Cambridge is strange. One of the brilliant things about hosting the User Experience in Libraries Conference (UXLibs) last week at St. Catherine’s College was the unique location’s ability to make everyone immediately feel like an anthropologist newly arrived at a fieldsite. A sign announced the college closed to the public; we were all (with a couple exceptions) strangers here. Anthropologists often emphasize taking on the role of a professional outsider: a stranger who is a novice in the local culture and must ask questions of everything in order to understand. This comes more naturally in an unfamiliar place, but takes conscious practice at home. Figuring out the norms of St. Cats and Cambridge (e.g. Why can’t we walk on that grass?; Who/What exactly is a college fellow?; Punting doesn’t involve a ball?) underscored the ethnographic importance of understanding the particularities of a locality and place. This theme was central throughout the conference, and Cambridge as a space and place showed through in all of the impressive work and recommendations of the UX project teams.
This should probably come as no surprise; a key tension within ethnographic methods is working out which findings are specific to a fieldsite and which are generalizable. Everywhere is strange and complicated, but often in similar ways.
As Donna Lanclos pointed out in her keynote, as ethnographic practitioners we need to engage both in ethnography, which focuses on the describing and explaining the particular, and in ethnology, which compares and synthesizes. Over the last few years we’ve made significant strides in library ethnography, but library ethnology is still relatively undeveloped. One of the things I hope will come out of gatherings such as UXLibs is the creation of international communities and networks of practitioners that can start thinking through comparative and theoretical questions about libraries, user experience, and information in higher education.
Building capacity and infrastructure is part of working toward these goals, and this will require support from library administrations. Embracing an ethnographic approach can be challenging, often precisely because of the strengths of the method: it seeks to destabilize by questioning fundamental assumptions about the way things work.
Since many UXLibs delegates are probably heading back to the office today, I thought I’d end this post with some talking points for administrators which may be useful in starting these conversations:
- Ethnography is not expensive, but it’s also not free. Some money is required for things like incentives to research participants, transcription, and perhaps some specialized software and hardware. But more importantly, ethnography requires time and maybe quite a lot of time. This means shifting resources so that people don’t have to take on ethnographic projects over and above their other duties.
- Qualitative and quantitative approaches are not antagonistic. Each approach marshals different types of evidence and data. Both are valid, and both can be representative.
- Ethnography is a long-term commitment. It is a practice and a mindset as much as a toolkit of methods. Ask questions, gather evidence, make changes, repeat. I like to think in terms of continuous incremental improvement rather than “failing more quickly.”
- Ethnographic projects need room to ask difficult questions. Allow everything to be on the table, make crazy sounding assertions, and say things that might seem heretical to librarianship.
If all this sounds scary, that’s OK. In fact, this is part of the process. Remember you’re dealing with a discipline that takes dumping someone in a foreign country and leaving her there alone for a year or two as its mythologized rite of passage. If it isn’t a little bit scary, you probably aren’t challenging yourself enough.