Advocacy, Critique, and Communities of Practice

picture by Juliann Couture, another partner in anthro Crimes.  Myself and Andrew after we’re done writing and thinking for the day.


Last week Weave, the open access journal for usability in libraries, published a piece that I wrote with Andrew Asher.  The piece, part of their Dialog Box series, was (as is a lot of stuff I publish) a moment that is part of a larger conversation–in this case, one that Andrew and I have been having about what our work looks like in library contexts, over the last several years since we’ve known each other.  

In particular, since he and I have at this point been working for a while now as anthropologists who have academia as their field site, we wanted to raise our heads up, look around, and talk about why, this far into the ethnographic moment in libraries, there are still so few full time positions for anthropologists in libraries.  Our questions were around the structure and culture of libraries because we are:  anthropologists.  And our work usually ends up with us pulling back to get a sense of the bigger picture, to get a sense not just of what things look like, but why.

This work is important right now in part because evidence suggests there’s a great deal of free-floating frustration around what is and isn’t possible in higher education.  Individuals have a few choices when they hit a wall around their practice–they can blame themselves, and decide they are at fault.  They can blame other people, and decide they are at fault.  Or, they can do as Andrew and I are doing and try to look at the bigger picture, and the structures that surround the work we do, and ask:  why does it look this way?  What forces other than individual interest and capability shape practices in libraries, and in higher education generally?

It’s a similar impulse to that which leads people to deconstruct imposter syndrome (you don’t suck, society just sets you up to think you don’t belong, particularly if you are any category of person other than a straight white dude), or which leads people to define educators as ineffective, when their individual practice has less to do with student success than larger contextual problems.  I am, as an anthropologist, a big fan of finding the historical and cultural reasons behind the structures of institutions, as a prelude to describing and situating practice.

The space that classic ethnography provides for open-ended inquiry, for exploring situations without requiring a solution or any other specific output, is something we think is particularly valuable in a time when institutions across the board (eg in industry, in education, in scientific funding bodies) are narrowing the window for people who want to pitch “let’s see what happens” work in favor of “I can fix a problem!” work.  It’s not that problem fixing is bad, per se, it’s just that if that’s all we do, we lose the opportunity to be strategic, to step back, to consider insights that would not otherwise be arrived at when focused on specific things to solve.  Ask anyone who has applied for an NSF grant lately how successful they were with their “We’re not sure what this will do” grant proposal.

So open-ended work without a hard stop is increasingly scarce, and reserved for people and institutions who can engage in it as a luxury (e.g. Macarthur Genius Grant awardees).  But this is to my mind precisely wrong.  Open exploration should not be framed as a luxury, it should be fundamental.  

How do we get networks properly valued as scholarship?  How do we de-center content and outputs in favor of process and community?  How do we get institutions to allow space for exploration regardless of results?

Libraries are not immune to these pressures, obviously.  And we share the frustration of practitioners who know there is more that can be done, because we experience those pressures in our own work.  The critiques we level in this article are aimed squarely at our own practices.  We want to make the case for the work yet to do, for the cultural transformation yet to have.

Shifting methodologies from quant to qual is not enough to effect institutional change away from tactical problem solving to strategic engagement with the situation on the ground.  “Your methodologies will not save you from the culture of libraries.” And there is a continuum of practice, clearly, within qual approaches, getting closer to and further away from classic immersive ethnography.  Which is not bad, it’s just practical.  But it bears identifying and discussing.

And being at TriangleSCI this past week reminded me that qual narratives can be just as misused as quant justifications–it’s never just about the methodology, it’s also about the mindful practice, and the values therein.  This, too, is not a problem unique to libraries

So we hope, if you read this piece, that you engage with it.  In particular I’m interested in a wide range of new work around ethnographic and other qualitative techniques in libraries being pushed forward as a response to our call for more, and different engagement with the possibilities of anthropological ethnography and ethnology.    I know that some of you are working hard on as yet unpublished work–has it been hard to do, because of institutional pressures like we describe here?  Or was it really straightforward, with lots of support?  You know, I hope for the latter, and would love to hear about it.

Our piece is intended as a catalyst for out-loud discussion of what might be possible now that there’s widespread grass-roots enthusiasm about ethnographic techniques.  And want it to provide an opportunity for making these possibilities not just visible but more likely.   To move open-ended inquiry into the core of what we do, not just leave it in the periphery.

Please let us know what you think.  Agree or disagree, but let’s talk.  If not here, then on Twitter, or by submitting a piece of your own to Weave, or some other place where the conversation can continue.

This field, the community of practice involved in UX and ethnography in libraries and elsewhere in higher ed, is strong enough to sustain critique.  It is with such critiques that we can move to create a culture of change.


We look forward to the discussion.

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