The Next Big Thing (TM)

medium_5568637762Occasionally in library and information work the ‘Next Big Thing’ readily presents itself, it becomes impossible to ignore and once you’ve heard about it, the Next Big Thing crops up everywhere. Now if you weren’t already on this #UKAnthroLib blog there might be an element of suspense to this post but as you are here – welcome by the way – no prizes for guessing that the current Next Big Thing is indisputably the adoption of anthropological research methods in libraries. What? Oh you thought it was Open Access… WRONG!

Anthropology as Wikipedia will tell you (Oh you hadn’t heard that it’s like completely OK to use that now? Keep up!) is ‘the study of humankind, past and present’ and in recent years major companies such as Google, Microsoft and Adidas are hiring anthropologists and ethnographers (ethno-whatties?) in a renewed attempt to understand their customers better. You see these anthropologists are far better placed than marketing or advertising execs (or anyone else on a company’s books for that matter) to derive accurate insights into customer experiences and viewpoints because they are trained to consider people more holistically than most of us mortals would ever think to. They take a wider more detailed interest in the role that the products or services in question play in the lives of the customers and do weird things like follow them around 24/7 in order to uncover information that would otherwise remain invisible or undisclosed – this approach being the aforementioned ethnography. So what have these anthropologists actually helped these companies to do? Well in the case of Adidas the result was an entirely new understanding that most of their customers were not inspired or motivated by slogans and taglines about them winning or beating the rest, but instead by a simple desire to lead healthy lifestyles (come back and read Drake Baer’s post on why companies are desperate to hire anthropologists after reading the rest of this post).

OK, so you get the basics, what then has this got to do with libraries? Well for some years now over in the good ol’ US of A there has been a keen understanding that anthropologists have a role to play in libraries to help us understand how we can engage with our users more effectively and better meet their real needs. Needs that our users often don’t articulate either because they find it difficult to describe them or because they’re unwilling to disclose them as they consider them to be irrelevant, off-topic, or because they genuinely think that we don’t want to hear them (e.g. that they mainly use library PCs to access Facebook). One of these pioneer ‘anthropologists in the library’ was Nancy Fried Foster who carried out her research at the University of Rochester. In more recent years the baton has been taken up by Donna Lanclos at UNC Charlotte (she’s on Twitter follow her) – you may well have heard of her Visitors and Residents research – who has also recently been engaged in fieldwork in academic libraries in London. She has been using techniques like photo diaries and cognitive maps of learning landscapes, followed up with 1-2-1 interviews and  is uncovering fascinating information on how library users actually research. So what of the UK? Well librarian Bryony Ramsden is currently carrying out ethnographic research at various UK institutions while studying for her PhD at the University of Huddersfield, and LSE recently hired an anthropologist called Anna Tuckett to explore use of the library space there.

However this stuff is not just about space, just as libraries are no longer just about books, anthropological research also takes in usability of digital library resources and spaces. It feels the right point to mention UX or User Experience, a term that some librarians are now redefining as not just about designing good user interfaces but as more widely about how our users experience all of our services, physical and virtual. Some places <cough> now actually employ User Experience Librarians <cough> to examine these issues. However, we can’t all make successful bids for User Experience Librarians (and even those that do then find that they are too overstretched to let the employee do this kind of research even part-time, eh Georgina?) And, unless she has cracked cloning technology, and I wouldn’t put it past her, we can’t all hire Donna Lanclos, but this shouldn’t be an excuse for us not to start exploring these new approaches and methods on a smaller scale. But, here’s a thing, even if we decide we haven’t got the resource for this, there’s definitely nothing stopping us from checking all out the data that Donna and others have already collected and I’m assured that there’s masses of it and moreover that it reveals much the same information about our users regardless of whether they are using libraries here or over in the US.

Anyway, for what is meant to be an introductory post this has gone on rather longer than I intended. So finally, why this blog? Well, partly because Meg Westbury and I had a ‘power lunch’ last week and decided that the world or at least the UK needed a go-to place to share information about anthro/ethno research and that it would be easier to share the load by creating a group blog that any librarian with a relevant interest, a point of view, or findings to share could post on. Then on Monday at a UCL anthropology seminar entitled ‘Spaces, places and practices’ (at which Donna, Anna and Bryony all presented, and supported by the excellent UCL-IOE Ideas Incubator fund) it became clear both in the room and on the twitters that there was indeed an appetite for such a thing. So here it is. We’re too good to you, I know.

So what next? Here’s a handy bulleted list:

  • Check out the Toolkits and more page by clicking on the menu button at the top right to see what we’ve got here already – some useful toolkits and links, and a Storify from Monday’s event for a kick off;
  • Tweet about the blog and related matters using the hashtag #UKAnthrolib;
  • Get in touch with Georgina Cronin (twitteremail) if you have an idea for a post for this blog to share with the world and between us we’ll schedule it in. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking and the research you refer to doesn’t have to be finished. Even if you simply want to write a post about what you think of this new approach we want you, so don’t be shy.

Thanks to everyone who responded to the tweets on Monday you are already on our ‘in stone’ list of blog contributors: Jo Alcock, Penny Andrews, Shauna Barrett, Becky Blunk, Helen Jamieson, Libby Tilley – now just let us know a bit more.

Think that’s it. GO!

Andy Priestnerandypriestlib
Information & Library Services Manager, Judge Business School,
University of Cambridge
Personal blog:

Main photo credit: Jonas Tana via Flickr Creative Commons


  1. Indeed – hugely important work. Not mentioned in the above post but we also currently have ethnography of library space across Cambridge being explored by Paul-Jervis Heath and his team at the University Library. Paul’s background is in design and he is talking more about Human Centred Design and Service Design but he is employing similar methods. He will be providing a blogpost here soon.

  2. I’d be happy to contribute a post on my MA dissertation, which used ethnographic interviews to learn about the Information Commons at Sheffield University, if you’d be interested.

  3. Interesting to hear stuff going on in the academic library sphere, I’m coming from a different angle here. I’m currently doing research as part of an MSc in Community Education looking at dialogical education in relation to book groups and adult education within the context of public libraries, from a critical ethnographic stance. From research I’ve done so far, a huge factor for public libraries is the strength in informal education and the neutrality of public space. Would be interested if anyone else was doing anything similar?

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