Ethnography and LIS Research

Simon Wakeling, Philip Hider and Jane Garner

Most readers of this blog will likely be at least somewhat familiar with ethnography as a research method. The approach has a long history, originating in the social and cultural anthropological disciplines of the early 1900s, but has since been adopted by many other fields. Ethnography is a holistic method, often incorporating different forms of data collection, including document analysis, interview etc. At ethnography’s heart, though, is observation. An ethnographic study seeks to reveal something of the social phenomenon it investigates through participative fieldwork, with the researcher often spending a considerable amount of time embedded in the community they are seeking to understand.

Just over ten years ago a study by Khoo, Rozaklis & Hall (2012) surveyed the use of ethnography in library and information studies research. By identifying and coding articles on library-related research topics that used ethnography, they showed that use of the method was growing in popularity – over half the studies in their corpus that used ethnography were found to have been published in the period 2005-2011.

This paper, and indeed the application of ethnography to LIS in general, interested us because we are working on a research project that seeks to better understand the role and value of public libraries to rural Australian communities. We have already conducted a survey of rural Australian libraries, and are now interested in applying an ethnographic approach to extend this work. In preparation for this we thought it would be valuable to replicate Khoo et al’s. study, to see if there have been developments in the application of ethnography to library-related research in the 11 years since its publication.

While for practical reasons our method differed in a few minor ways from that used by Khoo et al., we followed essentially the same process – running searches in two main LIS databases (Library & Information Science Abstracts (LISA) and Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts (LISTA)) to identify publicatoins containing the terms ethnograph* or ‘participant observation’ in their abstract. The resulting documents were then coded to record the form of observation adopted, data collection methods used, time spent in the field, library sector and location (urban, regional or remote).

We found 74 archetypical ethnographic studies published between 2011 and 2023. This compares to 67 found by Khoo et al. between 2000 and 2011 – so no evidence of a significant increase in the application of ethnography in recent years. We also found that researchers have been most often applying ethnography to studies of the academic/research library sector, with almost alh of studies related to this type of library (see table 1)

Library sectorN (74)
Multiple sectors4
Table 1

In relation to our planned work in rural Australian public libraries, we found that of the 26 studies focused on public libraries, only nine related to regional libraries, and of these only one was in Australia.

The research also revealed some interesting findings related to the type of observation employed, and indeed found that some studies which describe themselves as ‘ethnographic’ in fact involve only very limited, or in some case no naturalistic participant observation.

Given the vital role played by public libraries in rural communities, and the extent to which remote communities have come to rely on the library for connection and digital inclusion, it seems to us that ethnographic research in this context would provide valuable insights into current and potential future of public library services in these areas.

An article reporting our study of ethnography in LIS research is currently under review.

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