3. Celia and Jonas, anyone who wants to bring me over to help facilitate discussion is more than welcome to do so. ;) And, in the absence of that, I'd love to hear how it all goes.


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