I was an anthropology major in college; later I transferred to a university that did not have an anthropology major, so I switched over to sociology. I loved both anthropology and sociology. I loved Jane Goodall, and thought it would be amazing to go to other places and study animals. Above all, I loved human beings, and loved watching people, and organizations, and doing research on why people did things. Before I became a librarian, I wrote a paper in college that examined who was most likely to damage (steal/mutilate) library resources. My research showed that it was the better students–students that were under pressure to complete deadlines, and at that time, circa 1995, they didn’t have access to online resources.
So, jump forward. In 2006, I got to hear Susan Gibbons speak at the Baltimore Special Libraries Association meeting. It was about Establishing an Institutional Repository, and it was interesting. She was a solid speaker. The next year, in 2007, I came across an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education talking about an Anthropologist in the Library. Wow! This clicked–the anthropologist, Nancy Fried Foster, is at the University of Rochester along with Susan Gibbons. The concepts were fascinating: Dr. Foster had said, “”If you have been making a bunch of assumptions based on out-of-date information,” says Nancy Fried Foster, an anthropologist at the University of Rochester, “maybe it’s time to ask some people some questions.”
According to the Chronicle article, ” Several years ago, Rochester was contemplating hiring a designer to rework some of its Web sites when David Lindahl, a computer scientist who had just arrived at Rochester’s library from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, offered a suggestion: Why not hire someone to study customers and their work environments, as Xerox had when he worked there?” (FYI: an article came out in November about PARC in a Ethnography in Industry: Methods overview article in UX Magazine.)
Last Spring, I finally got to meet Nancy Foster, and worked with her through a Council on Library and Information Resources workshop in Seattle. It was brilliant. Over two days, Nancy trained us in to have an ethnography interview with a faculty member. The questions were simple, and open, and we slowly got a picture of how the researcher did his work, and how he used his office space. The Overly Caffeinated Librarian did a great blog post in 2008 about the process. Afterwards, in the back of my mind, I thought about how the library might bend or change to serve his needs, and where his needs were not being met, and what could be done. But, there, in the interview, I was present, and listened, and learned.
I love talking to scientists, and I often visit labs, and might hear about the latest work going on. But, there was a level of detail that came out in the interview that would never have come out in a conversation normally. People think process is boring sometimes, or way too much detail to talk about to a librarian. But, when we start to know HOW many papers they keep on their desktop, or where and why they bought their own copy of a book, it starts to sketch a picture about our services, and how we do things that help or hinder the research process that is invaluable.
Researchers love librarians. Librarians love researchers. So, a part of this, is just deepening the conversation that we have with each other. If the library is to remain the heart of the university, as I hope it does, this relationship has to be deep, caring, and communicative.
Ethnography is a powerful tool that helps develop those listening skills. It is a first step in gathering information to build services and design learning spaces that serve our user’s needs.