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Breaking the Luxury Barrier
On Fostering Exploratory Qualitative Research in Libraries

How should qualitative research be incorporated into a library’s research agenda? In the latest issue of Weave: Journal of Library Experience “provocateur anthropologists” Donna Lanclos and Andrew Asher reflect on the state of ethnographic research in libraries, which they characterize as more “ethnographish” than ethnographic. Some of the trappings of ethnographish library research include that the projects are: smaller scale, rely on “pre-packaged” methods, and aim towards solving institution-specific problems. In contrast, drawing on their experiences as full-time anthropologists employed in libraries, Donna and Andrew advocate for more ethnographic research in libraries, which would involve sustained and open exploration not geared towards specific outcomes and incorporate collaboration with and comparison between libraries. Their dichotomy between ethnographish and ethnographic research is an important call to more clearly define and delimit how, to what ends, and by whom qualitative research can be deployed in library settings.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Donna and Andrew about their article and both emphasized the structural and ideological barriers that prevent librarians from conducting the more exploratory and expansive research that they are calling for. Of especial interest were the challenges of effectively fostering comparison and collaboration since this is also what Donna and Andrew position as the solution for advancing the current direction of ethnographic research in libraries. Effective collaboration hinges on having a network to build the project, the capacity to coordinate between multiple researchers at different sites, and the expertise to design and execute a complex research framework. This capacity barrier goes far beyond the luxury of hiring dedicated anthropologists in libraries.

Ithaka S+R is also deeply invested in the issue of fostering effective cross-library research. Our Research Support Services program coordinates cohorts of research teams based in participating academic libraries to conduct qualitative research collaboratively on the information activities and needs of scholars by discipline. We are currently fielding projects in Religious Studies, Agriculture, and Public Health. In these projects we aim to strike a balance between producing actionable findings and making space for more exploratory research in academic libraries. This is evidenced in the two kinds of outputs the project produces: participants write local reports based on the findings from the research they conducted with the scholars from their own institutions while Ithaka S+R concurrently produces a report on the state of the field from a sample of the information collected across the participating institutions.

Beyond fostering cross-institutional research through collaboration, Andrew also highlighted the potential of sharing qualitative data to foster greater comparative research and eliminate duplication of studies. This too presents many structural and logistical barriers as such a repository would require funding, hosting, effective design to facilitate discovery, not to mention the challenge of attending to the ethical issues of when such data can be made more widely available at all. And yet, at a time when librarians are grappling with how to move beyond the limits of siloed institutional repositories for facilitating open research more widely, it is also important to consider how we can better facilitate sharing that qualitative data libraries are producing.

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