Lessons in Ethnography

Pete Steele and family, Hamilton, Ohio. From the LOC Lomax Collection

This semester at the University of North Texas I am taking SLIS 5445, History and Culture of Youth Services. A good portion of the class has focused on ethnography and its application in youth services. I won’t pretend to be an expert on this type of study and fieldwork. However, I want to share some things I’ve learned about ethnography, how I find it to be a helpful framework for needs assessment and how it’s helped me further define my personal approach to library service.

Merriam-Webster Online defines “ethnography” as “the study and systematic recording of human cultures.” I was familiar with ethnography when I entered the course, but only in the context of ethnomusicology and people like Alan Lomax. I could totally understand why someone like Lomax traveled to remote locales to record and document ballads and work songs in the 1930s–but I couldn’t quite understand how these practices translated to me as a modern day library school student working with children and teens.  I came to realize that Lomax had a passion for American folk culture and couldn’t have done his field justice without going directly to the folk to capture their songs, stories and dances to share with his colleagues and the general public.

Libraries exist to serve a community of patrons. Just as Lomax couldn’t sit behind a desk and discover folk culture–we can’t sit behind a desk and understand the communities we aim to serve as librarians. Stepping out into the community to document and observe it allows us to organically discover the thoughts, behaviors, feelings, practices, customs and needs of the community and apply them to the services we provide.

My professor assigned the class a fieldwork project to give us a small taste of ethnography in practice. We were tasked with identifying a community of youth and interacting with that community (through interviews and observation) to answer a central question. I interviewed five teens across the country to gather insights around the question, “What do teens do online in their free time?” I also asked my subjects to keep a log of their internet activity for a day for future analysis.

This project gave me a great sense of how teens approach online activity and yielded takeaways for teen library service surrounding mobile use, chatting, media (i.e. music, video), and social media. My findings are not revolutionary–but the process of gathering this info directly from teens has helped me connect the dots between the literature and research that exists and my own service philosophy and practices.

As Celia’s recent blog on service learning points out–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.

How has fieldwork and/or observation informed the service you provide to patrons (or your theories on service)? Have you explored ethnography in any of your library school coursework? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Categories: Education & Curriculum

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15 replies

  1. I did my undergrad degree in anthropology. I wish I could take a course exactly like this one, combining what I remember with anthro with what I’m learning about library science and understanding patron needs.
    Sounds like a wonderful class!


  2. It is a great class with lots to takeaway and apply in practice–I’m sure your anthropology background will serve you well in the library world.


  3. Absolutely, agreed. I would like to see us take it even a step further than ethnography toward participatory research: including those community members throughout the research process starting with developing scope and questions and potentially ending with determining uses and actions related to outcomes. This is already a major part of health research, oft-termed community-based participatory research, and it’s made some appearances in the library community as well. Myrna Morales discussed this in her article “Community Based Participatory Research” in Synergy: News from ARL Diversity Programs (p. 5).


  4. I’m taking my programs required course in “research methods for LIS” next semester and will report back if there is an ethnography component. I hadn’t considered before that LIS professionals might need to think about fieldwork, but it makes a lot of sense. In other class assignments where I’ve talked to practicing librarians, I’ve sensed that a large component of the work that teen services librarians in the local public library is about engaging with the teen population and being able to understand where they are coming from, what they need, and what they might be able to offer the library….


  5. I’m a budding independent enthnographer, and it will be 2 years May 2012 that I’ve started and used qualitative ethnographic observation and participatory research methods to uncover a major theme relative to small southern rural community’s cultural change..

    Thus I’m in total agreement with ethnography research efforts that dig in and gets our hands dirty. Call it what you will, participatory research along with observation and interviewing locals is the way to go.

    I like this discussion and will return. Happy hunting fellow ethnographers!


    • Amazing indeed. Perhaps it’s something you can learn about on the side. (I say that understanding how difficult it is to do so while in school). Thanks for reading!


      • For sure! I find it’s almost easier to continue to do relevant outside learning while in school then when I’m just working. And it’s so related to my program (I’m focusing on youth services and doing a dual degree in children’s literature) that it would seem a shame not to try and learn about it a bit!


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