Wednesday, July 17, 2013


by Jane Williams
A lot, as it turns out!   

A very fruitful approach to applied research for academic libraries is ethnography, a collection of qualitative methods that focus on the close observation of social practices and interactions.  Its value for libraries (and many other organizations) is that it provides data about what library users actually do in libraries and directly what they say their library needs and preferences are.  Methods employed can include surveys, interviews, structured observation, focus groups, videos, drawings and diaries.  These methods reflect participatory design, which recognizes that the user community has its own expertise, based on doing academic work in, with and through a library. 

In the past decade, dozens of four-year college and university libraries across the U.S. and internationally  have employed various ethnographic methods and tools to learn what their library users and potential users need , want and prefer in library spaces, services and programs.  Montgomery College will be the first known community college to engage deeply in this type of study, through which we expect to gain valuable data as one basis on which to modernize our facilities and revamp services and programs.  The upcoming ethnographic study will yield qualitative data to complement our new assessment program, so that we know our patterns of use, targets for growth, and areas of needed development.

The first ethnographic study will happen for the Rockville Library starting this fall.  Here’s some of what will take place:
  • Stakeholders group of campus officials and leaders will be formed to advise on and promote the study and to encourage action on its findings and recommendations. 
  • Team of library staffers from all three campuses will be trained to conduct the selected ethnographic activities and to compile and analyze the resulting data. 
  • Training and guidance will come from the pioneer of this applied research for libraries, Nancy Fried Foster, director of anthropological research for the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries.  This fall she will become senior anthropologist for Ithaka S+R (“Strategic Consulting + Research to transform scholarship”).  Ithaka is a premier organization addressing key issues facing the academic community. 

The plan is to finish this study and then conduct similar ones for the Takoma Park/Silver Spring and the Germantown libraries.   These studies will be important elements toward creating Libraries of the 21st century for Montgomery College. 

The Montgomery College Libraries, Montgomery College Office of Facilities and an Innovation Grant from the Montgomery College Foundation are collaboratively funding this initiative.  Libraries’ Director, Tanner Wray, submitted the successful proposal for the Innovation Grant. 

If you have questions, want more information or would like someone from the Libraries to talk in person with your group, class or office about this study, please contact

Jane Williams, project consultant, at 240-567-1721,

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