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REL 263: Ethnography of Religion (with Dr. Courtney Dorroll)

Library Ethnography

Revolutionary ethnographic work done by the librarian Susan Gibbons and the anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster at the University of Rochester in the early 2000's to improve its library's facilities, research outreach, and Web presence for students

Methods used:

  • Find out what college students need or want in a library by asking and observing them in and outside the library
  • Meet with students individually and in forum groups
  • Ask open-ended questions and use common language (avoid library jargon)
  • Interview and observe students not just in the library, but also in places like Wofford's Great Oaks Hall and Old Main and Mungo Student Center, campus and off-campus coffee shops, and dormitories
  • Speak with and observe the students at different times of day, different days of the week, different times of the academic year
  • Have students trace their movement on campus over the course of a day or week
  • Let them draw out, or diagram, what they think their library should look like; let them determine what types of spaces and services should be available in the building 
  • Let them select for trial and then position in the library such things as furniture and white boards
  • Reach out to different types of students to benefit from the richness of their perspectives
    • First-year students, sophomores, and upperclassmen
    • Humanities, science, and social-science majors
    • International students
    • Commuters
    • Group workers and independent workers
    • Transfer students
    • Athletes
  • Commit as a library to follow up with students periodically, as their needs and wants evolve generation by generation


Some findings as to what undergraduates are after:

  • A centrally located building where they can go to "get serious work done"
  • Group-study rooms with computer-projection systems and tables (on which students can "spread stuff")
  • Room-reservation system
  • Work spaces that are flexible, that can be rearranged, or repurposed, quickly by moving furniture, partitions, and white boards
  • Zones, or "microenvironments," for different types of work, for different levels of noise; students need at least one zone that is a social-and-academic crossroads.
  • Isolated spaces where students can work independently, say, to read at length or to work on written assignments
  • Good lighting, comfortable furniture, pleasing decor and color schemes
  • Access to natural light
  • Building hours that are in accord with students' circadian rhythms
  • Different support services available in one place, under one roof, for students' convenience: the library thus becomes a library/academic commons.  Services requested included:
    • Library resources--physical and online
    • Research assistance 
    • Writing Center
    • Peer-Tutoring
    • Accessibility Services
    • Printing and scanning, and computer support
    • Satellite office for visiting staff, say, from Career Services or the Wellness Center
  • Easy access to the library's e-resources from anywhere, not just on campus
  • Easy access to librarians for assistance--in person and via e-mail--with such things as research (such communication platforms as Zoom did not exist yet)
  • Inclusivity--everyone on campus is welcome in the library!
  • Entrance to library should be inviting.
  • Library as a place where you can find your niche, do the work that you need to do, and "just be" (that is, you do not need to be with a group or be doing anything in particular or buy anything to feel comfortable, to feel "at home")
  • Benefit of being around other students working hard; the students speak of "drawing energy" from their peers who are focused
  • Good café, good caffeine, nothing necessarily fancy