Anthropology Toolkit Class Conducts Library Ethnography

By: Maggie Warnick

If you frequent the library, you may have noticed someone walking around making notes on a clipboard or have had someone stop you on your way in or out to ask you some questions. This phenomenon is a result of the library ethnography project being conducted by Anthropology department chair and Professor Bill Roberts and his Anthropology Toolkit course. 

The project is the second iteration of an ethnography begun in fall of 2015. Students, working in collaboration with the St. Mary’s library faculty used a variety of methods to determine how students used the library and what could make their library experience better. Some of the trends seen in student responses led to real change in the library, including the creation of the quiet study room on the second floor and the study space next to the circulation desk. 

The current project involves many of the methods as the initial project, including student focus groups, faculty surveys and instantaneous behavior sampling–making rounds of the library and taking note of how many people are in an area and what they are doing at the time of sampling. However, much has changed since 2015, leading to some changes in methodology. For example, in 2015, when instantaneous behavior sampling was conducted, any time a student was on their phone it was marked down as a leisure activity. In 2021 it is hard to be certain what a student is using their phone for–they could just as easily use their phone for entertainment as for school work, as Katherine Ryner, Associate Director of the Library and Head of Collections Support Services pointed out. 

Students in the Toolkit class began very generally, discussing ideas with their peers and reporting back with stories about the library that could potentially inform the project. “In these stories some themes begin to emerge,” stated Roberts. “Anthropological research is like a funnel; you start very broadly and narrow it down.” From there, they were able to build on this research to develop questions for surveying students as they entered or left the library. “It’s one of those things where at the beginning of the conversation it is hard to get it going, [the topic is] sort of mundane,” said junior Maggie Murdoch. 

The project is a long-term one, with the ninth meeting of the semester dedicated to the project having occurred on September 29. The overall goals are to determine what students use the library for, what they like or dislike about it and what they feel the library could do to better suit their needs. Based on these goals, the library can decide what changes they are able to make and how to best allocate resources. An unintended result is that the Toolkit students themselves are becoming better acquainted with the library. “It made me have to explore the library,” said sophomore Erin Hurley, “especially after COVID, I mostly only went to study rooms.” As a smaller goal, the library is having a bit of an identity crisis, according to Ryner. It was formerly known as the LAMC–library archives and media center–but the media center and archives are no longer in the same building. Therefore, suggestions for new slogans to rebrand the library are welcome!

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