Tag Archives: fieldwork

London Travelogue, Part the Third: Senate House

Thanks to Andrew Praeter and Simon Barron I got a fantastic tour of the Senate House library (and building) just before I left London for home.

It’s a spectacular building–apparently, if WWII hadn’t broken out, it would have been part of a complex that extended all the way up through Gordon Square (right in front of the current Institute of Archaeology building).  Crazy to think about.  It was the first skyscraper in London.

It’s a landmark in Bloomsbury, and I’ve been walking past it for years, never quite realizing that’s what it was.  Senate House is an interesting library in that it’s not attached to any one particular University, but rather has (someone correct me if I’m wrong) member institutions who pay for their students to have access.  Senate House showed up in some of the cognitive maps that I collected from people at UCL, as a place where people enjoyed working.  It’s a lovely building, I adore Art Deco architecture and design, and it’s a pleasure walking around it.  The specific history of the building is fascinating, as there are elements that are simply unfinished (especially decorative flourishes that never happened), because of the War.  The decorative flourishes that did manage to happen are stunning.

Stained glass windows.

The Senate Chamber.  I want to give a talk in this room SO MUCH.

More stained glass.

Beautiful clock (with the reflection of Simon for good measure).

Lovely fabulous marble hall.

The library-specific spaces in Senate House are uniformly Traditional Quiet Library spaces–there are no group study spaces in Senate House (although, apparently, students will walk up to the desk and ask “where are the group study rooms?”).  The assumption is that there are such spaces provided by the home academic departments.  I wonder how accurate that assumption is.

At any rate, as Traditional Library Spaces go, the ones in Senate House are nicely appointed, and are a good fit with contemporary scholarly behaviors (and technology).

This traditional reading room has tables big enough for people to spread out, and also use their laptops/tablets
This reading room used to have desktop computers in it, but they moved those out and now just have large tables as shown.

Self-service laptop checkouts have replaced desktop computers distributed throughout the Senate House spaces. Patrons can take the laptops wherever in Senate House they feel most comfortable working, and don’t have to rely on where computers happen to be, if they don’t walk in with their own devices.  Wireless is throughout the building.
Up in the stacks, there are workspaces as well.  These little window seats have always been popular (windows are popular in Atkins, and really in nearly every library I’ve ever seen, at least in terms of where patrons like to park themselves).  Senate House recently got new fittings for these window areas.
A light, a shelf, a work surface, and outlets/powerpoints.  And, a chair.
There are also these tables, with powerpoints and room to spread out.  The funny pillars on the end of the table are artifacts from when there was a fixed desktop and monitor on one end of the table.  Senate House has moved away from desktops in their library, except where they are used for catalog check stations.
This, however, is my favorite space in Senate House.  Filled with huge tufted leather sofas.  Magic.
Apparently there was some initial worry that the sofas would encourage talking.  I think that the arrangement of them in rows, the fact that they are massive heavy pieces, and the placement of them in a room that is clearly a “Traditional Reading Room” all sets the tone nicely, and it’s clearly a quiet place to study that just happens to be filled with soft seating rather than desks and hard chairs.  I would spend all of my time here, if this were My Library.

London Travelogue, Part the Second: Mostly not London, the Pitt-Rivers Museum (with a bit of the Soane at the end)

My favorite thing about Oxford (once I figured out that DS Hathaway was not in fact waiting for me in a pub alongside the Thames) was the Pitt-Rivers Museum.  You have to walk through the Oxford Museum of Natural History to get to it.

Once I walked into the room, I laughed aloud.  It was 19th Century Anthropology Overload.  It’s magnificent and mad.

Every case is chock-full of artifacts.  Check out that totem pole.

 Pitt-Rivers was an amazing collector, with connections to collectors, explorers, and ethnographers who worked all over the planet.  The Pitt-Rivers Museum’s website is a great resource for visualizing the collection, and exploring as much as they have been able to reveal so far online.  All of the items collected were either given to the collectors as gifts, or purchased from the people who created the artifacts, and then donated to the museum.  The Pitt-Rivers site also describes the rationale for having all of these cases arranged as they are:

“In most ethnographic and archaeological museums the displays are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. Here they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery, and tools are all displayed in groups to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples. The cases appear to be very crowded, as a very large percentage of the collection is on view. In some instances the ‘displays’ are primarily visible storage, due to the museum being first and foremost a teaching and research institution and the curators are also university lecturers in either cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. A number of degree courses are taught to both graduate and undergraduate studies. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. The small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator, are very revealing. We offer more contemporary interpretative displays in our special exhibition gallery.”

Collected by E.B. Tylor!

My problem (you knew there was going to be a problem, didn’t you, I’m just having that kind of week) with these sorts of museums/collections is that they make it terrifically easy for those who are prone to think in terms of Human Universals to continue to think that way.  While a nuanced reading of these packed cases allows us to see the variety of ways that people approach similar natural phenomena, or social phenomena, there is a curious flattening effect that can occur when so much variety is put in a glass case.   It becomes “people all play music!”  “people all represent animals!”  “people do body mods!”  And in the drawing of connections, the distinctiveness of each culture can be lost.

While I value tremendously the sense of shared humanity that anthropology can bring, I think it’s dangerous to take collections of human artifacts from the 19th century, a time of tremendous cultural upheaval and colonial violence, and draw uncomplicated inferences about the shared human condition.  I should be clear here that I do NOT think that is what the Pitt-Rivers museum or their (fantastic) staff are doing.  I do think that this sort of museum is most effectively experienced with some sort of mediation.  The context in which these artifacts were collected is as important to the meaning of the museum as are the artifacts themselves.

The most striking case for me was this one:

Many of the human remains in this case (a two-sided case) were from South American and Papua New Guinea.  They are fascinating, repellent, sad, fierce.  They deserve a book (at least)  all to themselves.  How can we interpret the meaning of these remains in the isolation of the glass case?  How do we dare?

It occurs to me that the Pitt-Rivers collection is of a piece with the Regency House in London that is now Sir John Soane’s Museum .  The architect Soane (who is one of my favorite people only because he designed the TARDIS)  filled his house with furniture, bits and pieces of sculpture, architectural details from buildings, some of it copies some of it originals, from all over Europe, from Egypt, and parts of Asia, in the grand tradition of colonial Britain.  He put together disparate pieces on the same wall, in the same room, according to what he thought went together, regardless of where it came from, of the lost intentions of the people who made it.  He was a magpie, plucking attractive things from their original location, and decorating his own home with them.

Exterior of Soane’s House in London.

I think it’s worthwhile (and I know this is not an original thought on my part) asking what the purpose of such collections was, and is today.   Is it to illuminate the study of form (as was clearly the case with Soane)?  Of function?  Of meaning?  Yes, of all three.  But collections of objects disassociated from their origins,  I think say much more about the collectors of the objects than they do about the the people who created them.

 The Pitt-Rivers museum has a great deal of contemporary interpretation to overlay onto this collection, and their upper galleries take on some of the issues of representation and collections like these.  I suppose everyone can visit the museum they think they are in.  My preference would be that visitors to museums like this be directed very explicitly to the particular nature of collections like these, how situated they are in history, how important it is to approach these objects thoughtfully, as a way of thinking about the people who produced them, not just the scholars, explorers, and colonists who acquired them.

Spectacular mask collected from the NW Coast of N. America.  I am proving my own point by not having recorded which tribe this is from.  I want to say Haida or Tlingit.

London Travelogue, Part The First: Not London, but Oxford and Manchester

So in addition to working in London, I had a couple of chances to do field trips to Very Special Libraries, one in Oxford, and one in Manchester.  The one in Oxford I’ve known about for a while:

The Bodleain

Oxford is lovely, old, and filled with high walls, locked gates, and closed doors.  It is a secret society, I will never know the handshake.
— Donna Lanclos (@DonnaLanclos) March 22, 2014

One of the many beautiful closed doors in Oxford

I know, I know, Oxford is not a “public” university, there should be different notions of access, I cannot expect the walls and gates and doors of Oxford to be open to all comers, because it’s just never been that way.

You have to climb up pretty high to see into the enclosures of Oxford.

But the collective experience of the closed-off feel, the tour wherein we were assured that the most important people in the building were The Scholars (and therefore, Not Us), and signs like this:

No Smoking I can get behind.  SILENCE PLEASE is different.

really hammer it home–“This is not for you.”

The Rylands Library, on the other hand, is a Special Collections library associated with the University of Manchester (a red-brick state school).

You can walk right in, no charge, even if you are not a student (which is not necessarily the case at UCL, even, where you have to swipe your bar-coded-card to enter every library, and most of the academic buildings).  The Rylands is a Gothic Cathedral to knowledge (I’ve blogged about libraries that make me think of ecclesiastical monuments before), and the reading room is open to anyone who wants to work in there, even if they are not working with the Rylands collections.   It’s a beautiful building, and a rare example of an inspiring space that is also accessible.

We talked briefly in our Spaces, Places and Practices seminar about the impact of spaces, in particular Traditional Library spaces that invoke places like the Bodleian and Rylands.  But Traditional Library spaces, while they can be used by students and faculty to get themselves into a desired state of mind (for reading, for writing, for scholarship of various kinds), can also feel exclusionary.  It’s as if some students internalize the signs that the Bodleian puts up (and sells in their gift shop!), and transfer that to all library spaces.  It’s not enough to be respectful of the space, you have to act so that they cannot tell you are there.  SILENCE.  I understand the utility of focus and quiet.  I understand less the signals that emphasize the otherworldly nature of scholarship to the point of alienating people from the traditional places of scholarship.  I am not convinced they are necessary.

They also make me want to stomp my boots and dance around in the courtyard of the Bodleian.

Probably not my dance partner, though.

A Whirlwind March, some Links

#SunnyLondon from Primrose Hill

I am just barely back in the US, I’m quite certain my brain has not arrived yet.  Already there are things on the internet that can give you ideas (because you haven’t been following my every move on Twitter, for which I commend you highly) about what I’ve been up to.  In particular, there are Storifys up of conversations I participated in at the SRHE in London on March 28th, with  Lesley Gourlay, Dave WhiteMartin Oliver, and Ibrar Bhatt. (there will be a podcast of the four talks, I’ll be sure to share the link when I have it), and of the joint UCL-IOE sponsored event, Spaces, Places and Practices, on March 31st, which involved presentations by Bryony Ramsden, Martin Reid and Anna Tuckett, and myself and Lesley Gourlay.

The #UKAnthroLib hashtag was followed by people outside of the room on March 31st, and the enthusiastic reception (and conversations that actually started long before March 31st) resulted in the swift creation (by Georgina Cronin and Andy Priestner) of the new #UKAnthroLib blog, which will involve multiple authors and I hope a great deal of interesting discussion.

Oh and of course there’s the actual research Lesley Gourlay and I did, in partnership with Lesley Pitman at UCL.  The Storifys will give you some sense of the preliminary things we are saying about the data we have collected so far, but I’ve got about 19 hours worth of interviews to get transcribed and then analyze, along with the cognitive maps we collected, and the SUMA data we gathered in each of the site libraries (Bartlett, SSEES, Institute of Archaeology at UCL, and the IOE library as well).  We should have enough analyzed to be able to say something interesting (I hope) at the HECU7 conference in Lancaster (well, Lesley will have to say it for us, as I am not Made of Money), and we have high hopes for more conference presentations (TBA!) in the Autumn.

In the meantime, we will be digging into what we’ve got, and attempting to figure out what we think it means.

The Mixed-Method, Interdisciplinary Library

Huddersfield Train Station, with Taxman Mister Wilson in the foreground
So at this point I’ve given 2 different versions of this talk, once at UNC Greensboro, in the library, and just recently at the University of Huddersfield, also in the library.  I talk from a combination of notes, script, and the Prezi, so this is an approximation, but I’d like to share it because it’s a relatively coherent statement of what I think is possible via qualitative work like mine, and where I think academic libraries can create opportunities for their voice to be heard within higher education generally.  Special thanks to Erin Lawrimore for inviting me to UNCG, and to Bryony Ramsden and Kathrine Jensen for getting me to Huds.

In-depth qualitative data collection for policy decisions

I don’t get much chance to speak about the nature of my work in a systematic way, and this is giving me a chance to put together thoughts that I’ve been accumulating over the past year or so about the nature of the information that informs library policy. It has been changing over time, and the attention paid to things like qualitative research marks a real shift in administrative focus, and has implications for assessment, as well.
I’m speaking to you today (as I speak every day) as an anthropologist, and so an outsider to library science (but not to higher education, as I am an academic through and through). But I am also someone employed by an academic library. I was hired as library ethnographer in 2009, with arrival of a university librarian who had been at Rochester, where Nancy Fried Foster was at the time. Her hire inspired by the participatory design policy of places like Xerox, who hire social scientists, including anthropologists, to do research into user behavior, to inform their products.
Nancy’s work has certainly made participatory design a highly visible part of what qualitative research agendas can do in higher education, but I’ve been asked to take on an ethnography of academic work generally, to find projects (small and large) that illuminate the behavior of students and faculty on our campus, not just within the library.
The use of words like “disruptive” and “provocative” within library policy discussions (and higher ed generally) has become cliche, but I find them useful in trying to frame the role for anthropologists (and even other social scientists) in academic libraries. Positions like mine are a provocation, not just to library-land, but to Higher Ed. generally.
So, why be provocative? The Anthropology meetings in November of last year included a panel on liminality (included Nancy Foster, as well as researchers from Intel and Xerox). The liminal state is one of “betwixt and between,” of being poised on the threshold. Again and again the panelists made the point that the presence of anthropologists in industry and institutional settings creates a liminal space, which in turn is an opportunity for change and innovation. Qualitative research provides opportunities for change, moments to disrupt current practices, to dwell with the possibility of something else.
The researcher from Intel pointed strongly to the potential for innovation that comes out of persistent and embedded anthropological attention to technology and the processes involved in producing that technology. She worked with engineers, who were so immersed in the production of technology that they lost sight of the people who would be using it.
Likewise, anthropological attention to uses of technology in information seeking can help us think more carefully about how we use technology to engage with people in academia, students and faculty alike.
I know there are people with anthropology and sociology training working as librarians now, but the qualitative work is seldom their full time job (so many people run up to me at library conferences and confess their undergraduate degrees in anthropology!). Myself and Andrew Asher (At Bloomington) are the only two I am aware of who are employed full time by universities in the US, and I know of one anthropologist who was just hired by the London School of Economics in the UK.
I’ve blogged before about the role that we play in libraries as anthropologists, especially regarding the discussion we hosted at the 2013 AAAs in Chicago.  
The idea is not to thumb our noses at current practice, but to actually provide a place for the new to emerge. Margaret Mead talked about anthropology as making the “exotic familiar, and the familiar exotic.” She is talking about the power of cross-cultural insights allowing fresh eyes on our own society, the practices of others helping us think critically about our own practices.
We are fundamentally searching for insights into why. Anthropology assumes that there is a logic to people’s behavior. It’s not enough to describe or count the things people do or interact with or own or use.  And furthermore, there are things that we can observe are important that we cannot count–or there are things we should be counting that we don’t know are important. We need multiple ways of talking about what is happening–a holistic approach can include counting, but needs to incorporate other ways of observing/describing. Ethnographic practices can provide such a thing. And I would argue that they are most effectively deployed as a part of a full-time qualitative agenda, not just carved out of already existing jobs, or brought in short-term.
Qualitative methods need explanations and defense in part because they are not the norm in library-land, and are still contested outside of qualitative-centric fields like anthropology and sociology. My experience working with LIS has reflected this–I have participated in longitudinal qualitative studies that my LIS colleagues are still still very very nervous about if it’s not embedded in a survey that we also conduct. I see this concern about generalizability, etc. reflecting a general unease with actionability of qualitative data.
Higher Ed is quantitative in part because of a policy orientation where evaluation is the equivalent to counting and measuring (think: grades). Assessment, however, should be about information that can lead to changes, and ideally, improvements. A reasonable question to ask is to what extent the massive amounts of quantitative data libraries collect every year has led to improvements
For example, UNC Charlotte Atkins Library recently participated in the MISO survey;  we now have all of these numbers, what do they mean? For example, these “satisfaction” graphs from various constituencies:

All the bars are basically the same length.  What can this mean?  What does it mean when we ask about “satisfaction with the library?”  How can that be quantified? Why would we want to quantify that?

 It’s just not enough.

Qualitative data can move library improvements in a way that traditional treatment of quantitative data has not.  This is the power of insights, of epiphany, of something beyond just description. Evaluation and analytics are descriptive, and not necessarily with an eye to change.  Assessment should be about that which can drive change.
We cannot get rid of quantitative data, nor should we want to, but I believe it needs to be embedded in the context provided by qualitative researchers.  Approaches to our quantitative data can be transformed with considered uses of qualitative research in libraries, and higher education generally.

Think of individual projects that characterize themselves as “mixed-method.” Imagine a “mixed-method.” library, drawing on both sorts of information.
What does that look like?

It can look like me: the Anthropologist in the Stacks.  The permanent staff presence of a qualitative researcher means non-LIS people working within the library. Disciplinary knowledge from outside of LIS can illuminate higher education policies, not just within library, but across the university. So, I am not just talking about a mixed-methods library, but an interdisciplinary one.

(I have blogged already about examples from the Atkins library –here is the point in the talk where I use Prezi to give visual examples of the kinds of data I’ve been collecting, including Photo Diaries, observations, and cognitive mapping.   If you peruse the stuff tagged #anthrolib you can get a feel for it, if you haven’t already.)

We need to know what people are doing to effectively engage. Anthropology, ethnographic techniques, qualitative research can help us learn this.  There are additional implications for the position of academic libraries within their institutions, once they commit to a qualitative research agenda.


For example, at UNC Charlotte, the library is represented on a campus-wide meeting about Student Success.  We are positioned as colleagues within the university, rather than as “helpers”–we are part of a scholarly community, and we also provide, in the library, a neutral ground for the coming together of scholars (including ourselves).

There is tremendous potential for libraries in higher education to be sources of qualitative research about student and faculty work/behaviors.  This research can give us a voice on campus around issues that people in Higher Education are interested in:  what students do, where they go, what faculty do, why.  

 Anthropologists and other social scientists can produce data which may be brought to bear on policy decisions at the college and university, and which has the potential to positively impact student academic success. The fact that these studies come out of the Library has implications for the role academic libraries can play in higher education generally, potentially transforming the kind of voice libraries have in university policy, because we are producing information/data that no other sector of higher education is doing.   This is powerful.  We need to do it more.
Both times I gave this talk, I just sort of stopped there, and asked for questions, and was really gratified by the engagement and thought that was put into the discussion.  I wish I had transcripts to share of what we talked about at UNCG, and also at Huddersfield. 
Dave Pattern and Bryony Ramsden were kind enough to tweet some of the content of my talk, I Storifyed it here:  

 For the conclusion of this blogpost, I will simply share an image of part of my speaking fee at Huds, safely ensconced in my bag, on the train back to London.

Bacon Crisps!

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.