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.

Support the Center for Black Music Research

A recent report that ironically proposes to “increase resources” at Columbia College in Chicago actually proposes to lower the quality of research and academic infrastructure at the College by eliminating funding for the world-renowned Center for Black Music Research (CBMR). The news was publicized in a Chicago Tribune article earlier this week, and many in the sound archives and musicology communities are gathering support for the Center. Here is an excerpt of a blog post by musicologist Fredara Mareva, “Help Save the Center for Black Music Research”:

Yesterday, Howard Reich (@howardreich) wrote an Chicago Tribune article that informed us that the CBMR at Columbia College in Chicago is slated for elimination as a part of a plan to “increase resources.” Dr. Louise Love, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Interim Provost, is responsible for proposing a cost-saving plan that will help offset the school’s decreasing enrollment. The irony is that enrollment in Columbia College’s music program is increasing while the rub is that the CBMR is not housed in its music department, but in its Office of Academic Research. A final decision about the CBMR’s future will not be made until June 2012, but now is the time to voice your support for its important work. . . .

I fervently encourage you to join us in a letter writing campaign to show support for the work of the CBMR. Please take a moment to send a note of support for the CBMR and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble to the following:

Dear President Carter:

This is my letter in support of the preservation of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. I am gravely concerned about the proposed plan to eliminate the CBMR, which would eliminate access to invaluable resource that document the evolution of African American music. Its contribution to knowledge includes on campus Columbia College students and extends to all of us who appreciate the history of African-derived music from around the world. There is no other organization that provides the comprehensive level of research and programming that CBMR does. I believe that the access they provide to rare recordings and collections is an important cultural service that needs to be preserved.


Please send to:

Dr. Warrick Carter, Ph.D.
President of Columbia College

Prioritization Team responsible for making recommendations to the President:

Read Mareva’s full post here and Howard Reich’s article here.

Acts of Transfer

What is “performance,” and how can it inform and be understood better in the context of the historical expressive cultures of the Americas? These are questions at the heart of Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire (Duke U. Press, 2003).[] More fundamental, at least for the moment and for the archivist, is the distinction that she makes between archives and the “repertoire.” One might briefly understand this distinction as an epistemic separation between knowledge as fixed and knowledge is/as acted/done. In other words, a focus on performance, in Taylor’s terms, suggests a shift of focus in knowledge structures (epistemes) from written to embodied culture.

Taylor draws a contrast between embodied and disembodied ways of transmitting knowledge. Thus, performances become embodied “acts of transfer.” These are stories, songs, dances, habits, customs, and other bits that communicate and preserve ways of being. In other words, performances function to transmit “social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated, or what Richard Schechner has called ‘twice-behaved behavior'” (2–3). We often use performance in ontological ways, for example in saying “That was a great performance!” after attending a concert. This essentially affirms and defines a portion of time just cowitnessed with others as a coherent and definite event. On the other hand, performance has come to be applied as a methodological lens that allows bits of behaviors to be analyzed as performances. Thus, gender, ethnicity, and identity come to be “performed” (as in Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everday Life [1959]).

Crucial to Taylor’s position is that performance constitutes a valid way of knowing. “We learn and transmit knowledge through embodied action, through cultural agency, and by making choices. Performance, for me, functions as an episteme, way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis” (xvi). This body of knowing, which Taylor describes as the repertoire, is inherently “nonarchival” (vxii). Pressuring this distinction, Taylor asks, “is performance that which disappears, or that which persists” (xvii)? This questions the warrant of written, “archival” knowledge, which is constructed as fixed and policed (by the writers and the archivists) as the more reliable. The importance of the question deals, in fact, with the construction and control of knowledge: “If performance did not transmit knowledge, only the literate and powerful could claim social memory and identity” (ibid).

Taylor pits fixed against fluid knowledges. I’d like to propose an alternative viewpoint. Rather than opposing the repertoire of performance with the contents of an archive, might we not join the two? In Taylor’s terms, might it not be possible to bring the archive within the “performatic space”—that is, a space that is not only constructed through discourse and logocentrism? At a presentation at the 2011 conference of the Association for Asian Studies, I suggested that one might define an archives as that which transmits knowledge across a timespan.[1] This line of thought expands on and stems from Jeannette Bastian’s suggestion that “cultural performances” (a term borrowed from Milton Singer) may be considered as archival records.[2] The goal is to pluralize the way that we think about what is “in” an archives and where we might draw the boundaries of an “archives.” Deep understandings of cultural “bits” (i.e., those strips of twice-behaved behavior, and likewise the sheets of paper in many archives) require multiple and varied understandings as well as interpretation by multiple individuals. Thus, by understanding archival as a function, we begin to see that many things, not just an organization’s or individual’s noncurrent papers, we might construct more culturally meaningful archives that speak to and empower communities.

Numbers in parentheses throughout this post refer to this book’s print edition.
1Museums, libraries, and schools also do this, but emphasize various areas such as display, access, and education respectively. In contrast, archives emphasize preservation. This is, of course, slightly different than the “official” definition put forth by the Society of American Archivists.
2Jeannette Bastian, “‘Play Mas’: Carnival in the Archives and the Archives in Carnival: Records and Community Identity in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Archival Science 9:113–125.

Blogging Around

SAA 2011 Conference LogoLast week I attended the Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting—colloquially known as SAA. (Oh, and I also presented a poster based on my research in digital video preservation and public television news archiving, which deals with the American Black Journal Collection at MATRIX.) It was interesting despite the conference being held at the Chicago Hyatt, which is currently under a boycott from workers unions and made attending the conference rather awkward for those of us who are trying to build professional contacts but also conscious of workers’ rights.

The exciting part is that I was asked by Rose L. Chou to contribute to a roundup of reflections by graduate student attendees at SAA. Thanks to Rose for inspiring me to reinvigorate the blog, at least briefly! You can read the retrospective on SAA 2011 at the Hack Library School blog. Enjoy!