March 22, 2018

Seven Questions with Library Anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster

Library Journal: What does it mean to be a library anthropologist?

Nancy Fried Foster

Nancy Fried Foster

Nancy Fried Foster: I was trained as an anthropologist at Columbia University, and I conducted fieldwork in several Wapisiana villages in Roraima, Brazil. I also had the chance to do research in England, Guyana, Venezuela, and Papua New Guinea. My background provides me with a lot of field experience and a grounding in anthropological theory, all of which I apply when I look at what happens in libraries or, more generally, in academic work. At the same time, I have read and received on-the-job training in work-practice study and user-centered design, which are more recent applied social science traditions.

In participatory design projects we learn about the work practices of faculty members, grad students, undergrads, and our own colleagues in the library. As we learn, we discover opportunities to provide better technology, services, and spaces. To dig a little deeper, the way we learn is by including a lot of different kinds of experts in the design process—both the traditional experts such as software engineers and the people who are experts on the work that is to be done and how best to do it.

My broader studies—the projects that are not specifically related to building a piece of software, but are more generally about investigating how people do their work—resemble ethnographic studies. The focus is always on the work that people are doing: how they are working, where they are encountering obstacles, what they are trying to achieve. We are looking at people’s work practices in their broader life context and our goal is to understand and support their work.

As to the differences, the questions in work-practice study and participatory design come directly out of the work people do, not the tools they might happen to be using. An initial focus on tools may limit what you can see. By focusing on the work, we find that we can identify needs and imagine many more solutions to address those needs.

LJ: What changes has U. Rochester implemented as a result of your findings?

NFF: One of the first things we found out about undergrads is that they do lots of academic work late at night, and this led to the “Night Owl Librarians” pilot, an extended-hours outreach service.

In our project on the institutional repository, we discovered that our faculty members want other people to find, use, and cite their work, so we built “Researcher Pages.”

We did a big project to find the best way to build software that gives libraries an alternative approach to what vendors offer. The result, eXtensible Catalog, uses the FRBR model and Drupal as a basis for a discovery system.

Of course, we have also done some space design projects, notably the Gleason Library and the Messinger Graduate Studies.

LJ: What have you learned since Studying Students was published in 2007?

NFF: We have learned a lot! And we are writing a second book right now. It will include information about re-studies of the original work, plus some new projects. The first book was more of a how-to; we focused on methods and process. The second book will be organized around our findings and their implications. As far as things that have changed, here is a teaser: while there have been some technological changes, they do not seem to have had huge effects on how the students work. But this time around, I think we have developed a better picture of student work practices and we will share a lot of that in the new book.

LJ: Do you keep up with the findings of the people you’ve instructed around the world, and if so, are you seeing differences in library users from culture to culture?

NFF: We do see differences from place to place, sometimes related to culture, often related to infrastructure and resources. For a hint of this, see an article we wrote about projects in Beirut and Byblos, Cairo, Paris and Sharjah in International Journal of Library Science, and Sania Battalova’s article about a study in Kyrgyzstan.

LJ: Since the Messinger Award announcement said that you were the first library staff member to be employed as an anthropologist, do you know of any who have followed in your footsteps since?

NFF: I believe I was the first anthropologist to be hired specifically because I was an anthropologist and specifically to do work-practice studies and participatory design of library technology. Of course, there have long been anthropologists working as librarians. Since I came on, I know that at least one other library system—the University of North Carolina at Charlotte—has hired a library ethnographer. Many libraries, such as Syracuse University, have identified people already on their staffs who have a background in anthropology and have given them opportunities to do similar projects.

LJ: Have you done any work on public, K-12 school, or special libraries, or do you know of any other anthropologists who are doing so?

NFF: Some years ago there was a wonderful project done by Aradhana Goel—who was then at MAYA Design, Inc. —at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I have been in touch with a few other people who want to work in public libraries, but I do not believe that their projects have been funded. It is an area ripe for work and I hope that it gets support.

LJ: Are there are new techniques you’re developing for studying libraries and their users?

NFF: We are always coming up with new ways to see, hear, and otherwise learn how people do their scholarly work. The methods tend to be variations on observation, interviewing, and workshopping, but I see opportunities to do ethnography online, particularly in connection with emerging hybrid teaching and flipped classrooms. And I am exploring this right now.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.