Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography

Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography

Presentation at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia PA

Organizer: James Mullooly (CSU-Fresno)
Chair : Henry Delcore (CSU-Fresno)

Session Date & Time:  12/04/2009, 04:00:00PM – 05:45:00PM Room: Room 408, Session ID #:  5311
Session Title: Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography

Session Abstract: Anthropology is most relevant to the public, when it improves the lives of non-anthropologists. Practicing anthropology, as a type of research done to solve practical problems with relevant stakeholders who stand to gain or lose from a project, has a long tradition outside academia. Conversely, practicing anthropology on a college campus, across disciplines is a relatively recent phenomenon. Responding to this year’s theme, the papers on this panel speak to an “academic public” comprised of non-anthropologists across college campuses. Acknowledging one potential “end” of anthropology as an independent university discipline, panelists illustrate a bright future for practicing anthropology amongst this “academic public”.

Using ethnography to empirically investigate the factors that influence human relations between each other and their environment, practicing anthropology helps provide stakeholders invested and interested in this research to adopt effective and efficient responses to the problems relevant to them. California State University Fresno’s Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) is an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in California’s Central Valley through practicing and design anthropology. By utilizing a mix of traditional and innovative methodologies, members of the IPA are able to make ethnographic approaches relevant to areas normally ignored by academic anthropology programs. The papers on this panel represent some of the latest research on usability based upon a 15 month ethnographic investigation of CSU-Fresno’s Henry Madden Library.

In the first paper, Visser presents the context of the study, illuminating the relevance and use of traditional university libraries to “21st century students”. The following two papers by Barela, Arnold and Dotson provide a detailed explication of the background and methods of this study while emphasizing the strategies involved in ascertaining emic conceptualizations of “scholarship” (Barela) and “library resources” (Arnold and Dotson) by predominantly “first generation” college students. The next pair of papers by Mullooly, Ruwe and Scroggins explore some of the initial findings and that have evolved from the Library Study in terms of student/librarian disjunctures: disjunctures of the meaning of “reference” (Mullooly and Ruwe) “and of perception of time (Scroggins). The final paper by Delcore concludes the presentations with a discussion of the relevance of this sort of investigation to the evolution of design anthropology in relation to a variety of publics. Nancy Fried Foster, a leading voice in anthropological investigations of libraries, will discuss the papers at the close of the session.

The papers represent practicing efforts that analyze pressing issues in the contexts of scholarship, design, integration and innovation. Each presentation will be a rapid, data rich presentation (following the Pecha Kucha format) which will allow for an open discussion to follow including a critical analysis of the benefits of such approaches as well as the potential problems inherent in facing an “academic public”.

Key words: design anthropology, usability, practicing anthropology


Understanding “the Public”: The 21st Century University Student and the University Library – Marjorie Visser (New School for Social Research)  University institutions must make themselves relevant in the educational experience of the students who utilize them. In the 21st century, an era marked by globalization and rapid technological advancement, perhaps no university institution struggles more to make their services and space relevant than the academic library. This paper seeks to explore the “21st century university student” and the relevance of the academic library in their lives. Through an analysis of the established literature of multiple disciplines and survey data, this paper highlights the dominant theoretical and practical paradigms surrounding this population, from which policies and programs in universities throughout the nation have been adopted to better serve this “new public”. We argue that such research, found in the sociology, psychology, public policy, and educational administration literatures, has helped to provide a broad macro level understanding of how to better serve this population. Yet, little is known about the effectiveness and utilization of these resources or how students perceive the relevance of traditional university institutions to their academic experience, presenting a unique gap in the research at the micro-level.This study elucidates an understanding of the relevance of the academic library vis-à-vis the 21st century student and highlights the implications to education policy, program design, and implementation which they present. Moreover, in the critical intersections of applied anthropology, organizational studies, and education policy this paper highlights the critical value of ethnography to other disciplines outside of anthropology.

Inspiration over Confirmation: Redefining Academic Libraries in Relation to Redefined Student – Alecia Barela (Institute of Public Anthropology)
The Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) began investigating student scholarship at CSU Fresno in order to develop strategies for the Henry Madden Library to better incorporate itself into student life. One of the primary challenges confronting the project was that the Library Study did not involve a new public, but a rather, a changed one. The “typical student” in American colleges has changed drastically over the decades and has in turn transformed notions of scholarship. This change was accelerated by changes in mass media and the Internet. Consequently, members of the IPA attempted a variety of novel methodological approaches in an effort to generate inspirations that could better inform the design of library services rather than confirmations of previously defined assumptions of how best to serve “today’s student”. Both traditional and innovative methods were incorporated in the investigation. To discern student interaction with the newly constructed library, ethnographic observations, informal interviews, auto-ethnography, guerrilla ethnography and visual anthropology were applied in addition to methods stemming from design anthropology. The study’s findings allowed (discussed in detailed in other papers) for the production of new ideas for improving library services and assimilating them into student life. In conclusion, the Library Study had demonstrated the need for formulating and utilizing anthropological alternatives to deductive methods as a means to overcoming institutional bias.

Snapshots of Student Life: Adopting the Diary-Interview Method – Kim Arnold and Ashlee Dotson (California State University, Fresno)
In conjunction with the 105 million dollar renovation of the Henry Madden Library, the Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) has engaged in a year long study of student scholarship on the CSU Fresno campus. Through the Library Study, the IPA has adopted methods from Ethnomethodology to the emerging field of Design Anthropology. In particular, an adaptation of Zimmerman and Wieder’s Diary-Interview Method (1977), has been employed to provide a better depiction of the experience of CSU-Fresno students. Students were recruited from general education undergraduate classes and asked to participate in a study in which each individual was given a disposable camera, a jottings book, a map of campus, and a list of twenty things to photograph. The participants were then interviewed. These interviews were held in the participants’ homes which allowed for a more intimate, natural dialogue. Information taken from the interviews were analyzed with Atlasti. This paper explores our adaptation of Zimmerman and Weider’s Diary-Interview Method and discusses how this method has contributed to furthering understanding of student life at CSU Fresno as it pertains to the haecceity of student scholarship both on and off campus.

Reference or Reverence?: Semiotic Reflections on Library Perceptions – James Mullooly and Dalitso Ruwe (California State University, Fresno)  Are academic libraries revered temples of sacred knowledge, where gatekeepers uphold tradition or are they (similar to failing bookstores) impediments to students’ workflow due to poor management or an absence of basic customer service skills?  Provocative questions like this have inspired our investigation of the assumption that CSU-Fresno students and library faculty and staff share similar perceptions of their academic library.  Triangulated findings based on interviews, observations and workshops reveal a shared misunderstanding that often reveals itself as frustration on the part of librarians and reduced productivity on the part of students.  Working from a theoretical framing exercise we developed – where a continuum of symbolic values was built between the poles of high (reverence) and low (reference) value – members of our research team were able to investigate possible generational, ethnic and socioeconomic gaps between academic librarians and their public.  The idea of depicting academic libraries as sacred temples of truth is not difficult in light of their history.  For example, the Annuals of the Bodelian Library at Oxford report that the chief librarian was required to be unmarried when accepting his role up until the statute was altered in 1856 (Macray 1868).  On the other extreme, the idea of judging an academic library based on service economy standards is plausible, particularly for a student body whose majority includes first generation college attending students.  This paper concludes with our suggestions at ameliorating this dilemma via the introduction of “student advocates”.

Hot and Cold Chronologies: Accommodating Student Taskscapes in Library 2.0 – Michael Scroggins (Teachers College, Columbia U) This paper offers an oblique look into the issues surrounding academic libraries and the Library 2.0 initiative by using data gathered during an exploratory workshop to shed light on the contested terrain of value and service. The workshop took place during a two year span when the campus library was closed for (re)construction. Several of the participants had never physically experienced an academic library, thus the workshop focused on the library as past, future and imagined space. The workshop was ostensibly held to discover potential new library services, but analysis revealed more than economic calculations over value and service are at stake within an academic library. Findings indicate that library use over the course of an academic term follows closely the logic of what Ingold terms taskscape (1993). Students organize their time and energies in relation to situated tasks, events, and locations accountable to both physical and social boundaries. Other findings indicate students recognize and value their place in the academic hierarchy when related to the production of scholarship, viewing themselves and their peers not as passive consumers but rather as emerging scholars within an academic polity. The organization of academic work into periods of intense activity and relative lulls problematizes the delivery of services along a corporate model and the contention that users/patrons/customers are the proper unit of measurement in an academic library.

Design Anthropology as User-Centered Advocacy on Campus – Henry Delcore (California State University, Fresno) Design anthropology has emerged as a major mode of public anthropology. The ambitions of design anthropologists range from specific project-driven insights for the design of products and services, to seeking “to understand the role of design artifacts and processes in defining what it means to be human (e.g., human nature)” (Tunstall). These ambitions have taken anthropologists into the public through work for and with the non-profit, for-profit and public sector actors. But perhaps the greatest public ambition of design anthropology is to aid in the design of products and services that better meet the needs and desires of users. Indeed, many design anthropologists see themselves as advocates for users. In this paper, I put our study of Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library into the context of design anthropology as public anthropology practice. I detail our project-specific ambitions, and review some of the design insights we delivered and their expression in re-designed library services and spaces. I also detail how a group of professors, librarians, and student researchers worked together to better understand student life and to advocate for design solutions that better serve student users. I conclude by exploring the potential for campus-based anthropologists to understand various campus user groups, inform the design of campus services, and advocate for users who may otherwise lack a voice in campus life.

Nancy Fried Foster (University of Rochester) (Discussant)

One comment

  1. […] August 5, 2009 in Library, design anthropology | Tags: CoHousing, design anthropology, design research, ethnography, practicing anthropology | by theanthrogeek We are exited to announce the acceptance of a session of papers we organized about our Library Usability Study.  We include the session abstract here and posted all of the paper abstracts at […]

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