“I wish to make the argument here for usability as a motive, ethnography as a practice, anthropology as a worldview”
This was the first sentence of Donna Lanclos’ recent keynote speech at UX Libs, an international conference devoted to user experience in libraries. I find Donna’s speech to be moving and eloquent while still offering concise, tangible evidence of the value of ethnography in libraries. Moreover, she engages and cites some of the most interesting work being done in our field right now in a thoughtful, nuanced way. I’ll use some of Donna’s insights as a framing for this post, which will be quoted in larger text throughout. This won’t do her keynote justice. Please, go read the full text of the speech linked above!
My last post was on what advice I would give to new LIS students and a few posts before that I talked about the need to provide LIS student feedback mechanisms and offer more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities. Just last week, my friends and I composed a zine with advice we would offer new GSLIS students entering our program. A few of my friends put this awesome page together:
I want to take a deep dive into one of the topics mentioned a lot here: pre-professional opportunities. These are few and far between and often underpaid or unpaid. One of my unconference groups at the Symposium on LIS Education coined experiences like practicums “double jeopardy” because students are often left paying for credit hours to work for free with little or no added value in having a LIS faculty advisor.
This is a structural issue that I hope students, those practicing librarianship, and those in leadership positions in LIS schools will continue to try to solve. Nevertheless, the current situation demands that LIS job applicants have meaningful, tangible experience that they can talk about fluently. Moreover, applicants will be even more successful if they can apply their experiences to other contexts, if they can look beyond their institution and connect events to trends in pedagogy, administration, technology, and even higher education. But how does this actually happen? How can students start to think about their experiences in this way?
Take Donna’s advice: apply anthropology as your worldview and make ethnography one of your regular practices. This will inherently make you a better listener and employee because you will be someone who is more in-tune with the institution. But it will also make you a better LIS professional, someone who understands the ins and outs of hierarchy, decision-making, evaluation, consensus, communication, and leadership. Someone who can think critically, engage, and see beyond the trees to improve the entire forest. Remember that as you’re taking notes for a committee meeting, reading an internal announcement, reviewing lesson plans, developing features for the IR, answering a reference question, performing outreach about preservation, or even reading a policy document you are learning. You aren’t just learning about that topic. You are learning valuable information about that institution, about what it prioritizes and disengages, about how community works, and, ultimately, about the state of and priorities of librarianship.
Once you begin to think of your pre-professional work as ethnography, as measuring the pulse of that institution and the LIS profession, the following advice might be helpful. I wish I would have had it so I could have been more intentional about my assistantship from the very beginning.
“Asking questions is a good way of finding things out, Big Bird taught me that in my childhood.”
Donna’s words ring true for many situations. We cannot learn unless we ask questions. We cannot clarify until we have some level of understanding. Ask your colleagues, mentors, supervisors, and other leaders within the institution about anything and everything. Try to think about these questions as higher level inquiries. What questions should you ask to better understand the complex processes of the institution? What questions should you ask to know more not only about the specific project you’re on but also about what it means for that niche of librarianship?
As an example, on the reference desk alone you might have access to librarians who do not directly supervise you but have a great deal of knowledge to share with you. Go beyond asking them about your specific reference question. Absorb what they have to say about their department, their position, and their needs within the library. Diversify who you talk to. It’s often less about always asking the right question and more about being interested, willing, and eager to listen.
Take advantage of tools
I often think about ethnography as being embedded in the interworkings of a group of people in order to better understand things like need and motive, but that might just be part of the picture. David Green, the coordinator of the ERIAL project, once stated that the use of ethnography in libraries “puts a human face on real issues experienced in the real world and creates empathy, motivating us to address the issues instead of just talking about them” (see the entire interview). I think that tools—or artifacts—can also be a valuable means of learning more about an institution’s culture when combined with the questions and observance I have already described. The community’s tools aren’t necessarily valuable alone; however, they help to paint a larger picture of the community when combined with other information.
I use the word “tools” very broadly here. These are artifacts, modes of communication, and recording mechanisms. I will share a few specific examples here from my institution that might help illustrate my point. One is a listserv called LibNews. This listserv, while sometimes irrelevant and overwhelming (as many listservs are), contains an unbelievable amount of valuable information if you’re hoping to learn more about my institution. Hiring plans, departmental restructures, updates on initiatives in discovery, budget restructuring plans, professional development opportunities, and other cross-departmental communication all pass through this listserv. Reading these announcements will enable you to be more conversant about initiatives and specific names but it will also give you important context. This context could help you relate your institution to movements in scholarly communication, reference, technical services, digital services, and other areas.
The other type of tools you might pay attention to are assessment tools. You probably use these tools daily to record how many people attended your workshop or how many hours you spent on a specific project. Some tools are more specific than others. At my institution, we use a reference transaction tracking software called Desk Tracker. The questions that Desk Tracker asks you about a given reference transaction are formulated by our assessment librarian and team. You could easily just fill out the form and not think twice about it. But think about what questions are being asked about each transaction and why those questions are important. Why ask about subject area or referral made? What does that have to do with the institution’s hierarchy and subject liaison model? Why use a READ scale? How does that assist the library in documenting perceived value to the greater community? Why do they have to document and construct an argument for their value in the first place?
Now, don’t take this too literally. You can’t spend hours reading into every simple form your institution has made. At the same time, these tools, forms, and messages aren’t made in a vacuum. They have inherent value and meaning. Once you interrogate and think critically about the systems around you, you will have a more informed view of the community you’re in.
Take advantage of every opportunity to learn
Go to library conversations of any size. These could be everything from large strategic planning events to small committee meetings. If the event announcement is publicized somewhere you were able to see it, you are probably allowed to attend. These events will sometimes give you information about a development (recent LibQual survey feedback collected from users, for example) or even allow you to engage with others about a specific topic (strategic planning on how the library should be involved with transformative learning, for example). If you’re able to attend these events, they will sometimes give you information that is even more useful than the skills you are learning while working at your institution. Don’t get me wrong, skills are important. But being able to think and learn in a forward, progressive, critical way and converse with different stakeholders constructively is just as important.
Another great opportunity to take advantage of is job talks. Academic libraries often make these open to graduate hourlies and assistants. These talks are usually focused on the specific area or niche that the candidate will be working in, which means that you’ll be able to take a deep dive into that area and become more knowledgeable about something that isn’t necessarily your specialty. It also means that you will inherently be able to prepare for your own job talks by observing what works well and what doesn’t, especially as candidates utilize different presentation styles and field the audience’s questions or concerns differently.
Reflection doesn’t have to be lonely
“It requires reflection, the backing away from assumptions, it involves being uncomfortable with what is revealed.”
Reflection and metacognition are essential to not only retaining information but also being able to apply that information in a different context. Reflection often means making sense of prior experiences and pre-conceived notions about a topic once those have been challenged or reconstructed through new experiences. This is what your pre-professional experience is all about. It’s challenging to read the literature in class, see it in action in your position, and then engage with others about in a thoughtful way either through Twitter chats, blogging, or professional research. But remember that this reflection will make your observations richer, your understanding more developed and insightful. Reflection will help you go beyond observation and dive into creating your own unique stance and philosophy of librarianship.
“I want to emphasize the importance of sharing, of collective thinking, of not thinking of ourselves as special snowflakes, of not allowing the tendency to silo distract us from what we can reveal, confront, solve together, as a team.”
I believe that reflection is best done with others. I hope that this shines through in other posts where I try to convey the importance of working through new knowledge with colleagues, especially peers and those going through similar pre-professional experiences. It’s quite simple, really. Other people help us see the value in adopting new perspectives. They push us to think about our experiences in a new and complicated ways we hadn’t previously considered. In short, your reflection will be much more valuable to you, and the world, when shared.
Put it all together
“And for it to be useful, you should be embedded enough to know enough to be able to interpret the meaning of questions, and deploy them effectively… You have to ask questions of lots of people and then interpret what they say, in the context of all of the other information you have gathered.”
This might be the most valuable piece of the puzzle. You have to piece everything you learn together. By “everything you have learned,” I mean absolutely everything. This goes beyond your practicum or internship or assistantship and includes your class discussions, assignments, Twitter feed, the library blogs you follow, the conferences you attend. It will shape your perspective, your research, and possibly even what type of institution you want to work at.
This mindset of making connections, even when they are complicated, will serve you throughout your career as you try to understand users, relate to colleagues, and even convey your perspective to others.
But don’t internalize it
Now that I have spent a great deal of time trying to convince you to become a more embedded observer of your institution’s culture, I’d like to offer a warning. Don’t internalize it. I know it’s difficult, but don’t take the politics or the conflict home with you. Becoming more attune to the beliefs and values of your institution will obviously meant that you know and understand more. Don’t conflate “knowing more” with having to feel responsible or helpless or frustrated.
Honestly, this has been the most difficult part for me. When we feel connected and passionate about our work, it is even more of a challenge to let something go. Yet, as you observe, think about how you could improve the institution or even how you could improve the profession but remember that right now you are also just creating a foundation for your work as a professional. You don’t own all of your institution’s problems. Jacob Berg’s tweet says all you need to know:
Advice for mentors, supervisors, and leaders
I’d like to be clear here: I believe that having an insightful, open mentor can make all of the difference for LIS students attempting to get the most out of their experience. While this is a different context, some of Donna’s assertions are uncannily true here too:
“If the only people who can comprehend what we are doing are the people who already know the secret passwords, who already have the map, the keys to the kingdom, we have failed.”
This, I think, is the key to good mentoring, teaching, and supervising. Transparency helps students understand why things are the way they are, even if they are not—and will never be—perfect. “Protecting” students from the truth is a Band-Aid solution. Even if you are able to hide bureaucracy or conflicts from students right now, you do them a disservice by not preparing them to navigate and understand these hurdles in their professional life, which is just around the corner. I understand that sometimes students can’t know absolutely everything about an institution. But (ask yourself) what can the strengths and weaknesses of your organization teach the student you’re supervising?
“What do I mean by a pedagogy of questions? It’s teaching through asking. Not by telling.”
Often we think that mentoring means telling LIS students how to do something or even how to think about something. I think good mentoring actually means pushing students to come to their own understanding about a topic or project. Mentoring is, of course, an extension of teaching. Teaching critically is about giving students the space and autonomy to construct their own understanding from their lived experiences. It’s about empowering them as creators of and contributors to knowledge. It’s about recognizing and identifying systems of oppression and opposing them. Mentors should use this framework to realize and act on the value of giving students the autonomy to identify and challenge power structures and develop their own individual voice and professional practice.
Thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for inspiring this post and Donna Lanclos for giving me the vocabulary and passion to see it through.