Into the Field

So I have been noisy on Twitter lately, but relatively quiet on this blog, and that is in part because I have been gently (and not so gently) freaking out and getting prepared for going to do six weeks of fieldwork starting at the end of February.

The project will allow me to collaborate with the estimable Lesley Gourlay at the IOE, and Lesley Pitman at UCL, and extend and expand a project that I piloted in 2011 with the help of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.  There’s a .pdf of the report here.

March is going to involve me collecting cognitive maps as well as conducting interviews among students and faculty at the Institute of Archaeology, the Bartlett school of Architecture, and the SSEES.  I will also be spending time doing immersive observation in each of the 3 libraries, using the SUMA tool to facilitate head-counts and also an accounting of activities within each space.  Lesley Gourlay will be doing the same among IOE students and faculty, and at the IOE library.

I have collected cognitive maps from undergraduate and graduate students at UNC Charlotte already, and my graduate assistant will be conducting interviews and observations in Atkins Library while I am in London.

By the end of March, we will have a lovely comparative collection of qualitative data to play with.  Even a project as small as this will generate hours of interview data, and a rich body of field notes to mine for insights that such a comparative exploration of academic libraries can yield.  I am so, so excited to get to do this.

And part of my excitement comes from my strong investment in “going into the field.”   The anthropologists out there know how deeply felt that trope is in our field–yes, my work at Atkins library is my primary research location, but I have been “brought up” to think of field sites as Away (however problematic that may be).  And academic libraries in London are distinct in many interesting ways from the large, generalized, suburban one in which I work in Charlotte.  UCL/IOE libraries are specialized places, scattered across an urban landscape, and also contain materials on some of their shelves that would rightfully be in restricted-access special collections in the US.  I will acquire a new “arrival scene,” coming into the site libraries for the first time, I will have a new set of “key informants,” participants in my research, to interview, who are willing to share what they know with me so that I can learn, so that I can approach my library “back home” with fresh eyes, the familiar made exotic through the field experience.

It won’t be a completely isolated field experience, I’ve never been able to achieve that, and I think it’s probably to my benefit.  When I did my research in Belfast I was lucky to be embedded in a network of Queen’s U, Belfast graduate students, colleagues and eventually friends who helped keep me grounded when I was struggling with the usual alienating cliches of doing fieldwork.

In fact, I think that field experiences in applied anthropology in particular give the lie to the Anthropologist in Splendid Isolation cliche, not just because no anthropologist ever truly works in isolation (they are working with people!), but also because anthropology is always a team effort, even if it’s not immediately visible as such.  I am collaborating with colleagues in UCL and IOE, and this project began as an effort initiated by Dr. Bill Sillar in the Institute of Archaeology.  The work I have done and will do in London is a direct result of the work I’m doing here at UNC Charlotte, working with my colleagues in Atkins, and with my graduate assistants (the Atkins Ethnography project has benefited from the work so far of 4 different graduate assistants, and will continue to hire graduate students as a part of its research workforce), and undergraduate researchers.  My work is informed not just by what I find interesting, but what my boss needs from me, what questions my colleagues bring to me.  It’s a group effort.  There are no lone wolves.

I will also in this trip, have opportunities to talk about my work with colleagues old and new.  I’m participating in a workshop on Visitors and Residents, along with Dave White , Ben Showers, and Lawrie Phipps at the Jisc Digital Festival.  I’m speaking about my work at UNC Charlotte with Bryony Ramsden and her colleagues at Huddersfield.  There will be many chances in London to talk at length about my work, and especially to listen to people engaged with work that I need to pay attention to.

I can’t put into words just how delighted I am that I am finally getting to make my ambitions for a comparative, international ethnography of academic libraries begin to come to pass.  This phase of my research is funded by a UNC Charlotte Faculty Research Grant, and I hope to be able to take this project and springboard to a larger, more comprehensive treatment of all of the UCL site libraries, with an eye to informing with qualitative research much larger discussions of the role of academic libraries in Higher Education in the UK and the US.

But in the meantime, I get six weeks.   I’m going to make them count.