Lessons in Ethnography
18/04/2012 § 14 Comments
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.