Ethnography and Information

Coming from a background deeply rooted in cultural anthropology—that is, ethnomusicology—I find ethnography to be an important research technique. Ethnography has drawbacks and there are major representational challenges and questions about ethnography as a method, but I’ll save those for another place and time. So, I was excited to see a post on Hack Library School about ethnography’s utility for studies in libraries.

There are a lot of ways to talk about ethnography. Ethnography can refer to a mode of presenting research (it literally refers to how you write about culture) as well as a research method. Basically, ethnography encompasses activities by researchers who say, “Hey, let’s actually go and see what’s going on in this place or among these people, ask about what they’re doing, write it down, analyze it, then write some more.” Lots of people talk about it as doing participatory observation (that comes from Malinowski) or semi-structured interviews (perhaps a bit more sociological). Both are possible techniques, but anthropologists and other ethnographers do a lot of different things. Clifford Geertz described ethnographic methods as “deep hanging out” (1988), and Michael Agar describes ethnographers as “professional strangers” who are often investigating unfamiliar situations among people they do not know. I’m partial to Barbara Tedlock’s suggestion of “observant participation,” which suggests the researcher’s inalienable active role in the process. This is only a smattering of phrases with no particular synthesis. I just throw them out there.

The point is, I’m happy to see that ethnography has become at least a topic of interest, if not a standard approach, to researchers in libraries and other information areas, and it seems to be gaining traction. Ashley Wescott writes,

there is tremendous professional value in going out into the field and getting our hands dirty. Ethnographic study and fieldwork can help us with library service in a similar way–it’s another intersection for theory and practice. We can’t just depend on the data, trends and research reported by others to give us an accurate view of the people we serve. Taking a deep dive into the culture of our community can help us appreciate and understand the people we work for while providing on-target, authentic service.

One of my favorite things about Ashley’s post is that she begins with Alan Lomax and ethnomusicology! It’s not often that ethnomusicology is pointing the way, so it’s exciting to see that happening here.

Ethnography is an approach that could also be useful to help understand how people do research in archives. I’m currently using ethnographic (and other qualitative) methods to understand how researchers make use of materials in sound archives, and particularly on account of the methods, I’m very excited about the possibilities of this research. Another notable project is ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries), which combined expertise of anthropologists and librarians to look at how undergraduates use research resources in university libraries. The project illustrates the wide variety of methods that can be used in an ethnographic project. More detailed reports from the ERIAL project are available through the Academic Commons.

Note: I previously contributed Hack Library School‘s roundup post of student experiences at the SAA 2011 meeting edited by Rose Chou.

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